Confronting Colonial Legacy With Positivity: a visit to Namibia

Walking through the town centre of the west Namibian settlement of Swakopmund, it can initially be easy to forget that one is in Africa. Indeed, a tourist could almost be forgiven for thinking that they have been transplanted back to Europe.

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Turn of the century German architecture in Swakopmund

Aside from the cool Atlantic breeze clipping the awnings of the prim and multi-coloured houses, the modern infrastructure and bustling convenience stores, it is the undeniable Germanness of the place that really grabs the debut visitor. Alongside the bars and restaurants (Kucki’s Pub, Swakopmund Brauhaus) stand Buchhandlungs, Bäckereien and stores selling Lederwaren, most housed within early 20th century buildings seemingly borrowed from the past. Even more telling is the constant babble of the German language (both High and Regional) emanating from curious daytrippers, excited tourists and nonplussed locals in equal measure.

This is testament to a colonial legacy which has remarkably survived for over a century, despite German South West Africa existing for less than 35 years.

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German missionaries had been active in present-day Namibia from the early 19th century. In addition to proselytising, these early intruders encouraged the native people to cultivate their land, leading to the creation of small settlements amongst an otherwise scattered (sometimes nomadic) population.

The Germans were, however, late to the colonial party, Otto von Bismarck declaring ‘So long as I am Chancellor we shan’t pursue a colonial policy’. Indeed, it took the actions of an intrepid merchant to pique German interests in Africa.

In 1883, Adolf Luderitz began to purchase land along the west coast, establishing a town which now bears his name. With tempting prospects of trade and settlement, Bismarck relented and sent a gunboat to Luderitz to ward off competing British interests. The German ‘possession’ of South-West Africa was formalised at the notorious Berlin Conference in 1884.

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Early German prospecting map of Namibia

With the power of numbers against them, the Germans set about solidifying their rule over their new colony by playing the various tribal groups off against one another, particularly the Nama and Herero. Along with purchasing vast tracts of land from a largely impoverished indigenous populous, this divide and rule approach soon put the Germans firmly in control.

Such a rapid incursion onto their ancestral lands understandably led to native resentment, which mutated into outright rebellion at the beginning of the 20th century. Between 1904 and 1907, a Namibian ‘War of Resistance’ was fought against the German imperialists, with the Herero bearing the brunt of the fighting.

Post office at Otjiwarongo (1906) - the 'War of Rebellion' increased the German need for improved communication links
Post office at Otjiwarongo (1906) – the ‘War of Rebellion’ increased the German need for improved communication links

Only after the Germans employed heavy artillery and engaged in the sort of brutality that became characteristic of European rule in Africa did the Herero submit. Guerrilla warfare continued to be sporadically pursued by various Nama groups but to no avail. German South West Africa was here to stay.

Herero PoWs in 1904. The Germans have been accused of genocide against the Herero and Nama people during the defeat of the rebellion
Herero PoWs in 1904. The Germans have been accused of genocide against the Herero and Nama people during the defeat of the rebellion

Or so it appeared. World War One upset the balance of power on the African continent and before long a South African force had drawn a surrender from the Kaiser’s troops at Khorab in 1915. All of a sudden, German South West Africa was finished, never to rise from the ashes.

German surrender at Khorab, 1915
German surrender at Khorab, 1915

The German presence, however, did not disappear even as its former colony became a League of Nations mandate. Under the trusteeship of South Africa – not a country known for its tolerance towards its native people – the Germans flourished, collaborating with their fellow ‘Europeans’ (in this case mainly of Dutch descent) to the detriment of the diverse indigenous ethnic groups.

Several decades passed without significant change and, from a relatively small pool of original colonists, the German population (now spanning three or four generations) swelled. Even Namibia’s long overdue independence from South Africa did not change this phenomenon.

Swakopmund and Luderitz remain the clearest embodiment of Namibia’s German heritage, though they are by no means the only examples. Even travelling through the north of the country – where colonial penetration was less pronounced – there are signs in German, German missionary stations, the never-ending railways and, of course, the beer (Hansa or Windhoek; either will quench one’s thirst on a hot summer’s day).

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Windhoek or Hansa?

This unbreakable permeation is testament to the Germans’ commitment to creating an African empire, however briefly such a dream existed.

