The San (Bushmen), who are among the world’s oldest surviving hunter-gatherers, have lived in this territory for over 11,000 years.
In the 19th century, taking advantage of tribal conflicts, Europeans acquired land from chiefs in return for weapons. The British authorities in the Cape annexed the Penguin Islands in 1866 and Walvis Bay in 1878, in response to a request for protection from missionaries. Germany declared a protectorate in 1884 over a 20 km-wide belt of land from Lüderitz to the Orange river, and then gained control of the interior. The inhabitants were relegated to ‘native reserves’ from 1898 and a 1905 German decree expropriated all Herero land and prohibited Herero people from keeping cattle. This led to the Great Resistance War, 1904–08, during which a large proportion of the Herero and Nama population was massacred by the German military. Pass laws were introduced in 1907, as was the institutionalisation of migrant contract labour. Diamond and copper mining began in 1908–09.
During World War I, German South-West Africa was occupied by South Africa; after the war South Africa extended its control to the northern Namibian communities, helped by the Portuguese rulers of Angola. The Allied Powers refused to allow South Africa to annex the country, renamed South-West Africa (SWA). Instead, South Africa became the designated power under a League of Nations mandate.
Following the founding of the UN in 1945, South Africa refused to convert its mandate into a UN trusteeship. In 1949, 1955 and 1956, disputes between South Africa and the UN over SWA were taken to the International Court of Justice.
A series of petitions to the UN from black leaders in SWA sought to end South African rule. The first black nationalist movement, the South-West Africa National Union (SWANU), was set up in 1959 with the support of the Herero Chiefs Council. In 1960 the South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) was founded, Ovambo migrant workers forming the base of its membership. SWAPO launched a guerrilla campaign inside Namibia, first clashing with South African police in August 1966. In October 1966, the UN terminated South Africa’s mandate and called for it to withdraw from the country, formally named Namibia in 1968. The International Court of Justice ruled in 1971 that South Africa’s administration was illegal.
In 1977 a UN contact group comprising the five Western members of the Security Council – the UK, France, the US, Canada and West Germany – began to negotiate plans for Namibia’s independence directly with South Africa and SWAPO. In 1978 South Africa announced its acceptance of the contact group’s settlement proposal. However, in May that year, South African forces attacked SWAPO’s refugee transit camp at Cassinga in southern Angola, leaving 600 dead.
Independence discussions continued for ten years, in the course of which South Africa made several further attacks on SWAPO bases in Angola. In 1981 South Africa demanded that Cuban troops (which were in Angola assisting the Angolan government in a civil war against UNITA rebels) should withdraw from Angola, and made this a condition of its agreement to the UN plan.
At the same time, South Africa began to ease its grip on Namibia, allowing a ‘transitional government of national unity’ (a coalition of six parties) control over internal affairs from June 1985.
In December 1988, two agreements were signed: one between South Africa, Angola and Cuba, creating the conditions for implementation of the UN plan, the second between Angola and Cuba, setting out a timetable for withdrawal of Cuban troops. A formal ceasefire came into effect in April 1989; this was followed by clashes in northern Namibia between SWAPO and South African forces, resulting in the deaths of some 300 SWAPO fighters.
Nonetheless, progress towards independence continued through 1989. The interim government was dissolved and by September 43,000 exiled Namibians had returned home. Many SWAPO members had been in exile for 27 years. Namibia achieved independence on 21 March 1990 and became the Commonwealth’s 50th member.
In 1977 South Africa had annexed Walvis Bay, Namibia’s only deep-water port, together with a surrounding 1,124 sq km enclave and the 12 offshore Penguin Islands. Walvis Bay remained a subject of dispute until March 1994, when it and the islands were returned to Namibia.
UN-supervised elections were held in November 1989. Ten political parties stood, including SWAPO, which gained 57 per cent of the votes and 41 of 72 seats in the Constituent Assembly. In February 1990 Dr Sam Nujoma was elected by the Constituent Assembly to be the first President of an independent Namibia. Nujoma (76 per cent of the popular vote in the first presidential election) and SWAPO (73 per cent in the National Assembly elections) were returned to power in the December 1994 elections.
In late November 1998, parliament passed a constitutional amendment to allow Nujoma to serve more than two terms. Namibia’s High Commissioner to the UK, Ben Ulenga, resigned in protest against both the amendment and Namibia’s military involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ulenga later formed a new political grouping which was registered as the Congress of Democrats.