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Namibia - History & Background

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On the southwestern coast of Africa, bordering the south Atlantic Ocean and lapped by the cold waves of the Benguela ocean current, lies the Republic of Namibia. Formerly known as South-West Africa, and before that as German Southwest Africa, it gained independence on March 21, 1990, at which time it adopted the name Namibia. The Namib Desert (from which the country gets its name), one of the planet's oldest deserts, runs along almost the entire coastline, except for the northernmost part, the Kaoko Veld, which presents a somewhat more gentle climate than the desert regions.

The Skeleton Coast, which stretches along the northern parts of the Namibian coastline, is one of the earth's most inhospitable places. It has treacherous shorelines with coastal fogs and cold sea breezes caused by the icy Benguela current. These shorelines became the graveyard of numerous ships and mariners. The impenetrability of the area may have been one of the reasons the people of this part of the world were spared the excesses of the Atlantic slave trade that raged along the West African coast.

Namibia—bordered to the north by Angola, to the south by South Africa, and to the east by Botswana—is a land of many contrasts, ranging from the desert regions of the coast to the wildlife-rich areas of the Etosha Pan game reserve and the Caprivi Strip (a narrow strip of land that extends eastward from Namibia and borders Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana). The large Kunene and Okavango Rivers border Namibia to the north; the Kwando River cuts through the Caprivi Strip; the Zambezi River flows along the northeastern border; and the Orange River forms Namibia's southern border. Otherwise Namibia is a dry land where droughts often occur. The extremes in landscape, temperature, and climate provide the background for the country's history and for the national and cultural character of its people.

Namibia is home to some of the most ancient nations on earth, the !Kung (the "!" indicates a click sound), members of the Khoisan people, whom the white people called Bushmen and Hottentots, speak what are known as the "click languages" of Africa. While there are few members of the original Bushmen still alive today, except in the far northern parts of Namibia and in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, these ancient hunter-gatherers are famous for their lifelike art painted and carved on the desert rock. The traditional education of these people is largely part of their oral tradition, and much is lost in antiquity. What is known, however, is that there were strict codes of honesty, so much so that even in times of dire necessity, no Bushman would use the water another had stored in ostrich eggshells and buried in the desert sand. They were skillful in fashioning tools from wood and stone; clothing from animal hides; musical instruments from wood, catgut, and ostrich quills; and bows and arrows. From an early age, young men learned to hunt, killing prey with poisoned arrows. The rock paintings they left indicate that for the Bushmen the hunt not only fulfilled their need for food, but also for a sacred ritual. In modern times many Bushmen have become laborers on farms. Their traditional skills were used by the South African Defense Force during the late twentieth century to track down the whereabouts of the opposition in Namibia's struggle for independence.

By about 1000 A.D., the indigenous Bushmen and Hottentot peoples of southern Africa gave way to various migrating Bantu-speaking peoples who today make their home in Namibia. Large numbers of Herero and Ovambo people moved southwards to Namibia and, by the 1800s, the Damara, Herero, and Ovambo were the largest ethnic groups in the country.

Beginning in the mid-1800s, German settlers, missionaries, and soldiers began arriving in what is today Namibia. They settled mainly in the coastal regions. In 1884 Otto von Bismarck, the German "Iron Chancellor" who had declared "My map of Africa lies in Europe," convened the Berlin Conference at which the European powers, in search of new markets and coveting the riches of Africa, gerrymandered the continent, dividing it up between them with no regard to existing ethnic and national boundaries. Together with Togo, Kamerun (which with Togo was split between Britain and France after World War I and is today known as Cameroon), German East Africa (after World War I, Tanganyika, known since independence as Tanzania, was mandated to Britain, and Ruanda-Urundi to Belgium), and German Southwest Africa (known today as Namibia) became German property.

In 1915, during World War I, South Africa allied with the British and took over South-West Africa. South Africa wanted to annex the country but was prevented from doing so in 1920 by the League of Nations, which gave South Africa a mandate to manage Namibia's government and affairs. In 1945, after World War II, the United Nations, which replaced the League of Nations, requested that South-West Africa be placed under United Nations trusteeship. When South Africa refused, a long period of often-acrimonious negotiations and eventually guerrilla warfare, led by the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), ensued. On March 21, 1990, Namibia, under the leadership of SWAPO's Sam Nujoma, became independent. A strategically important area, the deep sea port of Walfish Bay (later known as Walvis Bay) on the coast of South-West Africa, remained under South African control until 1994 when it was turned over to Namibia.

Namibia - Constitutional Legal Foundations [next]

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