Namibia: The Forgotten 'Bushman' Genocide

Germany genocide in Namibia (File photo).

THE issue of genocide reparations has received much necessary public discussion recently.

However, another group of colonial genocide victims has been ignored and wiped out of political discussion and the history of Namibia - both by official representatives of the various interest groups and the public at large. We are concerned here with those variously labelled by others as San/Bushmen/ovakuruha.

While the genocide in 1904-08 of the Herero and Nama was unique in that public sentiment in Germany played a major role in stopping it, the 'Bushman genocide' of 1912-15 continued unabated with hardly a whimper of public outrage.

One of the first orders of business of the newly installed South African administration in 1915 was to ban "Bushman hunting". The secretary for South West Africa's instructions were explicit: "It is necessary in the interests of all to secure a truce and bring the belligerents back to reason. The farmers must be told that shooting of Bushmen will no longer be permitted and will be prosecuted with all the rigour of the law."

Two features dominated the aftermath of the Namibian genocide: (1) the expansion of settler farms, and (2) a critical labour shortage.

This was most acutely felt in areas largely occupied by San, which during those years saw a massive influx of white farmers. This was especially the case with Grootfontein - which was a magnet because of its higher rainfall and numerous small fountains - and the Gobabis district, which offered good grazing.

Resistance to this settler colonialism was widespread. By 1911, headlines in the settler press referred to the "Bushman Plague", the "Bushman Danger", and the "Yellow Peril".

There were two main causes of this outrage: (1) some San were troubling whites by resisting their encroachment on their territories by engaging in stock theft, and (2) the San were also disrupting the migrant labour supply lines from Ovamboland and Kavango.

The white settlers called for action, and a Verordnung was proclaimed in October 1911 stating that officials searching San areas "must have their weapons ready to fire at all times". Firearms were to be used "in the slightest case of insubordination against officials" or when a San felon was either caught in the act, being hunted down, failed to "stop on command", or tried to escape through flight.

African police servants who accompanied such patrols were to be allowed to carry firearms, a rare occurrence during colonial times.

Despite these terms, most district commanders and white settlers thought the Verordnung too lenient. Some proposed the wholesale deportation of the San people, which the governor rejected as too costly and likely to raise the ire of the liberal and socialist metropolitan lobby.

He felt the policy could generate a "very undesirable public discussion if natives who have not broken the law were to be removed as prisoners to an area where the climate would kill many of them". The Landesrat discussed the possibility of forcibly tattooing identity numbers on the San but dismissed it because of "technical difficulties".


With characteristic thoroughness, the colonial state launched more than 400 "anti-Bushman patrols" covering some 60 000 km in 1911/12 alone. Even those living in the arid south were rounded up.

Farmers also organised retributive commandos, murdering many, and orphaned San children were divided among German farmers' wives who took them in, later using them as personal servants.

Others found it more rewarding to collect a bounty of 30 marks per head for turning in captured San to the authorities, who in turn distributed the "convicts" to farmers as forced labourers.

By late 1913, the Landesrat concluded it was practically impossible to acquaint adult San to wage labour and that efforts should thus be directed towards their children. German officials recommended immediately separating San children from their parents to facilitate this process.

Many of those San arrested for stock theft were deported to Swakopmund, Lüderitz and the diamond fields. Hard statistics are difficult to come by, but some indicators are available. At the Swakopmund 'Bushman holding centre', conditions were atrocious; one survey detailed that 15 of the 32 prisoners died within the year, while others suffered from scurvy, syphilis and other ailments.

In 1911, an Austrian journalist named Franz Seiner wrote to the imperial government in Berlin, complaining about conditions there. He was no humanitarian, however, and Seiner was concerned that there was immense waste of potential "Bushman labour".

To support his complaints, Seiner included photographs displaying the ultimate indignity the San were subjected to, stripped even of their clothes. One German bureaucrat wrote in the margin of Seiner's letter: "If Seiner publicises such photographs, the administration may expect to be attacked most sharply".

By 1915, the San constituted the most important source of farm labour in the Grootfontein and Gobabis districts, yet their resistance continued unabated. Even though the German military was fighting off the South Africans during the First World War, they still deployed a military company to Grootfontein to hunt and suppress San.

A German trooper described what happened to those they captured: "At eight o'clock we took the scoundrels to the bush where we found the right trees in no time. A few boxes were piled up, ropes were tied onto branches - the men were put on the boxes with their hands tied and ropes placed around their necks. We kicked the boxes over and they were dead in seconds because their necks were broken. All four of them had burst veins in the lower leg after they died. In twenty minutes, they were dead. The women we took to Wiesental [farm]."

The genocide of the so-called 'Bushmen' resulted in a great death toll, yet we have nearly expunged this event from memory and historical records.

- Next week, we will continue this story by identifying some of the reasons why the San people were particularly vulnerable to colonial genocide, as well as the role of some early-20th century academics.

* Robert Gordon is professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Vermont, and professor of anthropology and African studies at the University of the Free State. He is the author of 'The Bushman Myth: The Making of a Namibian Underclass'. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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