Namibia - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in Namibia: the Bradt Travel Guide

The struggle for independence 

Between 1961 and 1968, the UN tried to annul the trusteeship and establish Namibia’s independence. Legal pressure, however, was ineffective and some of the Namibian people, led by the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), chose to fight for their freedom with arms. The first clashes occurred on 26 August 1966.

In 1968, the UN finally declared the South African occupation of the country as illegal and changed its name to Namibia. Efforts by the majority of the UN General Assembly to enforce this condemnation with economic sanctions were routinely vetoed by the Western powers of the UN Security Council, as multi-nationals benefited from extremely generous facilities granted to them by the South African administration in Namibia. According to one estimate, the independence of Namibia would represent costs for South Africa of US$240 million in lost exports, and additional outlays of US$144 million to import foreign products.

The independence of Angola in 1975 affected Namibia’s struggle for freedom, as it provided SWAPO guerrillas with a friendly rearguard. As a consequence the guerrilla war was stepped up, resulting in increased political pressure on South Africa. But strong internal economic factors also played heavily in the political arena.

Right up to independence, the status quo preserved internal inequalities and privileges. Black Africans (approaching 90% of the population) consumed only 12.8% of the gross domestic product (GDP). Meanwhile the inhabitants of European origin (10% of the population) received 81.5% of the GDP. Threequarters of agricultural production was in the hands of white farmers.

Although average income per capita was (and remains) one of the highest in Africa, whites earned on average over 17 times more than blacks. The white population clearly feared they had a great deal to lose if a majority government came to power and addressed itself to these racially based inequalities.

Independence

The independence process began on 1 April 1989, and was achieved with the help of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group. This consisted of some 7,000 people from 110 countries who worked from nearly 200 locations within the country to ensure free and fair elections and as smooth a transition period to independence as was possible.

In November 1989, 710,000 Namibians (a 97% turnout) voted in the members of the National Assembly that would draft the country’s first constitution. SWAPO won decisively, but without the two-thirds majority it needed to write the nation’s constitution single-handedly, thereby allaying the fears of Namibia’s minorities. The 72 elected members (68 men and four women) of the Constituent Assembly, representing between them seven different political parties, soon reached agreement on a constitution for the new Namibia, which was subsequently hailed as one of the world’s most democratic.

Finally, at 00.20 on 21 March 1990, the Namibian flag replaced South Africa’s over Windhoek, witnessed by Pérez de Cuéllar, the UN Secretary-General, F W de Klerk, the South African President, and Sam Nujoma, Namibia’s first president.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Namibia: the Bradt Travel Guide

Despite its aridity, Namibia is full of fascinating wildlife. Its national parks and concession areas have protected their flora and fauna effectively and offer some superb big game, far from the tourist hordes of more conventional safari countries. Namibia has been the most successful country in the world at protecting its black rhino population, and has Africa’s largest population of cheetahs.

Because the Namib is one of the world’s oldest deserts, the extraordinary way that plants, animals and even human populations have adapted and evolved in order to survive here is fascinating. There are many endemic species: animals and plants not found anywhere else. From beetles and birds to big game like the famous ‘desert elephants’ and strange welwitschia plants – Namibia has unique and varied wildlife.

Mammals

Namibia’s large mammals are typical of the savannah areas of southern Africa, though those that rely on daily water are restricted in their distributions. With modern game capture and relocation techniques, some species, including waterbuck and lechwe, now occur far from their natural ranges. A number of native South African species, including bontebokblesbok and black wildebeest, have also been introduced to private ranches in Namibia.Thus what you may see in a given area may be different from what ‘occurs naturally’.

Cheetah Namibia by Tricia HayneNamibia is home to 40% of Africa's cheetah population © Tricia Hayne

The large predators are all here in Namibia. Lion are locally common, but largely confined to the parks, the arid northwest and the Zambezi Region (Kaprivi Strip) away from dense human habitation. Leopard are common throughout the country, and the central highlands provide just the kind of rocky habitat that they love. They are, however, rarely seen naturally.

Cheetah do exceptionally well in Namibia, mainly because commercial farmers eradicated lion and hyena (the natural enemies of cheetah) relatively easily, and allow smaller antelope, the cheetah’s natural prey, to coexist with cattle.

Wild dog have their last Namibian strongholds in the wild areas in and around Khaudum and the Zambezi Region, but are seldom seen elsewhere. The social spotted hyena is common in the north and northwest of the country, though far less so in the Namib’s central desert areas and the Naukluft Mountains. Much more common and widespread is the solitary, secretive brown hyena, which scavenges among seal colonies by the coast, though is rarely seen.

Buffalo occur in protected national parks in the Zambezi Region (Kaprivi Strip), and have been reintroduced to Bushmanland and Waterberg from South Africa, but are not found elsewhere in Namibia. Elephant occur widely in the north, in Khaudum, the Zambezi Region (Kaprivi Strip) and Etosha. A separate population of desert-adapted elephants has its stronghold in the Kunene Region.

Black rhino occur in similar areas, but poaching now effectively limits them to some of the national parks, mainly Etosha, and areas of the Kunene Region. White rhino have been reintroduced to Waterberg and Etosha.

Giraffe are fairly widespread and can be seen from the Namib-Naukluft National Park all the way up to the Kunene River, but are most common in Etosha. Antelope are well represented, with springbok, gemsbok and kudu being numerically dominant depending on the area. The rare endemic black-faced impala is a subspecies found only in northwestern Namibia and southern Angola, and can be seen in Etosha.

