The dry lands of Namibia were inhabited since early times by San, Damara, and Nama. From about the 14th century, immigrating Bantu people arrived during the Bantu expansion from central Africa. From the late 18th century onwards, Oorlam people from Cape Colony crossed the Orange River and moved into the area that today is southern Namibia. Their encounters with the nomadic Nama tribes were largely peaceful. The missionaries accompanying the Oorlam were well received by them, the right to use waterholes and grazing was granted against an annual payment. On their way further northwards, however, the Oorlam encountered clans of the Herero at Windhoek, Gobabis, and Okahandja, who resisted their encroachment. The Nama-Herero War broke out in 1880, with hostilities ebbing only after the German Empire deployed troops to the contested places and cemented the status quo among the Nama, Oorlam, and Herero.
The first Europeans to disembark and explore the region were the Portuguese navigators Diogo Cão in 1485 and Bartolomeu Dias in 1486, but the Portuguese crown did not try to claim the area. Like most of interior Sub-Saharan Africa, Namibia was not extensively explored by Europeans until the 19th century. At that time traders and settlers came principally from Germany and Sweden. In the late 19th century, Dorsland Trekkers crossed the area on their way from the South African Republic to Angola. Some of them settled in Namibia instead of continuing their journey.
Namibia became a German colony in 1884 under Otto von Bismarck to forestall British encroachment and was known as German South West Africa (Deutsch-Südwestafrika). However, the Palgrave Commission by the British governor in Cape Town had determined that only the natural deep-water harbor 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 brutal German colonialism. In calculated punitive action by the German occupiers, what has been called the ‘first genocide of the Twentieth Century’ was committed, as government officials ordered extinction of the natives. In the Herero and Namaqua genocide, the Germans systematically killed 10,000 Nama (half the population) and approximately 65,000 Herero (about 80% of the population). The survivors, when finally released from detention, were subjected to a policy of dispossession, deportation, forced labor, racial segregation, and discrimination in a system that in many ways anticipated the apartheid established by South Africa in 1948.
Most Africans were confined to so-called native territories, which later under South African rule after 1949 were turned into “homelands” (Bantustans). Indeed, some historians have speculated that the German genocide in Namibia was a model used by Nazis in the Holocaust. The memory of genocide remains relevant to ethnic identity in independent Namibia and to relations with Germany. The German government formally apologized for the Namibian genocide in 2004.
South African rule
South Africa occupied the colony in 1915 after defeating the German forces during World War I. It administered it from 1919 onward as a League of Nations mandate (nominally under the British Crown). Although the South African government wanted to annex South West Africa into its official territory, it never did so. But, it administered the territory as its de facto “fifth province”. The white minority of South West Africa elected representatives to the whites-only Parliament of South Africa. They also elected their own local administration, the SWA Legislative Assembly. The South African government appointed the SWA administrator, who had extensive executive powers.
Following the League’s replacement by the United Nations in 1946, South Africa refused to surrender its earlier mandate. The UN intended that it be replaced by a United Nations Trusteeship agreement, requiring closer international monitoring of the territory’s administration and a definite schedule to achieve independence of Namibia. After the rise of the National Party in South Africa, it established apartheid in both areas. The Herero Chief’s Council submitted a number of petitions to the UN in the 1950s calling for it to grant Namibia independence but was not successful. During the 1960s, as European powers such as France and the United Kingdom granted independence to some 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. South Africa continued to exercise de facto rule while SWAPO expanded its guerrilla efforts to end that. 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. 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 decades of German and South African occupation of Namibia, white commercial farmers, most of whom came as settlers from South Africa and represented 0.2% of the national population, came to own 74% of the arable land. Outside the central-southern area of Namibia (known as the “Police Zone” since the German era), which contained the main towns, industries, mines and best arable land, South Africa designated areas of the country as “homelands” for various tribes, including the multiracial Basters, who had occupied the Rehoboth District since the late 19th century. It was an attempt to establish the Bantustans but most indigenous Namibian tribes did not cooperate.
South West Africa was formally recognised as Namibia by the UN; the General Assembly changed the territory’s name by Resolution 2372 (XXII) of 12 June 1968. In 1978 the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 435, which laid out a plan for transition toward independence for Namibia. Attempts to persuade South Africa to agree to the plan’s implementation were not successful until 1988, after years of warfare. 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 this, South Africa agreed to withdraw and demobilise its forces in Namibia. As a result, Cuba agreed to pull back its troops in southern Angola, who were sent to support the MPLA in its war for control of Angola against UNITA. Angola also resolved its civil war, although not until 2002.
A combined UN civilian and peace-keeping force called UNTAG (United Nations Transition Assistance Group), led by Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, was deployed from April 1989 to March 1990 to monitor the peace process and elections, and to 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 more than 46,000 SWAPO exiles, Namibia’s first one man, 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 DTA of Namibia became the official opposition. The elections were peaceful and declared free and fair.
The Namibian Constitution adopted in February 1990 incorporated protection for human rights, compensation for state expropriations of private property, and established an independent judiciary, legislature, and an executive presidency (the constituent assembly became the national assembly). The country officially became independent on 21 March 1990. Sam Nujoma was sworn in as the first President of Namibia at a ceremony attended by Nelson Mandela of South Africa (who had been released from prison the previous month) and representatives from 147 countries, including 20 heads of state. Upon the end of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994, the nation ceded Walvis Bay to Namibia.
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 has won every election since independence. The transition from the 15-year rule of President Sam Nujoma to his successor Hifikepunye Pohamba in 2005 went smoothly.
Since independence, the Namibian government has promoted a policy of national reconciliation. It issued an amnesty for those who had fought on either side during the liberation war. The civil war in Angola spilled over and adversely affected Namibians living in the north of the country. In 1998, Namibia Defence Force (NDF) troops were sent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of a Southern African Development Community (SADC) contingent.
In 1999, the national government successfully quashed a secessionist attempt in the northeastern Caprivi Strip. The Caprivi conflict was initiated by the Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA), a rebel group led by Mishake Muyongo. It wanted the Caprivi Strip to secede in order to form its own society.