Namibian History & Culture

The earliest inhabitants of Namibia were the San people, also known as Bushmen, a small number of whose descendants still survive in remote areas of the country living a traditional, nomadic lifestyle. Initially the San lived in widespread groups of low population density, moving around frequently. They were always incredibly well adapted to their harsh environment, and the many skills which have been passed down through the generations are still relied upon today in a few of their remote settlements. 

Over time the San came under pressure from Khoi-Khoi (Hottentot) groups, ancestors of the present day Nama tribes, who are thought to have moved into Namibia from the south. The Khoi-Khoi relied on raising cattle rather than hunting for survival, and they were probably responsible for making the oldest pottery fragments found in the archaeological record. Many of the San were absorbed into the Khoi-Khoi way of life, and latter references are made to the 'Khoisan' people, an amalgamation of the two original tribes.

Bantu tribes arrived in Namibia around 2,300 years ago, bringing with them the first tribal structures in Southern African societies. The majority of the Khoisan retreated further into the desert or to Botswana, those who remained in the more accessible areas of the country risked enslavement by the Bantu tribes. Around 1600AD Bantu speaking cattle raisers from the Zambezi occupied the North and West of Namibia, these people were known as the Herero tribe. There followed conflicts with the Khoisan for the best grazing land and water holes. Most of the Khoisan and the Damara people (whose origins are unknown) were displaced and only a few remained to hold out against the Herero. These people were the ancestors of the Nama tribe.

By the 1870's a new Bantu group, the Wambo, probably descended from East African migrants, had settled in the North of Namibia along the Kunene and Okavango Rivers. The Wambo now constitute the largest tribal group in Namibia with many present government officials originating from this group of people.

The first European visitors to Namibia were the Portuguese. A trading ship first landed at Cape Cross in 1486, and Bartholomew Diaz landed at Lüderitz in 1488 after rounding the Cape of Good Hope. The early explorers did not find much to tempt them into creating settlements in this area, and for the next few hundred years the coast of Namibia was largely ignored. Further exploratory voyages occurred during the 1600's, but these were based out of Dutch colonies in the Cape. The first white explorer to travel overland from the Cape across the Orange River to Namibia was a Dutch elephant hunter in 1750. He was swiftly followed by a progression of traders, hunters and missionaries. The Cape colony government then decided to put the ports of Angra Pequena (the present day Lüderitz) and Walvis Bay under their 'protection' as they perceived a threat from British, American and French colonisers and obviously saw the value of these ports. The ubiquitous missions began to spring up around 1805 with stations established in Windhoek, Rehoboth and Keetmanshoop towards the middle of the century. 

It was around this time that Britain began to take an interest in the more lucrative areas of Namibia and in 1867 the country annexed the guano islands off the coast of Angra Pequena in order to exploit the guano for fertiliser. The richness of the ocean in this area is caused by the cold Benguela current flowing up from the Antarctic, providing ideal conditions for plankton to thrive. The resultant vast shoals of fish attract a great many bird species which still contribute to the guano deposits today.

Walvis Bay and the surrounding area was also annexed by Britain in 1878 as the only deep water port in the country. Britain subsequently took a prominent role in maintaining law and order in the Khoisan/ Herero wars. Although at this point Namibia had a number of colonial influences, it was Germany that finally emerged as the dominant power. In 1883 a German merchant named Adolf Lüderitz bought the port of Angra Pequena from a Nama chief, and the town was subsequently named after him. Namibia was put under German protection in 1884 following conflict between Germany and Britain and the boundaries were finally agreed in 1890 between the British in neighbouring Bechuanaland (Botswana), the Portuguese in Angola and the Germans. 

The German take over was facilitated by a colonial company, a similar procedure to that of the British in India. Unfortunately this company was unable to maintain law and order among the many different tribes and colonial influences, and the first German troops arrived in Namibia in the 1890's. They built elaborate forts which can still be seen across the country.

Between the 1890's and the First World War, the German Reich took over all of the Khoi and Herero land and demolished most of their tribal structures. During this time the majority of the arable land was taken over and distributed among German settlers.

During World War One South Africa was pressurised by Britain to take Namibia over from Germany, and an invasion was eventually effected in 1914. German troops were pressed northwards until their defeat at Khorab in 1915. In 1921 a League of Nations mandate was signed which gave power to South Africa and many of the German farms were sold to Afrikaans settlers. During this time the Bantu tribes were subjected to territorial demarcation similar to the South African 'homelands' policy. This remained in place until independence in 1990. The initial intention was to channel economic development and government spending into these homeland areas, but as so often seemed to happen in colonies a divide was established between the rich, colonial owned farms in the south and the poorer tribal areas in the north. Very little wealth filtered through.

South Africa maintained control over Namibia despite growing international pressure from 1950 onwards. The rich mineral deposits and the countries strategic importance was enough incentive for the colonists to hold onto power for as long as possible. 
Towards the 1970's however, many other African countries had gained independence and the struggle for Namibia was gaining momentum. During this time the first conference involving all of Namibia's eleven ethnic groups gathered. Unfortunately this did not include the opposition movements for independence, and most specifically SWAPO (South West Africa People's Organisation) because of objection to Soviet support. Further pressure from the UN Security Council eventually led to formal recognition and involvement of SWAPO in discussions. 

Attempts at self-government began in the 1980's with a Multiparty Conference and the Transitional Government of National Unity being established in 1985. The South African government remained responsible for foreign affairs and defence. A huge South African military presence involved itself in a messy bush war against the SWAPO "terrorists" who based themselves just across the border in Angola with the backing of Cuban forces. 

An end to this futile war was reached on April 1st 1989 with Cuban forces agreeing to pull out of Angola in return for the granting of independence to Namibia from the South African government. Full independence was achieved on 21st March 1990 under UN supervision, and the government has remained SWAPO dominated ever since. 

Today, Namibia's population numbers around 2.2 million with approximately 25% living in urban areas. The growth rate is around 3% and 44% of the population are under 14 years old. Life expectancy is now 41 years for men and 40 years for women. Around half of Namibia's population are reliant on agriculture for their living, much of this at a subsistence level. With the country being dominated by desert, the country's carrying capacity is close to being reached, even taking into account the tiny population! Windhoek is the capital city, and is situated conveniently almost in the geographical centre of the country. Windhoek is home to the Supreme Court, parliament buildings, international airport, museums and art galleries.

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