Africa > Southern Africa > Namibia > Namibia People Profile

Namibia: Namibia People Profile



With large expanses of arid and semi-arid land, Namibia has a small people— about 1.7 million—for its size. The people is youthful, with 44 % aged fourteen and under and only 4 % older than 65. About 60 % live in the far north, where rainfall is sufficient for grain farming. In 1996 Namibia's capital city, Windhoek, had a people of 183,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Despite the small people, there is great linguistic variety. Most Namibians speak Bantu languages like Oshiwambo and Otjiherero as their initial language. Others speak Khoisan languages (Nama/Damara and various Bushman languages), while a smaller % are native speakers of Indo-European languages like Afrikaans and English. Afrikaans was promoted as a language of wider communication before independence and is still widely spoken in southern and central Namibia. At independence, English was chosen as the primary language for government and education because it was not associated with any particular ethnicity and could facilitate interaction with the outside world. Urban dwellers, young people, and northerners are additional likely to have learned it.

Symbolism. The colors on the national flag symbolize significant natural and human characteristics of Namibia: sunlight and the desert (yellow), rain and the ocean (blue), crops and vegetation (green), the blood shed in war (red), and peace and reconciliation (white). Schoolchildren sing the national anthem daily; it is as well heard on the radio and at national celebrations.

History and Ethnic Relations

Namibia was originally inhabited by nomadic hunters, gatherers, and pastoralists (livestock herders), the ancestors of today's Bushman and Khoispeaking people. Agriculturalists and pastoralists speaking Bantu languages, such as the Owambo and Herero, arrived in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries and settled throughout northern and central Namibia. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Nama- and Afrikaans-speaking pastoralists, under pressure from white settlers in South Africa, moved into southern and central Namibia
Namibia. The different groups came into conflict over access to land and other resources, but they were linked by trade relationships.

European traders, missionaries, and settlers began arriving in significant numbers in the mid-1800s. Increasing expropriations of land and cattle by German settlers led Herero and Nama communities to rebel. In a series of genocidal wars from 1904 to 1907, the German military killed three-quarters of the Herero people and nearly one-half the Namas. The survivors were settled on barren reserves and forced to work in mines and on commercial farms. Since labor was short, large numbers of men from the far north, a densely-populated area not subject to white settlement, were brought south as arrangement laborers. This pattern of eviction from the land and migrant labor continued at the same time as South Africa assumed control next World War I. In the 1960s and 1970s, South Africa formally extended its apartheid system to Namibia, creating ethnic homelands with their own administrations for each ethnic group. Movement outside one's own homeland was strictly controlled.

Emergence of the Country. The boundaries defining present-day Namibia were European creations, and there was no prior sense of common identity part the a lot of different groups inhabiting the area. Their common experience of oppression under colonialism, however, led to shared nationalist sentiment, initial expressed in the 1940s during a letter-writing campaign by traditional leaders to the United Nations protesting South African policy. Initiated by the Herero Chiefs Council, the campaign grew throughout the 1950s to include leaders from other ethnic groups. In 1959, thirteen protestors were killed in Windhoek by South African forces as they demonstrated against the planned relocation of their community. The Windhoek Massacre and ensuing government repression stimulated the rise of new nationalist organizations. The majority successful of these, the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), was initially based part Owambo arrangement workers, but any minute at this time attracted broader support, took up armed struggle, and gained UN recognition as the "sole and authentic" representative of the Namibian people. The strongest and most enduring element of SWAPO ideology has been nationalism, seen as a necessary counter to the ethnic divisions perpetuated by apartheid. At independence on 21 March 1990, SWAPO became the initial democratically elected ruling party of the new country, a position it has held through two subsequent elections. The country was divided into thirteen new administrative regions, cross-cutting the boundaries of the former ethnic homelands.

National Identity. Despite significant cultural differences and considerable ethnic stereotyping, there is a widely shared orientation to the country, particularly part young people, who are additional likely to travel through the country for economic and educational reasons. Urban areas, large workplaces such as mines and fisheries, and secondary and tertiary schools are multi-ethnic sites where people are creating new ways of interacting across ethnic boundaries. Soccer is extremely popular part men of all ethnicities, and the national team is followed closely and is widely discussed.

Ethnic Relations. Despite the emphasis on nationalism, ethnicity is still a force in Namibian society. Some groups have restored kings to power and made land claims since independence, and the official opposition party, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), is an alliance of ethnically-based organizations. Some members of smaller groups fear domination by the Owambos, who comprise about half the people of the country and provide most of SWAPO's electoral support.
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Most of central and southern Namibia, an area formerly known as the Police Zone, was appropriated for white settlement. Today it consists of large commercial farms and widely scattered towns with Western-style buildings, some distinctly German. In the rural communal areas (former ethnic homelands), there are a variety of architectural styles in addition to Western buildings. Construction materials include sticks and logs, earth, and thatch. Houses may be round, square, or beehive-shaped; in some areas, clusters of huts are enclosed in wooden palisades. Some dwellings and shops are as well made of metal sheets or concrete blocks with metal roofs, a style as well seen in some urban neighborhoods.

