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A visit to Namibia in the era of Apartheid

After three busy years back in the United Kingdom, we came to South Africa, our second married posting, on 7th November 1967. On the way we had an exciting holiday in Kenya, where we managed to crash a borrowed car and see lots of friends and (as Gerald Durrell would say) other animals.

Once in South Africa, we settled very happily into a decent-sized house with an attractive garden at No. 46 Lawley Street in Pretoria. This was the capital city except for the months when the role was taken by Cape Town, when Parliament was sitting. Astonishingly enough, we also had a second residence throughout our three-and-a-half years there, a nice modern flat in Rondebosch, where we stayed when the government went to the Cape.

It wasn’t long before the family grew by one further – with our daughter Ella making her first appearance in this world in January 1968, only a couple of months after we had landed.

At the Embassy, my central job was to study and report on the application of apartheid. Across the years, I became quite expert on this pernicious system, which in some ways cast a pall over our time there.

This applied particularly to Marguerite. Her nastiest moment came when a policeman called her to halt her car and asked why our black maid was sitting on the front seat next to her. This was illegal. Marguerite stood her ground, but the attitude could not have been more contemptible.

undiplomatic episodes book coverNevertheless, for all the country’s ills, we were determined to make the best of a posting which was scenically so attractive. During our time there, the most exciting event, apart from Ella’s appearance, was our trip to what was then a really wild and woolly part of the world, the Kaokoveld in South West Africa, the country now called Namibia.

The area had the unusual distinction of starting its recent history by becoming a German colony in the late 1800s. The Germans seem to have got on spectacularly badly with the natives and, after the most dominant tribe, the Hereros, had killed 150 Germans in 1904, they retaliated with great brutality, killing and starving tens of thousands. Come the Great War, the German aggressors in Europe could not be allowed to hold sway in Africa, so in 1915 British influence saw to it that the territory was put under South African administration. In 1920, the League of Nations gave the South Africans full power to administer the territory, but required them to promote well-being and social progress.

By the time we got out there in 1968, the UN was increasingly preoccupied by the place, but at long range; they were particularly interested because the South Africans were doing their best to impose apartheid principles there, shunting people around according to race and making special homelands for different tribal groups.

Considering Britain’s declared dislike of apartheid in all its forms, it was hardly surprising that the authorities, when I approached them about a visit there, were unenthusiastic about plans for a British diplomat to wander around the place, potentially stirring up trouble.

The area had a tremendous allure for me and not mainly, I’m afraid, because of the political tensions mentioned; for me, the appeal was its remoteness, the wildness and the backwardness likely to be discovered there. To give some perspective, South Africa is twice the size of France and Namibia some two thirds the size of the Republic; but with a tiny population, only around 600,000 in those days. Also, there was a chance of seeing interesting animals and birds without going to a specific reserve. I was determined to get there and managed in the end to make two visits, first in 1968 and then in 1969.


In those days, authorisation for any visit was essential. A rising young member of the South African diplomatic service turned out to be the man I had to convince of my bona fides. This was none other than Pik Botha, who went on to become a tough international negotiator as the country’s Foreign Minister. A fine-looking, moustachioed young man, he was quite junior in those days and, if you stood your ground, not unreasonable – though he infuriated me by always declining to speak a word of Afrikaans when I started up in that language. I had taken lots of lessons and was fairly fluent; but only one Afrikaner was polite enough to conduct a whole interview with me in his native tongue. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I finally visited Namibia that I was able for the first time to put my knowledge of the language to really good use.

I made my first visit alone, leaving Marguerite and the children behind. I was away from 27th May to 7th June. I was accompanied throughout by a dour official named Mr Marais. His job was, of course, to organise things to give me a good impression of South African governance. As we set off, he told me that the South African authorities were doing their best to keep a grip on the place, despite the complexities of the tribal situation and the heavy antipathies between the different African groups. The Hereros, in particular, had a history of savagery and arrogance and had successively enslaved the indigenous Damaras, the Namas and the Bushmen. Maybe, I thought, the Government made it harder for themselves by attempting to unscramble the different racial groups and separate them out into individual homelands. There were 280,000 Ovambos, 50,000 Damaras, 40,000 Hereros and 96,000 white people. In order to carry out their apartheid principles, the Government was paying a number of white people handsome compensation to leave the land they owned after it had been designated as a part of one of the future tribal homelands.

