Namibia: Vulnerable to Genocide


For all the problems which German settlers claimed to have with Hereros or Namas as workers after the genocide drew to a close in 1907, these population groups could still sometimes be drawn into waged labour by partially playing on their allegiance to their livestock.

From 1907, a series of draconian ordinances were promulgated to prohibit black Namibians from owning livestock unless they had official licences. Deprived of so-called 'traditional livelihoods' it was assumed that they would be coerced into the colonial workforce. Farmers used livestock and grazing to ensure a steady supply of labour; some Nama and Herero workers were 'permitted' to keep livestock informally on the white-owned farm.

According to the Landestag, black Namibians owned about 25% of all small livestock and more than 20 000 head of cattle. Most of this was, of course, 'informal' and under-reported and facilitated by settlers to attract workers. This becomes clear when we learn that between 1911 and 1914 the colonial governor received only 34 applications for licences to own livestock.

As hunter-gatherers, the San were not dependent on colonial settlers, and it was easier for them to 'drop out' or disengage from the colonial economy when they wanted to. Facing an inability to manipulate the San, settlers regarded them as 'worthless' and of little 'economic value'.

These colonial ordinances also declared anyone with no 'visible means of subsistence' to be a vagrant, and they were subjected to arrest and imprisonment.


This meant that all hunter-gatherers were by legal definition vagrants. Directly and indirectly, these ordinances facilitated the genocide of a people whose very mode of existence was outlawed. The brutal reality was that far from being the pristine hunters of the colonialist imagination, the vast majority of San were an impoverished rural lumpenproletariat.

In the hierarchical typology developed by scientists and endorsed by settlers, San ranked below Herero and Nama people because they supposedly had no property, which meant that to many colonialists, the San were vogelfrei (outlawed). To be vogelfrei meant that they were beyond the protection of the laws of the state.

Their alleged incapacity to work was also tied to notions of property. Most importantly, if the San had no property, it meant that their San lands were seen as Herrenlos (without a master) or terra nullius and thus available for the taking by settlers.

During these times, settlers were normally single, white males, thinly dispersed on isolated uneconomic farms - especially in the north-east of Namibia.

When this is considered alongside their excessive alcohol consumption, we can see how rumours could spread to develop a paranoid ethos in which the San featured prominently as the ultimate bogeyman: untrustworthy, treacherous vagabonds who were difficult to track and could use invisible poison.

Settlers were able to project their worst fantasies and nightmares onto the San, who further served as convenient scapegoats to cover the incompetence of these inexperienced and underfunded farmers.

By and large, German colonial policy was intended either to force the San into the Kalahari or to exterminate them, though there were some efforts to 'habituate' them to work for wages, and even lesser efforts to make a San 'reserve'.

In 1912, German parliamentary deputy Alfons Mumm recommended a San 'reserve' stretching from Grootfontein to the Kavango. Mumm saw the San as collateral damage in a tragic history, dispossessed by farmers and railroad companies, and riddled with venereal disease.

This reserve option was unpopular and never put into motion, as most officials emphasised an inherent 'wanderlust' among the San and noted that the deep Kalahari desert was effectively a reserve anyway. Some others argued that the San were a 'bastard race' with little need to be 'preserved'.

The Austrian geographer Franz Seiner was a major proponent of the need to habituate the San to work as labourers for the colonial economy. The only way to 'tame' San, he argued, was to have the men deported to the coast and the children and wives placed on farms. These children would be 're-socialised' at an early age and divorced from their traditions.


While a few scholars and missionaries opposed a policy of exterminating the San, they were largely inconsequential; most influential scientists saw extinction as inevitable.

Consider Siegfried Passarge, professor of geography at the German Colonial Institute. To him, the San were incapable of adapting to agriculture or pastoralism, leading him to conclude that extermination was necessary: "What can the civilised human being manage to do with people who stand at the level of sheep stealer? Jail and the correctional house would be a reward, and besides do not even exist in that country [... ] Does any possibility exist other than shooting them?"

Or ponder the views of Schultze-Jena, who coined the term Khoisan. To him, San were the lowest of the low: "If we consider the natives according to their value as cultural factors in the protectorate, then one race is immediately eliminated right off: the Bushmen. The Bushmen lack entirely the precondition of any cultural development: the drive to create something beyond everyday needs". In a sense they were parroting and reinforcing the views of settlers, black and white.

If we define genocide along the same lines as the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide - something which Nama and Herero genocide activists have rightly done - then it is impossible to deny the genocide of the San community during these years. Some of these trends lived on during the South African mandate years as well. Genocide takes shape not just through large battles and 'extermination ordinances', but also through complex legal infrastructure and the shaping of a colonial mentality intended to dehumanise a people and destroy cultures. Even today the term "Bushman" is a widespread term of abuse and dehumanisation among black and white Namibians.

To deny that the San were victims of genocide perpetuates our own racist bias.

* Robert Gordon taught at the University of Vermont and the University of the Free State. He is the author of 'The Bushman Myth: The Making of a Namibian Underclass'. 

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