In urban areas under apartheid, whites lived in the town centers, while blacks and mixed-race people were clustered in outlying "locations," sometimes divided into sections by ethnicity. Although legislation enforcing this racial segregation was abolished in the late 1970s and 1980s, attitudes and economic barriers have changed additional slowly and this pattern has persisted. Urbanization increased greatly next independence, particularly in Windhoek, as the last restrictions on people movement were removed and exiles returned from abroad. The rapidity of urban increase has led to problems in the provision of basic services inclunding higher unemployment and increased crime.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. For agriculturalists, the staple foods are millet and sorghum; for pastoralists, dairy products. Beans and greens are eaten with millet in the north, but otherwise few vegetables are grown or consumed. Hunting and gathering, additional significant in the completed, still provides a dietary supplement for some. Meat is highly desired and eaten as often as it is feasible—daily for some, on appropriate occasions for others. Fish consumption is slowly increasing with government promotion of Namibian fish products.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Significant occasions are marked by the slaughter of cattle or goats, and the consumption of meat, home-brewed beer, purchased beverages, and other foods. In some cultures, leftover meat is sent home with the guests.

Basic Economy. The Namibian economy is divided between capital-intensive industry, which accounts for most of the gross domestic product, and labor-intensive subsistence agriculture, which employs over half of the people. With little access to financial or technical assistance, most subsistence farmers rely on small-scale commercial activity and/or family members who earn wages or pensions to make ends meet.

Land Tenure and Property. Land tenure in central and southern Namibia is based on private property. In the rural communal areas, land is not bought or sold; families have heritable rights to use specific plots or pay fees to traditional leaders for use rights. In pastoral communities, all members generally have access to grazing and water in the community's area. Recent sources of controversy include the illegal fencing of communal land for private use by the wealthy and the extensive ownership of land by whites.

Commercial Activities. Alongside Namibian retail stores and South African chains, informal, small-scale commercial activity is widespread. Home-brewed alcohol, freshly butchered meat, prepared foods, and crafts are the major products sold. Others buy small quantities of soap, fruit, watches, and other goods to resell along the roadside or in small shops.

Major Industries. Mining (diamonds and other gemstones, uranium), fishing and fish processing, and commercial agriculture (cattle and sheep) have long been the economic mainstays in terms of price produced. Earnings fluctuate greatly depending on world market prices and weather conditions. The manufacturing sector is growing with government promotion and incentives, although the small size of the skilled labor force and domestic market are limiting factors. Tourism has grown substantially since independence.

Trade. Diamonds and other minerals are the majority significant exports, followed by processed and unprocessed fish, other food products, and live animals. The major export destinations include the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Spain. Most imports are purchased from South Africa, and include food and beverages inclunding a wide variety of manufactured goods. Imports slightly exceed exports.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. Namibia is characterized by great economic inequality; the wealthiest 1 % consume additional than the poorest half of the people combined. Segregation has continued since the end of apartheid, although additional non-whites have joined the upper classes. Whites, only 7 % of the people, own and manage most large businesses and commercial farms; in the civil service, the races are on additional equal terms. In the rural communal areas, teachers, health care workers, government employees, and successful business people form a local elite, though they are still closely integrated into their communities through kinship ties and obligations.

Symbols of Social Stratification. The wealthier classes of all races are distinguished by expensive cars, large homes in exclusive neighborhoods, a command of English, attendance at private schools, and extensive travel.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. In the rural communal areas, men and boys generally care for livestock, build and maintain homesteads, plow fields, and contribute some agricultural labor, while women and girls do most of the agricultural labor, food preparation, childcare, and household work.

The Relative Status of Women and Men. Women married to migrant laborers have taken on some traditionally male responsibilities, and women who fled the country to participate in the liberation struggle took on new roles as combatants, students, and refugee camp workers. They pushed SWAPO to support gender equality and helped ensure that the Constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women, however the process of changing discriminatory legislation is slow and ongoing. Women still have fewer economic opportunities than men, and the incidence of rape and domestic violence is extremely high.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Weddings are extremely significant social events in Namibia, bringing family and friends together to sing, dance, and feast. Most weddings combine old and new elements. A lot of Owambo couples, for example, say their vows in a church ceremony accompanied by identically-dressed bridesmaids and groomsmen, again exit to a crowd of guests shouting praises, dancing, and waving horsetail whisks.

Domestic Unit. Most households are not nuclear families, but contain other kin as well. The chief of the household manages domestic finances, makes significant decisions, and organizes productive activities.

Kin Groups. Corporate kin groups are formed by ties traced through women (matrilineal), men (patrilineal), or both (bilateral), depending on ethnicity. These kin groups provide a support network for their members and control joint property, particularly livestock; in the completed, they as well played significant roles in political and religious affairs. There has been a general shift from matrilinealism to patrilinealism. For example, wives and children in matrilineal communities can presently assert rights to the property of deceased husbands and fathers, which has been traditionally inherited by the man's matrilineal relatives (his siblings and sisters' children).


Infant Care. Babies are breast-fed and carried on the mother's back until about the age of two. Most sleep with their mothers, and children usually share a bed or room with siblings.

Child Rearing and Education. Parents receive substantial help with child rearing from other family members. It is not unusual for children to live with other relatives if the parents have work obligations, the child needs to be closer to school, or a relative needs a child's help. Most boys and girls attend primary school, although sometimes they remain at home to help with the livestock or crops.

Higher Education. Education is highly valued, but the limited availability of places in secondary and tertiary schools, inclunding the expense involved, hinders a lot of students from continuing beyond primary school.


Extended greetings and handshakes are very significant in most Namibian cultures. At the same time as food and drink is offered, it is polite to accept. There is a general emphasis on emotional restraint in public, and public displays of affection between spouses or lovers are frowned upon, particularly in rural areas.


Although a small % of the people practices traditional religions, the vast majority are Christian. The Lutheran Church is the major; other major denominations include the Catholic, Dutch Reformed, and Anglican churches. Easter and Christmas are public holidays and particularly popular times for travel so families can gather together.