Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April 2014, 11:39 GMT

World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Namibia : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 2007
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Namibia : Overview, 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4954ce36c.html [accessed 24 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Environment

Namibia lies on the Atlantic coast of south-western Africa, just to the north of South Africa, west of Botswana, and south of Angola. A thin stretch of the country, the Caprivi Strip, extends along the Zambezi River to the northeast, along the border with Zambia, and all the way to Zimbabwe. Namibia's central highlands fall to the Kalahari desert to the east and the Namib Desert to the west. The country is rich in mineral resources, including alluvial diamonds, uranium, lead, tin, silver, zinc, tungsten and silver.


Peoples

Main languages: OshiWambo, OtjiHerero, Nama/Damara, Afrikaans, German, English (official)

Main religions: Christianity (mainly Protestantism, some Roman Catholicism), traditional beliefs

Minority groups include Kavango (8%), Damara (6.6%), Herero (6%), Whites (5%), Nama (4%), Coloureds (3%), Caprivians (3%), San/Bushman people (2%), Basters (2%), Tswana, Himba and Topnaars or !Gaonin.

[Source: World Directory of Minorities, published by Minority Rights Group, 1997]

Namibia is a country of great diversity. Ovambos comprise about half of the population.

San hunter-gatherers and Nama pastoralists have lived in Namibia since prehistoric times, joined at an early but unknown date by the Damara, also originally hunter-gatherers. All speak distinctive languages featuring click sounds. The Topnaars or !Gaonin are a few hundred surviving members of the Nama-speaking Hurinin and !Naranin tribes who originally inhabited parts of coastal Namibia.

Namibia's Whites are predominantly Afrikaans-speaking but include English-, Portuguese-and German-speakers, the last-named being the only significant such community in Africa and retaining a strong sense of identity. As in South Africa, Whites retain a highly privileged position following their loss of political power.


History

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, or possibly earlier, Bantu-speaking Herero pastoralists moved into central and north-western Namibia, and Ovambo agriculturalists into the far north of the country. The Kavango region and the Caprivi Strip in the north-east of the country are also primarily inhabited by Bantu-speaking peoples.

In the early nineteenth century displaced Afrikaans-speaking communities trekked to Namibia from the Cape in search of land. The introduction of firearms exacerbated conflicts over land and livestock, notably between the Nama and Herero. German colonialism from the 1880s led in 1904 to Herero then Nama rebellions which were crushed with ferocious brutality. In central and southern Namibia an estimated 60 per cent of the African population were killed, including over three-quarters of all Hereros. Most of the land was allocated for European settlement. In 1915 German colonial forces surrendered to South African troops. South Africa ruled the territory, under a League of Nations mandate until the United Nations revoked it in 1961, but South Africa continued to control Namibia illegally until independence in 1990. The latter period saw a protracted war between the South African army and the guerrilla forces of the Southwest Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), the principal liberation movement, as well as South African imposition of a comprehensive version of apartheid, complete with 'homelands' for Namibia's different (African) ethno-linguistic groups.

Namibia gained independence in 1990 as the apartheid system in South Africa was nearing its end. SWAPO and its leader, Sam Nujoma, swept to power.

Although peace had come to Namibia, war continued in Angola to the north and Angolan UNITA rebels made use of Namibia's Caprivi strip, where they maintained good relationships with the mostly Bantu-speaking population, itself alienated from the new government in Windhoek. In 1998 there was brief secessionist fighting in Caprivi, and the following year, Windhoek entered into a mutual defence agreement with Luanda, whereby they could each pursue the other's rebels across the common frontier. Fighting in 1999 led some 2,000 Caprivian refugees to flee to Botswana, and the government quickly gained the upper hand. In 2003 it brought 120 separatists to trial.

Hereros have sought reparations from Germany for the atrocities committed against their ancestors in the early twentieth century. In 2004 Germany repeated its refusal to compensate the Herero people, noting that while it expressed deep regret for the 'unfortunate past', the German government would continue to provide aid to all Namibians, and not target assistance to one group.


Governance

As in South Africa, the legacy of apartheid has led to scepticism over notions of 'minorities' and 'minority rights'. For more than a century the principal political conflict was over White colonial domination, and, though unity against 'divide and rule' policies was often limited, there remains a strong official commitment against politics conducted along ethnic lines. However, historical and demographic factors make it difficult to outlaw ethnic politics.

Ovambos, who bore the brunt of the liberation war, traditionally support the ruling party, SWAPO. Despite government efforts at ethnic balance in the administration, fears of Ovambo domination have remained significant. However, few of the many minorities have suffered significant active discrimination on ethnic or linguistic grounds.

Property rights in the constitution, the result of a compromise between the South African government and SWAPO, mean that nearly half of the arable land in Namibia has remained in the hands of Whites. Namibia gained credit for the peace and stability that followed its exceptionally long and bitter liberation war, as well as for a democratic constitution that gives adequate weight to the protection of individual human rights.

The new government undertook land reform on a 'willing-buyer, willing-seller' basis. The process proceeded slowly, and the government came under increasing pressure to accelerate land reform. In 2004 it broadened the categories of farms subject to compensated expropriation.

In 2002 the government passed a Communal Lands Act, creating 12 regional Land Boards to monitor land use in the former 'homelands' (which comprised about 15 per cent of the land area of Namibia. The Land Boards are comprised of traditional authorities and representatives of conservancies, as well as the ministries of Local Government, Agriculture, and Environment and Tourism. Forty traditional authorities have been recognized by the national government and participate in the Land Boards. Some remain unrecognized, and their local decisions have no government backing and can conflict with actions of the regional Land Board.

Topnaar or !Gaonin are now largely confined to a small portion of land in the Kuiseb river valley, for many decades part of a national park, placing traditional rights of access to land and natural resources under dispute. Depletion of underground water for industrial development on the coast has depleted riverine vegetation, notably the unique !nara plant on which the Topnaars are partly dependent for food. Campaigns for land rights and water resources have had little impact.

President Nujoma was re-elected in 1994 and again in 1999 after pushing through a constitutional amendment allowing him a third term. Elections in November 2004 saw SWAPO maintain its large majority in the National Assembly, as well as victory for Nujoma's favoured successor, Hifikepunye Pohamba. Although opposition parties complained of election irregularities, most international observers deemed the vote to have been free and fair. Nonetheless, a full recount was conducted, which confirmed the results in both the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Namibia has one of the freest media environments on the continent, and media outlets regularly criticize the government. Religious minorities have not experienced significant discrimination.


Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

The marathon trial of alleged Caprivi separatists arrested in 1999 and brought to trial on charges of treason in October 2003 continued into 2007. A second Caprivi treason trial against 12 alleged Caprivi separatists began in September 2005 and is likewise ongoing. The defendants in the second trial have accused the government of torture and other human rights abuses.

In the course of 2005 and 2006, construction of a dam that many Himba people opposed appeared less likely, as the government shifted towards planning for a smaller dam at an alternate site or offshore gas drilling that would ease the need for a hydro-electric plant.

The San/Bushman people remain Namibia's most dispossessed and marginalized minority.

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