NAMIBIA UNDER SOUTH AFRICAN RULE: MOBILITY AND CONTAINMENT 1915-1946. Patricia Hayes, Jeremy Sylvester, Marion Wallace, and Wolfram Hartmann, with Ben Fuller, eds. Oxford: James Currey, Windhoek: Out of Africa, and Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998. Pp. 330. $ 22.95 paper, $ 44.95 cloth.©
"The trees never meet (but people do)" is a popular Namibian proverb used by a group of historians as an appropriate metaphor for the first three decades of South African colonial rule in Namibia. The "Trees Never Meet Project" launched in the early 1990s, attempted a collaborative examination of this previously neglected period in Namibian history. The need to develop new paradigms for understanding the first 30 years of South African colonial rule produced a major conference in Windhoek in August 1994. Papers first presented at that conference have now been brought together and published in this very significant volume: Namibia Under South African Rule: Mobility and Containment 1915-1946.
Many of the contributors deal directly with the mobility of indigenous polities or communities during 1915 to 1946 and simultaneous colonial efforts at containment. As the introductory chapter notes: "At the beginning of the period covered by this book (1915-1946) the colonial state was ill-formed and weak; by the end of it, the state had consolidated itself to a considerable degree. The papers published here suggest that, in this transition from colonial weakness to consolidation, the geographic space of the country was demarcated, dominated and defined, and the contract labour system which linked north and south had begun to entrench itself." (p. 4) This process was paralleled, the editors continue, "by an increasing tendency on the part of the state to intervene in social and cultural matters" with the end result that "social and cultural spaces became the site of intensifying struggles ."
The book is divided into an introduction and three sections. Chapters in the first section, "Construction of People/Construction of the State", treat a variety of issues: how laws like the Vagrancy Proclamation played a major role in instilling the requisite attitude in the white population to facilitate long-term colonial success; the attempted use of medical examinations to control the movement and labor of African women and their rejection of those exams; the challenge to the colonial state provided by both black and white mobility in southern Namibia in the first two decades of colonial rule; and how women of eastern Ovamboland briefly entered the public space during the "famine of the dams" (1929-30), and then continued that outward movement in the decade to follow. The next section, "Reserves/Contesting Containment", contains chapters on the process of economic, political and social reconstruction among the Herero in the interwar period and the role of the otjiserandu in providing autonomy vis-à-vis the colonial state; attempts by Africans in the Native Reserve at Otjimbingwe during this period to improve a rapidly deteriorating situation, only to see their circumstances worsen markedly in the long run; and the way in which external forces acted to "keep traditional" the Himba and Herero peoples of Kaokoland. The last section "Beyond the Police Zone/Ovamboland", treats the alternative social mobility offered to young Ovambo men by the opening up of "new spaces on the ideological landscape" provided by Christianity and skills such as literacy; the generational conflict that ensued as more and more young people embraced Christianity and labor migrancy in order to enjoy the social mobility that the resulting goods and ideas made possible; the ambiguities of Lipumbu's resistance to the imposition of indirect rule in Ovamboland; and the ultimate determination of Namibia's northern border during this time.
Namibia Under South African Rule represents a substantial contribution to Namibian historiography. The authors have aimed at, and succeeded in, challenging older (tired!) historical approaches, such as the nationalist paradigm which unproblematically finds the "roots and manifestations" of history "in the logic of colonialism and capitalism and in the experience of oppression and resistance" (p. 15). As a welcome relief, the editors have " been critical of crude dichotomies between resistance and collaboration and preferred to frame incidents of overt resistance into more complex paradigms, rather than a series of set pieces in a staged historical battle between the forces of colonialism and proto-nationalism" (p. 16). In so doing, the book also avoids viewing the South African colonial state as "coherent, unified and homogeneous" (p. 15). Equally important for the Namibian case, the editors caution against the dangers of transplanting any "South African grand narratives" (eg. land dispossession) to Namibian soil (p. 18). The book also seeks to theorize the reasons for "empirical gaps" in Namibian history, for example, the noticeable absence of women in the legal definition of native (and in legislation in general) in colonial Namibia (p. 14).
The "Trees Never Meet Project" has spawned numerous other projects including a photographic exhibition (and now book) called The Colonizing Camera and the establishment of the Namibian History Trust. Clearly, the project has promoted an ongoing dialogue between scholars and those outside the academy. In my view, this points to perhaps the most significant gap in this book, that somehow the editors were not able to share those insights from non-academic participants. But in every other way, the project and resultant book should be applauded. Namibia Under South African Rule actually embodies its own metaphor of mobility and containment: this book contributes greatly to moving forward Namibian historiography which had remained rigid and stagnant for far too long.