West Namibia,  an area that for us comprises the Erongo and southern Kunene Regions of Namibia in the south-western corner of Africa, has long been the focus of overlapping indigenous and global(ising) concerns.

One early account of the area is provided by British explorer and army captain, James Edward Alexander. In the 1830s he journeyed by ox-wagon from Cape Town to Walvis Bay and through the inland areas of the !Kuiseb and Swakop Rivers. He described the west Namibia of that time as a complex cultural landscape populated by varied peoples who were becoming entwined with global trade networks and interests.[1] Alexander employed Nama (‘Namaqua’) peoples of the southern part of what is now Namibia, and was also guided to springs dispersed through the landscape by ‘Bushmen’ (‘Boschmen’) encountered there. He found the area of the !Kuiseb river and Walvis Bay to be densely populated with Khoe-speaking peoples herding sheep and cattle. Here he eats !nara fruit (from the near-endemic melon plant Acanthosicyos horridus), noting the husbanding of patches of !nara bushes by people living here. He also tells of conflict over inland territory between ‘Hill’ Damaras (contemporary Dama or ≠Nūkhoen) and cattle-herding Nama and ‘Plains’ Damaras (Herero) expanding into the rich pastures of central Namibia.

The landscapes journeyed through by Alexander teemed with rhinoceros, elephant and lion. As with many other early European adventurers to west Namibia, his tales were liberally peppered with stories of hunting these ‘majestic beasts’, usually in the company of local guides and hunters. In Alexander’s day, the nutrient-rich waters of the Atlantic off the shores that became famed as the Skeleton Coast for its shipwrecks were the focus of whaling by mostly American ships. Coastal islands were soon to be targeted in a guano rush led by Britain that would clear this precious fertiliser from Namibia’s coastal islands in under four years. The key natural harbour of Walvis [i.e. ‘Whale Fish’] Bay in turn provided a focus for the growing export of natural resources from Namibia’s interior – ostrich feathers, ivory and cattle, and now copper and uranium.

European colonists, settlers and adventurers have tended to view the land- and sea-scapes of west Namibia as potential sources of tradable economic value, extracted through the application of labour provided by the territory’s African peoples. European incursions into the territory now known as the nation state of Namibia led to German colonial rule (1884-1915) and a devastating genocidal war in the early 1900s. Decades of apartheid administration under South Africa followed. These years brought new manipulations of peoples’ dwelling practices through the establishment of ‘native reserves’ and then ‘homelands’ that encouraged the consolidation of superficially homogenous cultural identities (see timeline below). Each layer of historical change has been accompanied by various forms of resistance and accommodation by local peoples. Independence from South Africa was achieved in 1990 following a long struggle led by the South West Africa People’s Organisation, the political party that now leads the country’s administration.

Today’s Namibia is modern and cosmopolitan, welcoming private sector as well as bi- and multi-lateral investment so as to generate economic growth. In west Namibia proposed economic growth entails major infrastructure projects. These projects include the redevelopment of the Walvis Bay port and harbour, the consolidation of railway links with other southern African countries, and an expanding mining industry that emphasises the production and export of uranium. Simultaneously, west Namibia is the focus of a thriving international tourism and trophy-hunting industry attracting significant external investment. Visitors come from all over the world to experience the region’s dramatic desert scenery and spectacular wildlife and unusual endemic species, as well as its indigenous cultural heritage in the form of both ancient rock art and current cultural practices.

The landscapes and peoples of west Namibia are organised today into various administrative designations. Protected areas, such as the Dorob, Namib-Naukluft, and Skeleton Coast National Parks, conserve wildlife and landscapes. Heritage sites protect rock art at the Twyfelfontein Prehistoric Reserve and the Brandberg Mountain National Monument area, and tourism concessions provide investors with rights to income from investments in tourism infrastructure. Alongside these designations, a patchwork of ‘communal area conservancies’ on communally-held land in the region, now brings local inhabitants into new collective resource management units called ‘conservancies’. Conservancies derive income from commercial tourism investments (particularly lodges and associated activities) and from trophy-hunting safaris. These post-independence conservancies intersect with an earlier administrative Ward system of Traditional Authorities, as well as the post-2013 delimitation of 121 constituencies and the current registration of individual land holdings under the 2002 Communal Land Reform Act.

