Recently this author had the renewed pleasure of attending the annual Nama Cultural Festival at Lokgwabe village in Kgalagadi North, which was held this year under the theme "Cultural Inheritience, Gateway to Identity".
Besides being a joyous and colourful celebration of the richness of Nama culture in Botswana and the wider region, the Festival has emerged as a powerful testament to its focus community’s enduring strength in overcoming past adversity, while meeting contemporary challenges.
No community, in this region or elsewhere, has suffered proportionately more from imperialist rapacity, nor put up a stouter resistance against racist oppression, than the Nama. This history of extreme deprivation and extraordinary heroism is now beginning to come under the global spot-light as a result of an international campaign on the part of the victim’s descendants to seek just recognition and restitution.
While the said conflict started in what was then German South West Africa, i.e. modern Namibia, it ended up being fought in the British ruled Bechuanaland Protectorate and the northern Cape Colony as well. In the process it drew in people from local communities, Bakgalagari, Barolong and Batawana amongst others, as well as the Nama and their Ovaherero allies. From a purely military point of view, the 1904-08 phase of the Nama’s Freedom Struggle is notable for being an early 20th century blueprint for modern guerrilla warfare. In this respect, it was both a harbinger and an inspiration for subsequent anti-imperialist struggles across the African continent and beyond. The tenacity of the Nama resistance further influenced a realignment of the political balance of power within Germany itself, with the largest number of votes, albeit not corresponding number of seats in the Reichstag or Federal Parliament, going for the first time to the then anti-war Social Democratic Party during the so-called “Hottentots Election” of 1907. Most notoriously, the Nama struggle took place in the context of the world’s earliest example of systematic industrial age genocides, rooted in the race theory of eugenics, which was a direct antecedent to the crimes against humanity that were later perpetrated by Adolph Hitler and his Nazi followers. For those unfamiliar with what can rightfully be described as the “Kalahari Holocaust”, between 1893 and 1908 the Nama in Namibia, along with the Ovaherero and others, were motivated to take up arms in self-defence against the German policy of not only expropriating land, but forcibly depopulating large areas for European settlement.
Measured in terms of the affected territory’s demographic loss, the final 1904-08 phase of Namibia’s first freedom struggle was the most horrific of Africa’s many anti-colonial uprisings. Its impact can be summarised by the fact that it
One cannot thus fully appreciate the roots of subsequent horrors committed by the forces of the Third Reich in Europe, in terms of the emergence of master race ideology as well as the practice of industrial genocide, without knowing the story of the brutal German occupation of Namibia during the Kaiser Reich, and its cross border legacy. It should be further recognised that although the genocide was instigated by agents of the German imperial state under Kaiser Wilhelm II, they were not alone in their crime.
In 2007, the Namibia Scientific Society published a booklet by a certain Gordon McGregor entitled: “German Medals, British Soldiers and the Kalahari Desert”.
The value of this relatively obscure publication, along with additional references in academic literature, lies in its exposure of an all but hidden aspect of Botswana’s shared history with Namibia: the proactive role played by British imperial forces in the near destruction of the Nama.
In 1907 and again in 1908, the Germans awarded the “South West African Commemorative Medal”, with the bars “Kalahari 1907” and “1908”, to those members of the British forces who had assisted them in their military campaigns against the Nama commandos of Jakob Morenga and Simon !Gomxab Kooper.
As the publication observes: “This was the one and only time that such an en-bloc awarding of Imperial German medals to Imperial British forces occurred and as such is unique in history.”
Morenga along with many of his followers was killed by British imperial forces in 1907 in the Northern Cape in an operation that involved both the paramilitary Cape Mounted and Bechuanaland Protectorate Police. A year later, Kooper managed to survive a joint Anglo-German military campaign, which culminated in an unsuccessful German attack on his forces at Seatsub Pan, which is located within Botswana, inside what is now the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. A leading figure in the Nama resistance, Simon Kooper was also the founder of Lokgwabe community, where he died and was buried in 1913. The location of the annual Nama Festival is thus especially appropriate. While Lokgwabe may appear unremarkable today, its founding in 1909 was the very remarkable outcome of high level negotiations between government officials in London and Berlin, as well as in the Kgalagadi District to bring a final end to the cross border Nama resistance campaign.