The German seizure of Angra Pequena in 1884 is one of the first incidents in the European scramble for Africa. The resulting colony becomes known as South West Africa. Over the next hundred years the tribes living here, inland from the arid coastal strip of the Namib desert, suffer some of the harshest experiences of modern colonial history – at the hands first of the Germans and subsequently of South Africa.
The early years of the German presence are relatively calm. Only about 2000 traders and farmers are in the region by 1896, and their relations with the dominant local tribe, the Herero, are for the most part peaceful. But in 1897 a natural disaster gives the settlers an unexpected advantage.
In 1897 South West Africa is reached by a previously unknown cattle plague, the rinderpest. Deriving originally from an outbreak in 1889 in distant Somaliland, the plague is not carried across the Zambezi until 1896. Now it devastates the flocks of the Herero, exclusively a cattle-raising people. In desperation they sell for very little, to the German settlers, much of their pasture and half their surviving cattle.
The catastrophe seems to have benefited the Europeans. But it prompts the Herero to attempt, in 1904, a desperate uprising against the German intruders.
During a few days, in January 1904, Herero warriors kill every German they can find whom they consider capable of carrying arms. Methodically they spare women and children, German missionaries and Europeans of other nationalities. The total number of German deaths is not much above 100. But the event is brutal and terrifying. It prompts over-reaction in Berlin, where the emperor William II selects for the task of reprisal an officer known for his severity, General Lothar von Trotha.
Von Trotha is sent out to Africa with instructions to put down the uprising ‘by fair means or foul’. He selects the foulest imaginable.
During the summer of 1904 inconclusive warfare continues between the Herero and the German forces already in the region. By the time von Trotha is ready for action with his reinforcements, in August, the main body of the Herero are grouped on the Waterberg plateau, adjacent to an extension of the Kalahari desert. Von Trotha surrounds them with his German detachments, leaving only one exit from the circle – in the direction of the desert.
When the tribesmen have fled into the desert, von Trotha places a line of German guard posts to prevent their return. With no water, in oven-like temperatures, some 8000 men perish together with their women, children and remaining cattle.
Von Trotha follows this action with a Vernichtungsbefehl (‘extermination order’) issued in October. It announces that any Herero found living within the borders of the German territory will be shot. His proclamation makes chilling reading, as an Unusually blunt statement of the concept of ‘ethnic cleansing’. It is the century’s first example of its most shameful characteristic, genocide.
News of von Trotha’s action profoundly shocks Germany and the rest of Europe. Berlin countermands the extermination order. In 1905 von Trotha is removed from his command and recalled home. Nevertheless the emperor decorates him on his return, for devotion to the fatherland.
Meanwhile the region’s other main tribe, the Nama, have risen in support of their traditional enemies, the Herero. They make many successful guerrilla raids on the German forces, now reinforced to the level of about 15,000 men. But eventually most of the Nama and the surviving Herero are rounded up and sent to work in labour camps on the railways. For many of them this proves to be a death sentence.
A census in 1911 reveals that the Nama have halved in number during the previous decade (from 20,000 to 9,800), while the Herero have been reduced by 80% (from 80,000 to 15,000). There will be little regret among the indigenous people of South West Africa when a European war brings a change of colonial master.
South Africa and South West Africa: AD 1915-1988
When World War I breaks out, the newly independent dominion of South Africa rallies to the British cause. The only German target in the immediate region is South West Africa. In February 1915 the South African president, Louis Botha, leads an invasion in person. In July the German forces in the colony surrender.
At the end of the war the League of Nations places South West Africa under a British mandate, with the administration of the territory entrusted to the government of South Africa. There thus begins the gradual process by which South West Africa becomes more and more closely integrated with its larger neighbour, until it is in many ways regarded as the fifth province of the Union.
The region’s prosperity increases after World War II, largely thanks to a buoyant market for diamonds and beef, but the wealth accrues almost exclusively to the white settler population in the southern part of the protectorate. Meanwhile the distress of the black population is aggravated by the introduction of South Africa’s apartheid laws after 1948.
From the late 1940s there is a lengthy clash of will between South Africa and the United Nations. Black leaders in South West Africa petition the UN against South African rule. South Africa disputes the authority of the UN in this matter. The issue is argued at length before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Eventually, in 1967, the UN asserts its sovereignty and campaigns actively for the liberation of the region – which it begins to refer to by a more acceptable local name, Namibia. There is by now a local organization working actively towards the same end, that of independence.
Within the Ovambo tribe, whose territory straddles the border between South West Africa and Angola, there is founded in 1958 the Ovamboland People’s Organization. In 1960 it claims a wider remit as SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization.) SWAPO soon becomes the main political force in the province, launching a guerrilla campaign against the South African administration.
In the 1980s the campaign to suppress SWAPO escalates into a debilitating war, carried far north into Angola, which drains the energies of a South African government already beset by increasing internal unrest. Some 2500 South African soldiers die in the conflict, which costs $1 billion a year to sustain.
In 1988 the South African effort collapses. A cease-fire is agreed, providing for the simultaneous withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and of South African forces from South West Africa. The government in Pretoria now finally gives up its policy of stalling on Namibia’s independence. It agrees that the UN will supervise the provision of a new constitution and the holding of elections.
Indpendence: from AD 1990
In the elections held in 1989 SWAPO wins 57% of the vote. The party’s leader, Sam Nujoma, becomes president of Namibia (which formally gains independence in March 1990). Nujoma pursues a policy of reconciliation, both with the white settlers (many of whom remain in their government jobs) and with the government of South Africa. Although accused by opponents of favouring the interests of the Ovambo tribe, SWAPO continues to win subsequent elections during the 1990s. Nujoma is re-elected as president for a second term in 1994.
As with many African nations, the most severe crisis of the 1990s is AIDS. By the end of the decade some 10% of the population is HIV-positive.