Key historical events for west Namibia, prior to Namibian independence in 1990

1864

Swartbooi Nama leave Rehoboth in central Namibia and eventually make their way north towards Sesfontein and Fransfontein, via Ameib in the Erongo mountains

end of 19th century

Mission stations and churches established at Okombahe, Omaruru, Otjimbingwe, Fransfontein and Sesfontein

1884

Imposition of German colonial rule

1885

The Nama captains Cornelius Swartbooi of Fransfontein and Jan |Uixamab of Sesfontein sell ‘their respective territories’ in ‘the Kaoko-area’ to businessman August Lüderitz, through which Lüderitz acquires ‘the right of development and utilization of all mineral resources, while the captains reserved control over their places of residence and their pastures’. These rights are later acquired by the Kaoko Land and Mining Company, a London-based company represented by Georg Hartmann in strategic alliance with the German colonial governor Leutwein[2]

1897

Rinderpest dramatically diminishes livestock and threatens both indigenous and settler livestock economies

1904-07

German colonial / genocidal war

1905, 1907

Ordinances passed permitting ‘confiscation of property of the insurgent groups’, contributing to impoverishment of indigenous Namibians

Okombahe Reserve allocated to Dama / ≠Nūkhoen

‘Police Zone’ established in southern and central Namibia, effecting substantial control of movement and settlement of Namibians, increasingly marked by a veterinary cordon fence or ‘Red Line’[3]

1918

Institution of South African Administration under a League of Nations Mandate

1923

‘First Schedule’ ‘Native Reserves’ established including:

     Okombahe (Damara - 36,188 ha)

     Fransfontein (Damara, Nama, Herero - 172,780 ha)

     Sesfontein (Topnaar and Swaartbooi Nama, Damara, Herero, Himba, Tjimba - 31,416 ha)

1925-1951

‘Second Schedule’ Reserves established including:

     Otjohorongo (Herero - 330,000 ha)

     Otjimbingwe (Damara, Herero - 83,053 ha)

     Aukeigas (Damara - 10,862 ha)            

1954

Use of newly surveyed farms in west Outjo District by commercial European settler farmers as additional monthly grazing

1956

Okombahe Reserve enlarged through the purchase of the farm Sorris-Sorris in order to accommodate Damara farmers forcibly moved from the Aukeigas Reserve near Windhoek, following its deproclamation in order to create the Daan Viljoen Game Park

1958

Probationary leases for surveyed farms in west Outjo District made available to white settler farmers

1964

Odendaal ‘Commission of Enquiry into South West African Affairs’ takes place to establish recommendations for land redistribution

mid-1960s

Vacation of white settler farms in west Outjo District and their purchase by the Evaluation Committee of the South African administration. Lease of farms as ‘emergency grazing’ to European farmers from other regions.

early 1970s

223 previously white-owned farms in west Outjo District made available to the Bantu Commission for incorporation into the Damara ‘homeland’ as delineated by the Odendaal Commission

Movement to the ‘homeland’ by qualifying communal farmers

1976

Opening of Rössing uranium mine, near the Khan River as it approaches the Swakop River, around 60kms inland from Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast

1978

First (largely boycotted) election of the legislative council responsible for administration of the ‘homeland’

1981

Election of the Damara Council led by Justus ||Garoëb, heralding the emergence of a strong ‘Damara’ power within the region

1990

Independence; new administrative regions delineated, and land reform process initiated.

New ‘conservancies’ become registered in many communal areas to foster Community Based Natural Resources Management (CBNRM) through the promotion of tourism and trophy-hunting

Notes

[1]Alexander, J.E. 2006(1838) An Expedition of Discovery into the Interior of Africa: Through the Hitherto Undescribed Countries of the Great Namaquas, Boschmans, and Hill Damaras, Vol. 2. Elibron Classics Series, orig. published by London: Henry Colburn.

[2] Discussed in detail in Rizzo, L. 2012 Gender and Colonialism: A History of Kaoko in north-western Namibia. Basel: Basler Afrika Bibliographien.,pp. 63-64.

[3] For details on the establishment of the ‘red line’ see Miescher, G. 2012 Namibia’s Red Line: The History of a Veterinary and Settlement Border. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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© 2015-2019 by Future Pasts. Background image: grassland, Erongo Region, west Namibia, April 2008.