A bulldozer razes one of the last shacks of Windhoek’s Old Location. Probably taken in the mid-1960s (Courtesy of the Namibia National Archives).

Tracing the blank spots in Namibia’s official history

No grand monuments. No glossy tourist brochures. Just an old iron bridge, a few neglected graves and a tiny memorial in a remote place. That is all that’s left of Old Location, a former black township in Namibia’s capital Windhoek. Half a century after the last shacks were razed by bulldozers, researcher Henning Melber digs in the archives to bring back to life this neglected historical chapter.

“Most Namibians today know of the Old Location uprising in 1959. It was a turning point in the liberation struggle and the anniversary of the massacre, 10 December, is a public holiday. Yet little is known of what daily life was like in these neighbourhoods back in the 1950s, when almost half the capital’s population lived there”, says Melber, senior research associate at the Nordic Africa Institute.

Forced to move
Melber arrived in Windhoek in 1967 as a 17 year-old along with his German emigrant parents. He remembers seeing the bulldozers tearing down the last remaining shacks among the ruins of the township, once known as Main Location but passed on to posterity as Old Location. By that time all of the inhabitants had been forcibly removed. The evictions took place over several years and provoked considerable protests. These culminated in the 1959 massacre, when police opened fire on demonstrators, killing 11 and wounding 44 others. Residents were forced to move to the newly constructed township of Katutura, where the houses had electricity and running water.

“The housing standard was better, but rents were higher, so most people refused to move. In the Herero language, the name Katutura literary means ‘the place where people do not want to live’,” says Melber, who notes that there were also other reasons why they did not want to move. 

“Old Location was within walking distance of the city centre, whereas Katutura was separated from the city by kilometres of badlands. Apartheid laws were stricter in Katutura: signs on the houses indicated which ethnic group was allowed to live there – D for Damara, H for Herero, N for Nama, and so on. On top of that, all land in Katutura belonged to the municipality, so you could only rent, whereas in Old Location you could own property,” Melber explains.

Neglected history
A couple of decades later a new suburb, Hochland Park, was built on the site of the eradicated Old Location. Few of those who live there today know that the place is historic.

“The old iron bridge that leads downtown is all that remains of Old Location, apart from some gravestones. The historical and cultural value of this place is not promoted in the guidebooks and brochures of the Namibia Tourism Board,” says Melber.

The South West Africa People's Organisation (Swapo) has been the dominant political party since independence in 1990 and has its historical support base mainly among the Ovambo, Namibia’s largest ethnic group. During the apartheid era, Ovambo men were mainly employed as temporary contract workers and could not bring their families to Windhoek. They were accommodated in a separate compound, and were only exceptionally allowed to settle in the city. Old Location was home to other groups, such as the Herero, Nama, Damara and those who in apartheid parlance were known as kleurlinge (“Coloureds”).

“In the official history of Namibia, Swapo has become synonymous with the liberation struggle. It doesn’t fit their heroic narrative to give recognition to other independence movements, like the Herero-dominated South West African National Union (Swanu). Since only a few Swapo activists lived in Old Location, there has been little interest by the state in writing its history,” says Melber.

To be continued    
After extensive research in the National Archives in Windhoek and the Basler Afrika Bibliographien (BAB) in Switzerland, Melber has written a working paper that sheds a little light on the hitherto unchronicled social history of Old Location. Working with the Namibia Scientific Society, he plans to continue his studies and eventually publish a more comprehensive account.

“This is just a first step. I hope to complete my work later by including the personal reminiscences of the people who once lived there,” he says.

More on this subject

Old Location, May 1961. Courtesy of National Archives of Namibia.

The NAI library has compiled a web dossier of selected texts and archive resources on Windhoek Old Location and forced migration in Namibia:

More to be found in the complete web dossier.

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