People of Namibia: San, Tswana, Whites

People of Namibia: San

The San, or Bushmen as they are often called, are generally accepted to be the oldest indigenous inhabitants of southern Africa, and numerous examples of their rock art, dating back thousands of years, is to be found all over the sub-region.

Traditionally the San were skilled hunter-gatherers living in small independent bands with the family as the basic unit. Different bands had limited contact with each other, although individuals were free to come and go as they pleased, unhampered by possessions or fixed work responsibilities.

Although successful and well-adapted to their environment, about 300 years ago the San started to come under pressure both from migrating Bantu tribes and early European settlers. Regarded as cattle thieves and considered as more or less sub-human by these groups, the San were hunted down and forced off their traditional lands, the majority seeking the relative safety of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and Namibia.

Today, the estimated 35,000 San living in Namibia live a marginalized existence on the fringes of mainstream society. The South African 'homeland' policy during the Apartheid years forced them to settle in remote 'Bushmanland', a desert-like area between Kaudom Park and Omaheke. Like other aboriginal peoples in Australia and North America, the loss of their land and traditional way of life has seriously undermined the San people's culture and today only about 2000 still live by their traditional ways in the northeast of the country. They are unlikely to be granted significant tracts of land on which to return to their former way of life, and unless educational and employment opportunities can be provided for them, they will remain a poor and marginalized community.

People of Namibia: Tswana

The Tswana make up the smallest ethnic group in Namibia, numbering around 8000. Related to the Tswana in South Africa and Botswana, they are the descendants of a group who migrated to Namibia from South Africa during the 19th century. These people eventually settled in the east of the country between Aminuis and the Botswana border where they live predominantly as livestock farmers.

People of Namibia: Whites

The majority of the estimated 100,000 whites living in Namibia are of German and Afrikaner descent, with a small group of English speakers. The first Europeans to arrive in Namibia were missionaries travelling with Oorlam groups over the Orange River from Namaqualand. These were followed during the first half of the 19th century by traders and hunters who opened up the interior of the country for further European exploration.

Following the consolidation of German colonial rule towards the end of the 19th century, Europeans started to settle in larger numbers, most earning a living through trading and livestock farming. The discovery of diamonds and other minerals early this century attracted outside investment and led to further European control of the economy of the country.

The period of South African rule from 1917 until independence in 1990 saw the bulk of the viable farmland transferred into the hands of white farmers. Mineral rights were controlled by the multi-national European and American conglomerates and apartheid legislation ensured that all significant commercial activities were firmly placed in white hands.

Following independence, although political power has passed into the hands of the black majority, the bulk of viable commercial farmland is still in white hands. Likewise, most businesses in the towns of central and southern Namibia belong to whites and the majority of the private sector of the burgeoning tourist industry is also in white hands.

While many white people are making an effort to adapt to the realities of living in independent Namibia, an equal number still live as in the past, sticking exclusively to their own communities. Inevitably the barriers of the past will take time to be overcome but, with the integration of the education system, there is hope that the next generation of white Namibians, who have nowhere else to go, will participate fully in the wider society in their country.


This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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