Roan antelope are found in the Zambezi Region (Kaprivi Strip), Waterberg and, with luck, in Etosha. Sable occur only in the Zambezi Region, with excellent numbers often seen on the Okavango’s floodplains on the edge of Mahango. In the Zambezi Region’s wetter areas there are also red lechwereedbuck and the odd sitatunga.

Red hartebeest are widespread in the east, though common nowhere. Blue wildebeest are found only in Etosha. Eland occur in Etosha and the Kalahari, while kudu seem the most adaptable of the large antelope, occurring everywhere apart from the coastal desert strip.

Birdlife

pelicans, Walvis Bay, Namibia by Ariadne Van ZandbergenIf you’re eager to spot flamingos or pelicans, your best bet is to head for Walvis Bay from about September onwards © Ariadne Van Zandbergen

Much of Namibia is very dry, and thus hasn’t the variation in resident birds that you might find in lusher environments – yet even then the bird count tops 600 species. Many of those dry-country birds have restricted distributions, and so are endemic, or close to being so. Further, where Namibia’s drier interior borders a wetter area, as within the Mahango Core Area of Bwabwata National Park, or along the Kunene and Okavango rivers to the north, the species count shoots up.

Inevitably the rains from December to around April see an explosion in the availability of most birds’ food: seeds, fruits and insects. Hence this is the prime time for birds to breed, even if it is also the most difficult time to visit the more remote areas of the country.

People and culture

Ethnic groups

When the colonial powers carved up Africa, the divisions between the countries bore virtually no resemblance to the traditional areas of the various ethnic groups, many of which therefore ended up split between two or more countries. As you will see, there are cultural differences between the groups in different parts of Namibia, but they are only a little more pronounced than those between the states of the USA, or the regions of the UK.

There continues to be a great deal of intermarriage and mixing of these various peoples and cultures – perhaps more so than there has ever been, because of the efficiency of modern transport systems. Generally, there is very little friction between these communities (whose boundaries are indistinct) and Namibia’s various peoples live peacefully together.

Ovambo people Namibia by Tricia HayneMany Ovambo people still live in the north in their homeland, making traditional thatched roofs © Tricia Hayne

Culture

Namibia boasts some of the world’s oldest rock paintings and engravings, which have been attributed to ancestors of the Bushmen. The scenes are naturalistic depictions of animals, people, hunting, battles and social rituals. Local geology determined the colour usage in the paintings. Some are monochrome pictures in red, but many are multicoloured, using ground-up earth pigments mixed with animal fat to produce ‘paints’ of red, brown, yellow, blue, violet, grey, black and white. Rock engravings have also been found, often in areas where there is an absence of smooth, sheltered rock surfaces to paint on. Some of the best examples of paintings and engravings are in the Brandberg, Twyfelfontein and Erongo areas.

However, there is more to Namibian creativity than rock paintings and engravings. Traditional arts and crafts include basketry, woodcarving, leatherwork, beadwork, pottery, music-making and dancing. More contemporary arts and crafts encompass textile weaving and embroidery, sculptures, printmaking and theatre.

Language

Namibia’s variety of languages reflects the diversity of its peoples – black and white. Following independence, one of the new government’s first actions was to make English Namibia’s only official language (removing Afrikaans and German). This step sought to unite Namibia’s peoples and languages under one common tongue (‘the language of the liberation struggle’), leaving behind the colonial overtones of Afrikaans and German. This choice is also helping with international relations and education, as English-language materials are the most easily available.

While English is taught throughout the education system, Afrikaans is still the lingua franca among many of the older generation, and in rural areas Afrikaans tends to be more widely used than English (which may not be spoken at all) – despite the widespread enthusiasm felt for the latter. Virtually all black Namibians also speak one or more African languages, and many will speak several. Many white Namibians regard German as their first language, though they will normally understand English and Afrikaans as well.

Dance

Traditional dancing in Namibia is a participatory activity at community gatherings and events like weddings. Hence, a visitor is unlikely to witness any, unless invited by a Namibian. Occasionally, public performances of traditional dancing are to be seen at local arts festivals, or even in traditional villages such as Lizauli. In Bushmanland, in villages surrounding Tsumkwe, traditional Bushmen dances are performed for tourists – usually for a fee. This is generally a relaxed, uncontrived affair.

Music

Most of the Namibian peoples have a music-making tradition – singing, and playing drums, bows, thumb pianos and harps. The Namas also have a tradition of religious singing in four-part harmony, a cappella. One group that has taken this to a wider audience is the University of Namibia Choir, which has gained an enviable reputation for performing a range of traditional music in both Namibian and European languages.

Pre-independence colonial influences have resulted in many Namibian musicians performing in the Western tradition. Concerts are regularly performed in Windhoek by the Namibia National Symphony Orchestra, National Youth Choir and touring foreign musicians in the main auditorium of the National Theatre of Namibia. Out of Windhoek, the national tour circuit includes large venues in Swakopmund, Walvis Bay and Okahandja.

Back to the top

Namibia articles

View all

Something unexpected in the desert

German-Namibian artist Max Siedentopf has created an art installation he believes will keep one select song playing forever and ever. 

Read more...

Land shipwrecks in Namibia

Nick Molloy gives us the lowdown on Namibia's famous Skeleton Coast, where the shipwrecks leave you with no doubt as to the inspiration behind its name.  

Read more...

Five reasons to visit Namibia

From ancient engravings and ghost towns to silvery saltpans and untrammelled desert, Namibia is a land of bewitching variety.

Read more...

Related books

View all