Fort Sesfontein - established by the Germans in 1896 as a military base for the far northern Kaokoveld region, it is testament to their colonising zeal
Fort Sesfontein – established by the Germans in 1896 as a military base for the far northern Kaokoveld region, it is testament to their colonising zeal

As well as the physical and cultural impacts of colonisation there were also, necessarily, drastic human changes; both irrevocable and everlasting. Like other peoples exposed to European incursion, the indigenous tribes of Namibia were amalgamated into a fantasy state and confined within artificial borders to which they had never belonged. Distinct, ethnically diverse populations suddenly found themselves countrymen, neighbours regardless of whatever hostilities they bore one another.

Namibia is ethnically diverse, with many tribal groups split between neighbouring countries
Namibia is ethnically diverse, with many tribal groups split between neighbouring countries

Whilst some groups were quick to be assimilated into the ‘modern’ way of life – at least from a European viewpoint – others resisted and, as noted above, this sometimes took violent forms.

The constant battle to retain centuries-old traditions and belief systems when faced by an aggressive and all-encompassing worldview is likely to never disappear.

In Namibia, the Herero people best demonstrate the paradox between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. Herero women wear distinctive Victorian gowns and headdresses, thick 12m long garments that must prove unbearable in the ferocious African heat. Initially forced upon them by British and German missionaries in the 19th centuries, this clothing has ironically come to be seen as ‘traditional Herero’, even as some of its people continue to observe customs and religious rites that predate the Christian arrival.

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Herero women in ‘traditional’ dress

Himba women, on the other hand, have long shunned European styles of clothing and persist in their semi-nakedness, be it in town or countryside. These people intermingle side-by-side, with various other ethnic groups (including whites) added to the mix. It makes for a vibrant culture in the frantic towns of the interior, whatever destructive debt to colonisation this may owe.

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Himba women with their children

In spite of the rapid changes wrought by German colonisation, not to forget the subsequent South African subjugation, Namibia remains one of Africa’s most stable states.

Whilst European imperialism is often blamed for many of the continent’s ills – castigated for setting back indigenous development and creating a combustible and unsolvable demographic nightmare through forced resettlement of tribal groups – the former German South West Africa prospers.

Indeed, Namibia’s white and black population appear to co-exist in relative peace and harmony. The post-independence South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) government has avoided the temptation to seek retribution against the European population for past wrongs.

Taking note from founding father Dr Sam Nujoma’s conciliatory tone, they seem to understand that stability is essential for prosperity. They need not embrace the colonial legacy of the Germans or their South African successors, yet any attempts at ‘rectification’ can only destroy the fabric of the state. Too many African states (note South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda) have succumbed to such a delusion.

His Excellency, Dr Sam Nujoma
His Excellency, Dr Sam Nujoma

A trip to Swakopmund Museum perfectly captures the multi-ethnic equilibrium of contemporary Namibia, unafraid to confront its history with positivity and inclusivity. Exhibits of German colonial rule are displayed side-by-side with the artefacts of Namibia’s various ethnic groups, interspersed with information boards detailing the country’s geology, archaeology, flora and fauna, all to be shared by every man, woman and child.

One intriguing exhibit – encased in pristine glass – is a 15th century Portuguese sword, discovered on a Swakopmund building site in the 1950s. It is believed to have belonged to one of the soldiers of Diogo Cao, whose pioneering navigations along the west coast of Africa set the way for European conquest and colonisation of both this continent and that of Asia. Glinting menacingly from within its airtight tomb, this well-preserved monument marks the point when African civilisation as it was ceased to exist.

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15th century Portuguese Sword at Swakopmund Museum

The full circle – pre-conquest, early exploration, conquest, colonisation, resistance, independence, all in one building. A story repeated across so many countries and yet embraced by so few.

Namibia’s sparse population and vast swathes of desert have probably stifled resistance and rebellion to the colonial legacy over the past century, whilst making it easier to create, shape and manage a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-tribal nation. It remains, however, a beacon of hope on a rather desolate continent, an important reminder that the worst of a nation’s past can be overcome.

Namibia has realised that it has no choice but to accept its colonial past and it has framed it an inclusive manner in which all descendants – natives and immigrants, conquered and conquerors – can live together.

After the initial mindspin, Swakopmund reveals itself for what it is; a picturesque, diverse and enthusiastic town on the formidable Atlantic coast of Africa. Once the Eurocentric lenses clear one can see the vibrant native craft stalls and the Afrikaans biltong merchants as clearly as any German pub or restaurant. People smile and greet you, cycling through languages with enviable ease.

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Turn of the century German architecture in Swakopmund

As with the rest of the Namibia, there is simply no feeling of hostility. It is a relaxed, confident and tolerant atmosphere, embracing of all, damning of none.

For the casual tourist it makes for a truly wonderful visit.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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