From 1923, Frederick Maharero (1875-1950) established himself in Mahalapye as the exiled Ovaherero paramount whose influence over the next quarter century extended into Namibia and South Africa, as well as Botswana.
During the 1880s Frederick’s father, Samuel Maharero, had cautiously accommodated the German occupation of Namibia, over the objections of some of his peers. In this context, Frederick, at the age of 22, travelled to Germany, where he was a participant in the 1896-97 Colonial Exhibition in Berlin.
There, he was joined by nine other Namibians, including two additional princes, Ferdinand Demôndja and Petrus Witbooi, along with a teacher named Josaphat Kamatoto who served as the delegation’s interpreter. During the exhibition, Namibians collectively refused to allow themselves to be displayed in what the organisers of the exhibition considered to be their traditional attire and tools.
Frederick had agreed to come to Germany in the hope of establishing contact with the new colonial masters, while voicing his people’s growing resentment of the heavy-handed exercise of German authority over his homeland.
In this respect he, along with Demondja, Witbooi and Kamatoto, were granted audiences with Kaiser Wilhelm II and his future Chancellor Bernhard von Bulow. During these engagements the princes sought, and were assured that their peoples would be able to live in peace.
But, the promises of better relations were soon broken. In January 1904 continuous encroachments by German settlers on Ovaherero lands resulted in an armed clash at Samuel Maharero’s headquarters at Okahandja sparking a full-fledged war.
The resulting fighting, which spread to neighbouring Nama and Damara communities, culminated in a German campaign of genocide that ultimately claimed the lives of not less than 70% of the Ovaherero. By the end of 1905 most of the survivors, including Samuel Maharero, had fled into Botswana.
Frederick Maharero remained with other Ovaherero diehards who joined with Nama in a continued campaign of guerrilla resistance. In this context, he was reunited and fought alongside his old comrade Petrus Jod, before finally also escaping with his followers into Botswana. Frederick was able to return to Namibia in 1915 to support the South African military campaign against the Germans. From 1920 he tried to return to his homeland permanently. After his father died in Serowe in March of 1923, Frederick arranged for his body to be repatriated for reburial at Okahandja.
The emotions unleashed by the event, alarmed the South African authorities who now governed the territory. In December 1924, Frederick was expelled, because in the eyes of Pretoria the Ovaherero adopted a “defiant attitude” under his leadership. He thereafter established himself in Mahalapye, leaving behind in Namibia a Chiefs’ Council headed by Hosea Kutako.
Continued defiance on the part of Ovaherero on both sides
By 1922 there were reports of rallies across the Kgalagadi on both sides of the Botswana-Namibia border and in the Northern Cape, in which people wore “rosettes of red, blue [black], and green”.
Amongst the survivors of the Kalahari holocaust Garvey’s message of Pan-African redemption was incorporated into calls for Otjiherero cultural unity and revival, which became associated with the launch of the Red and Green, and later White, Banner associations as para-military brotherhoods.
After World War II, Frederick Maharero, along with Hosea Kutako won the support of Batswana Dikgosi in their efforts to block South Africa’s annexation of Namibia at the United Nations (UN).
To assert their Namibian claims, in 1945 the South Africans organised a sham consultation of “native” opinion. But, the Ovaherero, along with Nama and Damara, leadership rejected the exercise. Instead, the Ovaherero Council petitioned the UN that they be placed under either British or direct UN Trusteeship. Frederick Maharero then reached out to Tshekedi Khama who saw the prospects of an independent future for Botswana and Namibia as being intertwined.
In April 1946, Dikgosi Kgari Sechele II, Bathoen II, Moremi III, Mokgosi III and Matlala Gaborone joined Tshekedi in drawing up, with the assistance of Peter Sebina and Martinus Seboni, a lengthy petition to the UN, that was subsequently published as a nine-chapter booklet entitled “The Case of Bechuanaland”.
In their publication, the Dikgosi echoed the demands of the Namibians, while further asserting their own jurisdictional standing under international law to bring concerns before the UN independently of the British.
When the colonial authorities sought to block their efforts, the Dikgosi raised money to finance a mission by Tshekedi, and his lawyer, to London and New York, where they were to be joined by Kutako. The South African and British authorities, however, denied both Kutako and Tshekedi the necessary travelling documents.
Disgusted, Tshekedi turned down his place on King George VI’s royal honours list.
He further responded by using his British and South African press contacts to publicise the Dikgosi’s stand, while also enlisting the Indian Government, through their South African mission, to place the case of the Ovaherero Council and the “Bechuanaland Chiefs and Peoples” before the U.N. General Assembly.
In the end, the joint efforts by the Ovaherero and Batswana leaders were rewarded. On December 14, 1946, with the British abstaining, the U.N. unanimously rejected South Africa’s application to absorb Namibia.