People have been wandering the vast plains of what today is Namibia from time immemorial. Ancient cave paintings in the southern Huns Mountains are dated 27,000 B.C. and similar rock art has also been found in northwest Namibia. These are believed to have been the work of hunter-gatherers, successful at surviving in the bush and desert despite their limited technology and weapons. Their followers, the San, lived in small bands roaming the country in a continuous search for food and water. Around 2000 years ago the San were joined by groups of Khoe-khoe (Nama) who had migrated from the east to the middle stretches of the Orange River. Bantu-speaking tribes started arriving in Namibia during the XVI century, migrating south and west from the Great Lakes region. These tribes settled in the northern parts of the country close to the Kunene, Kavango and Zambezi rivers. They brought with them a variety of skills such as pottery and metal-working and lived by a mixture of farming, fishing and hunting.
The Herero people had originally settled in the extreme northwest of the country, but the areas soon became overgrazed. The majority of Herero migrated southwards, and around 1750 they came into contact with groups of Khoisan in the Swakop River area. This coincided with the northwards migration of Oorlam groups – a mix of runaway slaves and people of mixed race – from the Cape Province. These two opposing movements created enormous pressure, which was to erupt into almost a century of upheaval and at times open warfare in central Namibia. In the 1840s Chief Oaseb, for the Nama, and Jonker Afrikaner, for the Oorlam, struck a deal that allowed Nama and Oorlam groups to live in peace.
The earliest missionaries, from the London Mission Society, began to operate in southern Namibia at the beginning of the XIX century and were soon joined by the German Rhenish and Finnish Lutheran Mission Societies. By 1860, an extensive network of trading posts existed in Namibia. European missionaries, traders and hunters were gradually sucked into the escalating Herero-Nama conflict, while infighting amongst the Oorlam/Namas effectively allowed the Herero-speaking people to break free of Afrikaner dominance by 1870.
In 1880, after 10 years of relative peace, fierce fighting broke out once more in central Namibia. It was the arrival of German representatives in 1884, the subsequent treaties with the Herero and the effective subduing of the Oorlam that fundamentally changed the way in which Namibia was governed. Power steadily shifted away from traditional leaders into the hands of the German colonial administrators. Furthermore, over the next 25 years vast tracts of Namaland and Hereroland passed into the hands of the colonial government and individual settlers. This fundamental change culminated with the 1904-1907 German-Namibian war which saw the final consolidation of colonial authority over the country, and the subjugation of the Namibian peoples by Europeans. Thousands of Namibians died either as a result of the fighting or in the aftermath. The trauma of defeat and dislocation meant that 50-odd years were to pass before the emergence of the independence movements in the late 1950s.
The number of civilian killed in action led to accusations of genocide. While historians have different opinions, there is no question that following the war both Herero and Nama prisoners of war died in concentration camps; there were executions of captured leaders and many survivors were forced into labour. By the end of the war, the German colonial administration was firmly in control of Namibia from the Tsumeb-Grootfontein area in the north down to the Orange River in the south. Self-government for the white population was granted by Germany in January 1909 and lasted until the peaceful surrender of the territory to South African troops fighting on the side of the British in July 1915.
When South Africa took over control of Namibia about 12,000,000 ha of land were in the hands of white farmers, by 1925 most arable land had been given to white settlers. A great number of these new settlers were poor, illiterate Afrikaners who the Union government in South Africa did not want within their own borders. The bulk of the population of Namibia was forced to live in a narrow strip of land north of Etosha and south of the Angolan border, marked by the Kunene and Kavango rivers. This strip of land was far too small to support the number of people living there, forcing many to seek work further south. Potential workers were sorted out and had no choice but accept the work they were allotted.
Organized resistance to South African rule took off in the 1950s and was initially led by Herero Chief Hosea Kutako, who initiated a long series of petitions to the UN. In 1957 the Owamboland’s People’s Congress was founded in Cape Town by Namibian contract workers lead by Andimba Toivo Ja Toivo, its prime objective being to achieve the abolition of the hated contract labour system. In 1958, the organization was changed into the Owamboland People’s Organization (OPO), Sam Nujoma and Jacob Kuhangu launched the organization in Windhoek. OPO and other new organizations were soon in conflict with the South African authorities and the December 1959 shootings at the Old Location effectively marked the start of concerted resistance to South African rule. In 1960, the OPO was reconstituted into the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), with the central objective of liberating the Namibian people from colonial oppression and exploitation. SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma had managed to leave Namibia and was to lead the organization in exile until his return in 1989.
In 1966, the UN General Assembly voted to terminate South Africa’s mandate. SWAPO’s response was to launch the guerrilla war at Ongulumbashe in Owamboland on 26 August. In the early stages, the bush war was a small-scale affair. It was only after the Portuguese withdrawal from Angola in 1975 that it became possible to wage a larger-scale campaign. In response to the launching of the guerrilla war, the South African government established military bases all across Namibia’s northern borders, and as the scale of the fighting escalated during the 1980s, life became increasingly intolerable for the inhabitants of these areas. On the political scene, SWAPO activists in Namibia were arrested, tried and sentenced to long prison terms.
The bush war was expensive and never-ending and was seriously affecting the South African economy; at the same time attempts to find a political solution within Namibia that excluded SWAPO were proving impossible. The key to the solution was the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola in return for the withdrawal of South African soldiers from Namibia. At the same time a United National Transitional Government was to oversee the transition to independence, with elections taking place in November 1989. Although SWAPO won the elections it did not gain the two-thirds majority required to draw up a new constitution for the country. Following the successful elections a new constitution was drafted by the various political parties. The new constitution guaranteed wide-ranging human rights, as well as establishing a multi-party democracy governed by the rule of law. The final date for independence was set for 21 March 1990.
Since independence the SWAPO-dominated government has pursued a policy of national reconciliation. Strongly supported by the various UN agencies and major donors, the Namibian government has set about redressing the injustices of the past and rebuilding the economy, so badly damaged by the war. The mining sector has been further developed and significant growth has also occurred in both the fishing and tourist industries. Nevertheless, Namibia is still largely dependent on South Africa for foodstuffs and manufactured products, and this is one of the weak links in the economy.
Elections in 1994 saw SWAPO win with a massive 68% of the vote. The party was now capable of changing the constitution to allow Sam Nujoma to stand for a third term. At the end of his third term, Nujoma stepped down, though he continued to be the president of SWAPO until 2007. In the November 2004 elections, Hifikepunye Pohamba, Nujoma’s handpicked successor, won in a landslide victory and took over the presidency in March 2005. SWAPO also retained a two-thirds majority in parliament.