The standard Government line, which was constantly thrust down my throat, was that the different tribes were like oil and water; they could never mix, so separation made much the best sense. There was a rosy future for the place, I was told, if only “they” (meaning the United Nations) would leave them alone. No-one would be forced to move, Mr Marais assured me.

One of the first stops Mr Marais and I made was to Welwitchia, an unimpressive township which had been designated as the capital of the Damara homeland. Here we met the white Headmaster of a new High School for Damaras which would be building numbers up to 160 pupils.

There were, the Headmaster told us, three European staff and three Damaras. The majority of the children boarded as they were far from home and there was no transport system. Some of his pupils would go on to higher education and some would become teachers or nurses or run businesses “being opened up for them”, he said enthusiastically. At present, there were no non-white doctors in the country.

I later talked to a cheerful Damara to whom the Government had given a piece of land on which to farm his goats and cattle. He was quite content. As for an independent Damaraland, he thought that a good idea, but stressed that the white man must first teach his people how to farm. I later met the ancient paramount Chief of the Damaras, who took a similar line and maintained that his people wanted to work with the white man – even if the young had been infected by United Nations ideas about getting rid of the colonialists altogether. He maintained that his views were not by any means universally shared; some people thought that the chiefs who co-operated with the white man “had white feet”.

Namibia went in for some wonderful place-names. After a night in Otchiwarongo, the future capital of the proposed Herero homeland, we visited a school near Okakarara and talked to the Herero headmaster. Here we found confirmation about how difficult and lazy the Hereros were. Whenever possible they avoided physical work and, when they could, made Bushmen do the manual labour.

Later, in the Waterberg area, we had a glimpse of a Bushman settlement. The people were small and well-shaped, attractive, almost delicate-looking, and I had the uneasy feeling that they were so far behind the times, with their continued emphasis on finding food in the wild, that their continued existence and nomadic way of life were already under threat.

The next morning, we set out for Reheboth, the home of the Basters, a coloured community with a long history of opposition to the Government. Reheboth sat on a high plateau just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and was famous for its hot springs. There had been a rebellion there in 1925, only ten years after South Africa incorporated the region, but it had quickly been put down. The Basters had been contemptuous of the government ever since. As we explored the town, it soon became clear that they practised their own form of apartheid, keeping the black natives in separate quarters. There were notices on the hotels they ran saying “No Whites”. We were shown around by the white magistrate there who believed that the Basters would like to stand on their own feet, but would be very reluctant to let the white man go yet. At the local hospital, there were three separate wards, for White, Coloured and Black patients. This was apartheid with a vengeance!

By visiting the tribes, I had been able to learn something about local attitudes towards the government and towards apartheid, but arranging visits with any obvious political angles was predictably difficult. Even so, if I was to build up a solid picture of the region, I would have to find a way. As a result, I made tremendous efforts to interview Clemens Kapuuo, the allegedly fiery Herero leader who was also feared as the leader of the revolutionary South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO). Kapuuo had led opposition to the Government’s decision to move the population of Katatura, the slum area in the capital, Windhoek, to a new township built for them nearby. A majority had followed his lead and had stayed put in the original area, refusing to be moved on.

The authorities tied themselves into a proper knot over the arrangements for my meeting. They eventually gave in, with bad grace, to my request for a solo session, but in the end I was escorted into Kapuuo’s little shop in Windhoek’s slum district by no fewer than four officials travelling in two cars. My conversation with Kapuuo was heavily inhibited when it emerged that he had no prior knowledge of my visit. Had he known, he would, I was told, have had some of his advisers alongside. As we began to talk, the number of officials bustling around and breaking up the conversation didn’t help at all; nor did the succession of shoppers who came and went, each one demanding Kapuuo’s attention.

