Name and Geography
The Origins of the name, ‘Namibia’ had derived from the region in which the country is located and the oldest desert in the world; the Namib Desert.
Until 1990, the area was known as German South-West Africa, then becoming South-West Africa after World War I, when ownership was handed to the British, who in turn gave the area to be ruled under South Africa, reflecting the countries dominion status within the British Empire.
Prior to Namibia’s colonisation in 1884, the region was originally occupied and inhabited by the native San, Damara and Nama ethnic groups, and were later joined by the Bantu sometime in the 14th Century.
From the late 18th century onwards, the Orlam clans from the Cape Colony crossed the Orange River and moved into the area that today is southern Namibia, with their encounters with the nomadic Nama tribes were largely peaceful, the groups developed in separate regions, within Namibia.
As the economy in the region was a barter system, when the Oriam clans arrived in Southern Namibia, their right to use facilities such as waterholes and grazing spots, was issued against an annual payment, much like a modern tax system is used today.
However, as the Oriam migrated further north, they encountered clans of the Herero tribe at Windhoek, Gobabis, and Okahandja which were less accommodating. The Nama-Herero War broke out in 1880, with hostilities ebbing only when Imperial Germany deployed troops to the contested places and cemented the status quo between Nama, Orlams, and Herero.
The first Europeans to disembark and explore the region were the Portuguese navigators Diogo Cão in 1485 and Bartolomeu Dias in 1486; still the region was not claimed by the Portuguese crown. However, like most of Sub-Saharan Africa, Namibia was not thoroughly explored, chartered or documented by Europeans until the 19th century, when traders and settlers arrived, principally from Germany and Sweden. In the late 19th century Dorsland trekkers crossed the area on their way from the Transvaal to Angola. Some of them settled in Namibia instead of continuing their journey.
Namibia became a German colony in 1884 under Otto von Bismarck as a pre-emptive attempt to stall British encroachment on the remainder of German colonies (German South-West Africa) in the largely, West African region.
However, this attempt would prove to be almost useless, as the Palgrave mission by the British governor in Cape Town had determined that only the natural deep-water harbour of Walvis Bay was worth occupying – and this was annexed to the Cape province of British South Africa.
From 1904 to 1907, the Herero and the Namaqua took up arms against the Germans and in calculated punitive action by the German occupiers, the ‘first genocide of the Twentieth Century’ was committed.
In the Herero and Namaqua genocide, 10,000 Nama (half the population) and approximately 65,000 Hereros (about 80% of the population) were systematically murdered, with some historians speculating that the systemic eradication of these ethnic groups was a model copied during the Holocaust.
The survivors, when finally released from detention, were subjected to a policy of dispossession, deportation, forced labour, racial segregation and discrimination in a system that in many ways anticipated apartheid.
Most Africans were confined to so-called native territories, which later under South African rule post-1949 were turned into “homelands” (Bantustans).
The memory of genocide remains relevant to ethnic identity in independent Namibia and to relations with Germany, with the German government formally apologised for the Namibian genocide in 2004.
South African rule and independence
South Africa occupied the colony in 1915 after defeating the German force during World War I and administered it from 1919 onward as a League of Nations mandate territory. Although the South African government desired to incorporate ‘South-West Africa’ into its territory, it never officially did so, although it was administered as the de facto ‘fifth province’, with the white minority having representation in the whites-only Parliament of South Africa, as well as electing their own local administration the SWA Legislative Assembly. The South African government also appointed the SWA administrator, who had extensive powers. Following the League’s replacement by the United Nations in 1946, South Africa refused to surrender its earlier mandate to be replaced by a United Nations Trusteeship agreement, requiring closer international monitoring of the territory’s administration (along with a definite independence schedule). The Herero Chief’s Council submitted a number of petitions to the UN calling for it to grant Namibia independence during the 1950s. During the 1960s, when European powers granted independence to their colonies and trust territories in Africa, pressure mounted on South Africa to do so in Namibia. In 1966 the International Court of Justice dismissed a complaint brought by Ethiopia and Liberia against South Africa’s continued presence in the territory, but the U.N. General Assembly subsequently revoked South Africa’s mandate, while in 1971 the International Court of Justice issued an “advisory opinion” declaring South Africa’s continued administration to be illegal.
In response to the 1966 ruling by the International Court of Justice, South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) military wing, People’s Liberation Army of Namibia, a guerrilla group began their armed struggle for independence, but it was not until 1988 that South Africa agreed to end its occupation of Namibia, in accordance with a UN peace plan for the entire region.
During the South African occupation of Namibia, white commercial farmers, most of whom came as settlers from South Africa, represented 0.2% of the national population whilst owning 74% of the arable land. Outside the central-southern area of Namibia known as the “Police Zone”, the country was divided into “homelands”, although only a few were actually established because indigenous Namibians often did not cooperate.
South West Africa became known as Namibia by the UN when the General Assembly changed the territory’s name by Resolution 2372 (XXII) of 12 June 1968. In 1978 the UN Security Council passed UN Resolution 435 which planned a transition toward independence for Namibia. Attempts to persuade South Africa to agree to the plan’s implementation were not successful until 1988 when the transition to independence finally started under a diplomatic agreement between South Africa, Angola and Cuba, with the USSR and the USA as observers, under which South Africa agreed to withdraw and demobilise its forces in Namibia.
As a result, Cuba agreed to pull back its troops in southern Angola sent to support the MPLA in its war for control of Angola with UNITA.
A combined UN civilian and peace-keeping force called UNTAG (United Nations Transition Assistance Group) under Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari was deployed from April 1989 to March 1990 to monitor the peace process, elections and supervise military withdrawals. As UNTAG began to deploy peacekeepers, military observers, police, and political workers, hostilities were briefly renewed on the day the transition process was supposed to begin. After a new round of negotiations, a second date was set and the elections process began in earnest. After the return of SWAPO exiles (over 46,000 exiles), Namibia’s first one-person one-vote elections for the constitutional assembly took place in November 1989. The official election slogan was “Free and Fair Elections”.
This was won by SWAPO although it did not gain the two-thirds majority it had hoped for; the South African-backed Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) became the official opposition.
The country officially became independent on 21 March 1990. Sam Nujoma was sworn in as the first President of Namibia watched by Nelson Mandela (who had been released from prison the previous month) and representatives from 147 countries, including 20 heads of state. Walvis Bay was ceded to Namibia in 1994 upon the end of Apartheid in South Africa.
Since independence Namibia has successfully completed the transition from white minority apartheid rule to parliamentary democracy. Multiparty democracy was introduced and has been maintained, with local, regional and national elections held regularly. Several registered political parties are active and represented in the National Assembly, although the Swapo Party has won every election since independence.