The country’s name is taken from the Namib Desert, which is said to be the world’s oldest desert. Prior to its independence in 1990, the region was known as German South-West Africa (Deutsch-Südwestafrika), then as South-West Africa, to reflect the colonial occupation by the Germans and South Africans (technically on behalf of the British crown, reflecting South Africa’s dominion status within the British Empire).
San, Damara, and Nama have lived in Namibia’s arid plains since ancient times. Immigranting Bantu peoples came in the 14th century as part of the Bantu expansion from central Africa. Oorlam people from Cape Colony crossed the Orange River and settled in what is now southern Namibia beginning in the late 18th century. Their interactions with the nomadic Nama people were mostly amicable. The missionaries who accompanied the Oorlam were warmly welcomed, and the permission to use waterholes and graze was given in exchange for an annual payment. On their journey north, the Oorlam met Herero clans at Windhoek, Gobabis, and Okahandja, who opposed their invasion. The Nama-Herero War erupted in 1880, with hostilities only ceasing when the German Empire sent soldiers to the disputed areas, cementing the status quo among the Nama, Oorlam, and Herero.
The Portuguese navigators Diogo Co in 1485 and Bartolomeu Dias in 1486 were the first Europeans to disembark and explore the region, but the Portuguese crown did not attempt to claim the territory. Namibia, like much of interior Sub-Saharan Africa, was not widely explored by Europeans until the nineteenth century. Traders and settlers came mostly from Germany and Sweden at the time. Dorsland Trekkers passed through the region in the late 1800s on their route from the South African Republic to Angola. Some of them chose to stay in Namibia rather than continue their trip.
To prevent British invasion, Otto von Bismarck established Namibia as a German colony in 1884, naming it German South-West Africa (Deutsch-Südwestafrika). However, the British governor in Cape Town’s Palgrave expedition decided that only the natural deep-water port of Walvis Bay was worth holding – and this was added to the Cape region of British South Africa.
From 1904 until 1907, the Herero and Namaqua armed themselves against the Germans. The German invaders conducted what has been dubbed the “first genocide of the twentieth century,” as government authorities ordered the extermination of the indigenous in a planned punitive move. The Germans slaughtered 10,000 Nama (half the population) and roughly 65,000 Herero during the Herero and Namaqua genocide (about 80 percent of the population). When the survivors were eventually freed from prison, they were subjected to a program of expropriation, deportation, forced labor, racial segregation, and discrimination in a system that foreshadowed South Africa’s establishment of apartheid in 1948.
Most Africans were restricted to so-called native areas, which were subsequently renamed “homelands” under South African administration after 1949. (Bantustans). Indeed, some historians believe that the German genocide in Namibia served as a model for the Nazis throughout the Holocaust. The legacy of genocide continues to shape ethnic identity in independent Namibia, as well as ties with Germany. In 2004, the German government officially apologized for the Namibian massacre.
South African rule
After defeating the German troops in World War I, South Africa seized the colony in 1915. It was governed as a League of Nations mandate area beginning in 1919. (nominally under the British Crown). Although the South African government desired to include ‘South-West Africa’ into its formal boundaries, this was never accomplished. It did, however, manage the area as its de facto ‘fifth province.’ The white minority of South-West Africa elected members to South Africa’s all-white Parliament. They also chose their own local government, the SWA Legislative Assembly. The South African government nominated the SWA administrator, who had broad administrative authority.
South Africa refused to relinquish its previous mission when the League was replaced by the United Nations in 1946. The UN planned for it to be replaced by a United Nations Trusteeship arrangement, which would require tighter international supervision of the territory’s governance and a clear timeline for Namibia’s independence. Apartheid was created in both regions after the emergence of the National Party in South Africa. In the 1950s, the Herero Chief’s Council petitioned the United Nations to give Namibia independence, but it was unsuccessful. As European countries like as France and the United Kingdom gave independence to several African colonies and trust territories during the 1960s, pressure grew on South Africa to do the same in Namibia.