In spite of this uncomfortable situation, Kapuuo came out with some definite responses to my questions. The country, he said, belonged to the black man, who should ultimately run it; but before this stage was reached, he would like to see a period of United Nations administration. He indicated that, even after this period, he wanted the white man to stay in the territory, but not in the dominant role. An example of his complaints was the fact that there were ten High Schools for white people and only three for black. The Government, he said, wanted to move the black man from Katatura mainly for apartheid reasons – to separate white from black by five hundred yards or more.

The common sense solution would have been for Kapuuo and his followers to move from that appalling slum; but the issue had become a trial of strength which Kapuuo couldn’t afford to lose. I was not hugely impressed by this alleged firebrand, but I hardly saw him at his best. I will always remember the awkwardness of my attempts to interview him while shoppers surged around us. He had such a tough reputation and no doubt would have done well when independence was at last achieved in 1990 – but he would not live to see that day. He was assassinated in 1978.

I returned to the Embassy with much to ponder, especially as a result of hearing Kapuuo’s straightforward comments on white dominance.

In my report I concluded that the South Africans were running the country efficiently and humanely enough, that black opposition was hardly coherent and that the whites out there backed the Government and laughed at the United Nations. The Government, it seemed, hoped to propel most of the natives into homelands but to continue to use their labour. Illiteracy was still high, at something like 45-50%.


It would be another year before I returned to Namibia, this time from 30th May to 8th June 1969. This time, I was accompanied by Marguerite, with Mr Marais escorting us. Our main objective this time was to reach the picturesquely primitive Kaokoveld, in the extreme north-east of the territory. To help prepare the way for this visit and add further background, I paid a number of official calls. I established, for instance, from foreign affairs contacts, that there was some general satisfaction at the modest steps taken so far to bring about a measure of self-government in Ovamboland. The Commissioner-General, Dr. Olivier, opined that real independence for such individual areas might come within thirty years but, as was the case with the Transkei, a “homeland” in South Africa itself, the attitude appeared to be one of “hastening slowly”. I wonder whether the white South African officials I was talking to all those years ago really believed that this kind of time was available before the black man could move towards power?

Now that we were in the area, we learned that Ovamboland boasted a Legislative Assembly, which was composed entirely of tribal representatives, 22 Chiefs and 20 from the rank and file. These had been chosen by the traditional consultative system, as the people had made it clear that they did not think they were yet ready for proper elections, of the kind which had already taken place or were contemplated in the Transkei. I gathered that there was some resentment among the educated Ovambo at being ruled, in some cases, by illiterate chiefs.

The South Africans dealing with the natives in Namibia generally seemed to enjoy their duties, no doubt partly because of the “frontier” atmosphere and the extra allowances which went with the job. They were undoubtedly dedicated, but also liable to treat their charges as children who would never grow up. One exasperated official described the mental capacity of the Ovambo as being akin to that of a bucket. You could fill it so far and no further. Not one of the white officials I met had made a serious effort to learn any of the native languages.

Armed with this knowledge, Marguerite and I set off to meet the wild and woolly ones in the Kaokoveld. On our way to the capital, Ohopoho – which is not very far south of the Angolan border – we were told that the roads became impassable in the winter. One of them, even in this summer season, had to be bulldozed open before we could proceed. We filled the bulldozing time by barbecuing the Thomson’s gazelle which our escort had shot the day before, and eating baked beans out of a tin along with the rib bones.

The country was indeed wild and hilly with some thickly wooded areas. There was plenty of grazing and all the cattle we saw looked, as in Ovamboland, sleek and contented. We were told that about the only thing the Kaokovelders were good at was looking after their animals. They refused any work and were not interested in money. If they wanted to buy a bag of sugar or flour, they traded a goat for it.

