The Kgalagadi desert (aka the Kalahari) was a site of struggle of the indigenous people against the genocidal German colonial occupation and the South African apartheid administration of South West Africa. In this text, Asher Gamedze writes about some autonomous community projects associated with the Namibian Nationhood Project Coordinating Committee in the context of the intensifying liberation struggle in Namibia in the 1980s.
Although individually authored, this piece is part of collective research and writing work done by Asher Gamedze, Nashilongweshipwe Mushaandja and Koni Benson, the latter two who made useful contributions to thinking through this piece. Asher and The Funambulist also thank Ayesha Rajah, who kindly provided the images and stories from her personal collection and recollections.
The majority of land within Namibia’s contemporary borders falls into the semi-arid Kalahari Basin, a great deal of which is the arid Kalahari Desert. The indigenous Tswana name for the desert, which cuts across present day Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia, is Kgalagadi (“the waterless place”) taken from the root kgala, “the great thirst.” It is one of the longest human-inhabited regions in the world with records of artistic activity dating back more than 20,000 years, and strategies developed for surviving in arid conditions adapted over that time and longer by the Indigenous people. The German colonizers, under military leader Lothar van Trotha, exploited the conditions of the desert in the genocide against Nama and Herero people, driving whole communities into it to die either by their guns or out of thirst. This was part of the process of dispossession, alienating Indigenous people and knowledge from the desert to make way for white commercial exploits.
In the 1970-80s, much of the Sahel experienced a prolonged drought. Further South, in Namibia, and particularly in the South of the country, already semi-arid to arid, the great thirst was severe. Drought-relief, which was absolutely essential to the survival of life (human, plant, and animal), was brought in by international organizations such as the International Red Cross and many foreign governments. Within that moment too, politically, South West Africa was in the throes of becoming Namibia. The independence process and the national liberation struggle were advancing along many different lines and in a multitude of directions. One of the directions was centered around the political processes and negotiations that would lead to “independence.” The UN was a key player in that. There was another direction, largely centered around an exile-led South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), which persisted with the policy of armed struggle, mostly in the North of the country. At the same time, NGOs were proliferating in the country and community development was becoming an important sphere of activity.