The International Court of Justice rejected a challenge filed by Ethiopia and Liberia against South Africa’s continuing presence in the region in 1966, although South Africa’s mandate was later withdrawn by the United Nations General Assembly. South Africa maintained de facto control, while SWAPO intensified its guerilla operations to overthrow it. The International Court of Justice issued a “advisory opinion” in 1971, ruling that South Africa’s continuing governance was unconstitutional.
South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) military branch, People’s Liberation Army of Namibia, a guerrilla organization, started their violent campaign for independence in reaction to the 1966 decision by the International Court of Justice. South Africa did not agree to terminate its occupation of Namibia until 1988, in line with a UN peace plan for the whole region.
During the decades of German and South African rule of Namibia, white commercial farmers, the majority of whom arrived as settlers from South Africa and made up 0.2 percent of the native population, came to control 74% of the fertile land. Outside of Namibia’s central-southern region (known as the “Police Zone” since the German era), which contained the country’s main towns, industries, mines, and best arable land, South Africa designated areas of the country as “homelands” for various tribes, including the mixed-race Basters, who had occupied the Rehoboth District since the late nineteenth century. It was an effort to create bantustans, but the majority of indigenous Namibian tribes refused to participate.
The United Nations officially recognized South West Africa as Namibia; the General Assembly altered the territory’s name in Resolution 2372 (XXII) on June 12, 1968. The United Nations Security Council approved UN Resolution 435 in 1978, which outlined a strategy for Namibia’s transition to independence. Attempts to convince South Africa to consent to the plan’s execution were futile until 1988, after years of fighting. The transition to independence was ultimately launched by a diplomatic agreement between South Africa, Angola, and Cuba, with the USSR and the United States acting as observers. South Africa committed to withdraw and demobilize its troops in Namibia as part of this agreement. As a consequence, Cuba decided to withdraw its soldiers from southern Angola, where they had been stationed to assist the MPLA in their battle for control of Angola against UNITA. Angola’s civil war had likewise ended.
From April 1989 to March 1990, a mixed UN civilian and peacekeeping group known as UNTAG (United Nations Transition Assistance Group), headed by Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari, was sent to oversee the peace process and elections, as well as supervise military withdrawals. As UNTAG started to deploy peacekeepers, military observers, police, and political workers, hostilities resurfaced momentarily on the day the transition process was scheduled to begin. A second date was chosen after a fresh round of talks, and the election process started in earnest.
Namibia held its first one-person, one-vote elections for the constitutional assembly in November 1989, after the repatriation of over 46,000 SWAPO exiles. “Free and Fair Elections” was the official campaign slogan. SWAPO won, although not by the two-thirds majority it had planned for; the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), supported by South Africa, became the official opposition. The elections were held in peace and were deemed free and fair.
The Namibian Constitution, ratified in February 1990, included human rights protection, compensation for governmental expropriations of private property, and the establishment of an independent judiciary, legislature, and executive president (the constituent assembly became the national assembly). On March 21, 1990, the nation declared its independence. Sam Nujoma was sworn in as Namibia’s first President in a ceremony attended by South African President Nelson Mandela (who had been freed from jail the previous month) and delegates from 147 nations, including 20 heads of state. South Africa handed up Walvis Bay to Namibia at the end of apartheid in 1994.
Namibia has effectively accomplished the transition from white minority apartheid rule to parliamentary democracy since independence. Multiparty democracy was established and is still in place, with municipal, regional, and national elections conducted on a regular basis. Although there are many recognized political parties operating and represented in the National Assembly, the SWAPO has won every election since independence. The transfer from President Sam Nujoma’s 15-year reign to his successor Hifikepunye Pohamba in 2005 proceeded peacefully.
The Namibian government has pursued a strategy of national reconciliation since the country’s independence. It granted amnesty to anyone who fought on either side of the liberation struggle. The civil conflict in Angola spilled over and harmed Namibians residing in the country’s north. Namibia Defense Force (NDF) soldiers were sent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1998 as part of a Southern African Development Community (SADC) deployment.
A separatist movement in the northern Caprivi Strip was successfully thwarted by the national government in 1999. The Caprivi Liberation Army (CLA), a rebel organization headed by Mishake Muyongo, started the Caprivi War. It desired that the Caprivi Strip separate in order to establish its own civilization.