Not surprisingly, Ohopoho turned out to be a collection of no more than a few European houses; but there was a large tree under which the
Headmen traditionally met. We were being escorted by the acting Bantu Affairs Commissioner, Mr Malan, a young anthropologist who was studying the local people of this area for an advanced degree. He told us that the total population of the Kaokoveld was about 18,000. There were around 12,000 Himba, the more backward and indeed magnificently primitive group who wore little more than skins on the lower half of their bodies. The men shaved most of their heads and wore the rest of their hair in a long pigtail. They did not wash from birth until death and carried a little spear behind the ear with which they scratched themselves from time to time. They spoke Herero.

The Himba we saw were tall and good, even imposing, physical specimens. The other, smaller group, consisted of 6,000 Herero of the same stock as elsewhere in Namibia. They all wore scruffy European-style clothes like the Ovambo. One of their sub-groups called themselves “van der Merwe”, one of the most common Afrikaans names. They were originally Zulu, who had trekked across Botswana and Etosha into the Kaokoveld in the previous century. They even spoke a species of Afrikaans at home.

undiplomatic episodes book coverWe were given details of embryonic plans to bring about a measure of self-administration among the Kaokovelders, with groups of Headmen forming Regional Authorities. Witch-doctors still had some hold, though the people had always been fairly well-disposed towards Western medicine; but what they really wanted from the white man was the drilling of waterholes.

I asked if I could see some of the important Kaokovelders in the area and was told that there happened to be a number right here in Ohopoho; they were having their meeting under the tree that afternoon. A lorry was sent down and a small group filed into the acting Commissioner’s room – which, in view of our proximity to these children of nature, we could have wished to have been larger and airier. Marguerite took refuge in a cigarette. Others filtered in. When a quorum was gathered, I started to ask the usual questions about what their problems were, addressing myself in Afrikaans to one of the van der Merwes, who acted as interpreter into Herero.

My initial questions were followed by a prolonged silence. Time was needed for thought and our escort Malan told me quite kindly that, if I took this line, they would inevitably think I came from the Government and had something to offer – like a new water-hole. You must not seem too sympathetic to their problems, he explained, or there would be no end to it. I had to spend the next quarter of an hour explaining that I bore no gifts, was not from the Government and only wanted to talk generally.

Did they want more self-government? I asked. There was much consultation between the Headmen and I was eventually told that this was a subject of such importance that they would need to discuss it with other Headmen before responding. A more productive subject was education. They were reasonably satisfied with progress, but were waiting with some impatience for the promised new school to go up.

These lovely – if unfragrant – people were a little reluctant to be photographed and asked for tobacco in payment. The acting Commissioner undertook to provide them with the strong brand they preferred as well as snuff, which was also popular.

Our final stop-off in the Kaokoveld was at the Dutch Reformed Mission Station at Orumanda, run by a Dominie Schutz, whose predecessor had set up the Mission twelve years earlier. He concentrated on educating three hundred pupils of both sexes, with the help of two Europeans and five Ovambo. He told us that, though the witch-doctors were going out of fashion, the adults were heavily influenced by a species of primitive ancestor-worship. There was little hope of converting them to Christianity. With the school-children, it was different; they were being brought up in the Faith. I was impressed by the missionary zeal of the Dutchman, but not by his methods. Neither he nor his European helpers were making any real attempt to learn Herero.

We returned to Windhoek via Otjitjekua on the borders of the Kaokoveld and the Etosha Pan, visiting five other townships with long names beginning with O, ending with Okahanja. Our total journey from Windhoek had been 1,300 miles.


It has been nearly half a century since I was in Namibia and I find myself wondering what the country must be like now – no doubt it is concentrating on tourism. It would be especially interesting to know how the different races, with so many tensions between them, have been getting on following the official demise of apartheid. I wonder whether those magnificent Kaokovelders are as unredeemed and unfragrant as ever – or do they now have mobile phones? And would modern travellers be allowed to penetrate as far as we did, and manage like us to see cheetahs in the wild?

Extracted from Martin’s newly-published book, Undiplomatic Episodes, available from the publisher or, if you have to, from Amazon.

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