The present country of Namibia, which became independent in March 1990, includes what was the former territory of German South-West Africa, along with the enclave of Walvis Bay, which was legally part of South Africa until added to Namibia in February 1994. The colonial boundaries were demarcated from 1878 on, and when the demarcation was complete they enclosed an arbitrary area in which many different people lived. In the north, south of the Portuguese-ruled territory of Angola, a relatively large population of mainly Oshiwambo-speakers had for centuries engaged in mixed agriculture. From the early 20th century, increasing impoverishment drove men out of the region to work as migrant laborers on farms and the new diamond mines in southern Namibia. Much of the western coastal strip and the eastern portion of what is now Namibia have always been thinly populated arid areas, while in the central portion of the territory Herero- and Nama-speaking pastoralists lived alongside some hunter-gatherers. The intrusion of German colonialists from the late 19th century provoked a major war of resistance in the first decade of the 20th century, in which, because of the genocidal policies adopted by the Germans, much of the Herero and Nama population perished. During the First World War, the German rulers were replaced by South African ones, and South African occupation of the territory continued after it became a mandate under the new League of Nations in 1920. South Africa both continued many of the oppressive practices used by the Germans against the indigenous population and intensified segregationist measures, especially after the advent of the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1948. By then a lengthy legal contest had begun over the status of the territory between the United Nations and South Africa. With that dispute unresolved, despite a lengthy case before the International Court of Justice, the nationalist movement SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization) took up arms against the South African occupiers in 1966. Eventually the liberation war, along with other pressures, led the South African government in 1988 to agree to allow the country to become independent via a transition in which a UN presence in the territory would ensure a free and fair election. SWAPO won that election, held in November 1989, and has been the ruling party since independence. While the following bibliography ranges over the whole of Namibia’s history, it emphasizes the more recent period, political rather than economic or other aspects of that history, and works in English.
The first scholarly overview of all of Namibia’s history by a historian did not appear until Wallace and Kinahan 2011. Earlier overviews were limited in one or other way: First 1963 was the work of a journalist and Goldblatt 1971 that of a lawyer, while SWAPO of Namibia 1981 (cited under Historiography) was followed by accounts in similar vein (Moleah 1983 and Katjavivi 1988) that focused on resistance to colonial rule. A conference held in London by the Namibia Support Committee, the main solidarity movement in Britain, in 1984 led to the publication of a major book of essays on many different aspects of Namibian history and politics (Wood 1988). The first and to date the only historical dictionary of the country is Grotpeter 1994. The first general history of SWAPO’s struggle from a critical perspective is Leys and Saul 1995. Other general works appear in other sections of this article.
First, Ruth. South West Africa. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1963.
A pioneering account by a radical South African journalist, based in part on a visit she made to the territory in 1962.
Goldblatt, Israel. History of South West Africa, from the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Cape Town: Juta, 1971.
General history from the early 19th century to the 1950s by a leading Namibian lawyer, very descriptive and poorly written, but based in part on archival research.
Grotpeter, John J. Historical Dictionary of Namibia. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1994.
The only historical dictionary of the country, a large and relatively comprehensive work.
Katjavivi, Peter H. A History of Resistance in Namibia. London: James Currey, 1988.
General account of resistance by a Namibian then completing a doctorate at Oxford.
Leys, Colin, and John S. Saul, ed. Namibia’s Liberation Struggle: The Two-Edged Sword. London: James Currey, 1995.
Two veteran anti-apartheid activists put together this critical account of SWAPO’s struggle, which included chapters by other contributors on the unions, the churches, and student politics.
Moleah, Alfred T. Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation. Wilmington, DE: Disa, 1983.
General account by a South African sympathetic to the liberation struggle, then living in exile in the United States.
Wallace, Marion, and John Kinahan. A History of Namibia: From the Beginning to 1990. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Very impressive general history by Wallace, a leading historian of Namibia based at the British Library; likely to be the best history of the country for many years to come. It begins with a chapter on the archaeological background by Kinahan, an archaeologist, then proceeds through the Namibian War to German and South African rule, ending with a brief conclusion on the post-independence period.
Wood, Brian, ed. Namibia 1884 to 1984: Readings on Namibia’s History and Society: Selected Papers and Proceedings of the International Conference on “Namibia 1884–1984: 100 Years of Foreign Occupation; 100 Years of Struggle,” London 10–13 September, 1984. London: Namibia Support Committee, 1988.
Very large collection of papers by scholars and activists on many different aspects of Namibia’s history and politics.
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