How Namibia came to have its name

Nii Ntreh September 26, 2020
Namibia is nicknamed "The Land of Many Faces" because of the wide ranging geographical formations when the country is seen from a bird's eye view. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The southern African country of Namibia has made the news in recent months following its call on Germany to face up to genocidal transgressions committed while the European nation was in colonial control of Namibia.

Namibia’s pressure on Germany comes as a surprise to too many people, probably because German colonization in Africa remains one of the more under-discussed stories from that time of partitioning African territories for European imperialist ambitions. Ignorance of Germany’s atrocities in Africa by extension leads to more unfortunate questions like “Where is Namibia?”.

Small in size and population, Namibia remains one of the most peaceful and stable African countries in the last three decades. These qualities have engineered desirable growth as Namibia is now rated by the World Bank as one of Africa’s handful of upper-middle-income countries.

But the success of Namibia’s present belies a difficult history in the hands of European and African domination. The country possesses a rather unique history of sovereignty in which unlike almost any other African country that fought for independence from a European nation, Namibia gained freedom from South Africa, its big and powerful neighbor to the south, in 1990.

South Africa, under white minority rule, was in 1919 handed what the Germans had named South-West Africa. It was Otto von Bismarck who had secured the territory for Germany at the Berlin Conference in order to curtail British expansion upwards from British South Africa.

South-West Africa was for South Africa to nurture towards full independence, according to historian William Roger Louis’  Ends of British Imperialism: The Scramble for Empire, Suez, and Decolonization. But the South Africans mistook their mandate over South-West Africa after the Treaty of Versailles as an annexation of the territory.

This ‘mistake’ would later spell trouble as national consciousness in South-West Africans was expressed in ways that did not make South Africa happy. In 1966, a United Nations resolution terminated South Africa’s mandate over the former German colony but South Africa did not want to cede control over the territory it planned on adding to the greater South African nation.

One of the volatile outcomes of the tension between South Africa and South-West Africa was the 1978 Cassinga massacre in which more than 600 of South-West African were killed.

By this time, the people in the annexed territory were already identifying themselves by a name taken from their famous desert Namib. The name of the desert is in the Khoekhoe language and it means “a vast place”.

The new name, Republic of Namib, was proposed by Mburumba Kerina, a student of the first Indonesian president, Sukarno. And it was the latter who had challenged Kerina to seek a better name for his country instead of referring to it like “a geographical area”.

“That gave us an identity internationally when the United Nations adopted this name with our party support, Swapo (South West African People’s Organization). The name became so popular that we couldn’t find a better name,” Kerina told The Namibian, a newspaper in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital.

Kerina had proposed that Namib’s people would be called “the Namibians” but with time, his compatriots decided Namibia sounded better as a derivative from Namib, much in the fashion of Nigeria from the river Niger.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 26, 2020


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