Namibia History

The first people to inhabit what is now Namibia were the San people, otherwise known as the Bushmen. They are hunter gatherers who roamed southern Africa’s plains for thousands of years. There’s still a population of around 27 000 living in Botswana and Namibia. You’re likely to see them around the northern town of Rundu, though in the modern world they are struggling to retain their traditional lifestyle. The Namas and the Damaras came from the north from the 12th century, pushing the Bushmen into the Kalahari Desert. They were followed by the Owambos and the Herero from the 14th century, and by the Ovambo in the early 19th century. Several kingdoms sprouted on both sides of the Kunene River.

The first European to arrive was a Portuguese sailor, Diogo Cao, who briefly landed at Cape Cross in 1486. A few hundred years later, whilst the rest of the African continent was being carved up by the colonists, Namibia’s treacherous coastline and the inhospitable Namib Desert constituted a formidable barrier. It effectively staved off potential colonisers until the mid-19th century. German missionaries arrived in the 1840s and set about building carbon-copy settlements of their towns back home and introducing other idiosyncrasies such as clothing the native people in Victorian dress. Today Herero ladies can still be seen in the villages dressed in antiquated dresses, bustles and frills.

Meanwhile in 1878, the British annexed the natural deep harbour of Walvis Bay. The area was incorporated into the Cape of Good Hope in 1884. A German trader, Adolf Luderitz, claimed the surrounding region. Negotiations between the British and the Germans resulted in Germany controlling the whole coastal region, excluding Walvis Bay, which remained in British hands. The German protectorate of South West Africa was established 1894, after a bizarre agreement. The British allowed Germany to add the Caprivi Strip to its territories (and thus get access to the Zambezi River) in exchange for Zanzibar and Heligoland, a remote island in the North Sea.

The next three decades of German rule were marked by bloody conflicts between the Europeans and the Africans, mainly the Herero. Between 1904 and 1907 around 60 000 local people were killed, many were ruthlessly driven into the Kalahari Desert to die, and Germany introduced racial segregation. In 1908 diamonds were discovered near the coast, bringing a stampede of Europeans to the newly established diamond towns such as Lüderitz, which for a few years in the 1920s was the wealthiest town in the world. After Germany’s defeat in World War I, South West Africa was handed over to South Africa who ruled it until independence in 1990. For a long time South Africa saw it as the fifth and wealthiest province in their country. South Africa instituted some Apartheid-inspired laws, moved coloureds and blacks into townships and gave the arable land to the whites.

After World War II the United Nations made repeated attempts to persuade South Africa to relinquish its power over the territory but South Africa refused and continued to govern it from Pretoria. Then in the early 1960s, black Namibians united under the banner of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) to fight for their independence. Over the next two decades they used guerrilla warfare against South African targets, infiltrating the territory from secret bases in Zambia and southern Angola. Throughout the 1970s and early 80s, the UN continued to pledge that South West Africa was to become an independent Namibia, reaffirmed by a ruling by the International Court of Justice in 1971. SWAPO used more underground methods of demonstration. But South Africa only dug its heels in further. In 1977 South Africa adopted a new constitution that upheld apartheid policies and established 10 African homelands, tying Namibia even more closely to South Africa. Meanwhile SWAPO stepped up its guerrilla activities and managed to take control of parts of the north.

Finally, after another decade or so of badgering from the UN and international community, South Africa conceded and agreed to hand over government to an independent Namibia. Elections were held in November 1989, with SWAPO led by Sam Nujoma taking 57% of the votes. Namibia achieved independence in March 1990. South Africa, however, did manage briefly to hang on to the important deepwater port of Walvis Bay. This was only yielded to Namibia in 1994. While continuing to be economically dependent on South Africa (especially for foodstuffs), Namibia is better off than many other countries in the region, particularly because of its diamond wealth. President Nujoma has remained president, but his policies have been criticized in recent years. He conveniently changed the constitution enabling him to run for a third (and possibly future fourth) term and has introduced radical land policies similar to Zimbabwe where white-owned farmland is to be reverted back to black ownership.

Today Namibia is a peaceful country and its tourism industry, being only just over a decade old, is well organised and forward thinking. It’s one of the few African countries to promote eco-tourism, and there are many initiatives that both care for the environment and involve local people.

Read more about Namibia’s destinations, parks and reserves or adventure activities, or browse our featured Namibia overland tours.