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Walvis Bay: biography of a place – Part 2

Avatar of inke inke - 07. August 2018 - Discover Namibia

Walvis Bay is one of the most important fishing harbours in southern Africa. (Source: Namibia Scientific Society)

Brigitte Weidlich

Namibia’s harbour town Walvis Bay has a multi-facetted history, involving several world powers, as described in Part 1 in Gondwana’s story ‘Walvis Bay – biography of a place’. In Part 2 we look at the developments of the town since 1922. Today the town has 120,000 inhabitants and is the coastal economic hub.

The British-South African journalist William McDonald had visited, then South West Africa and Walvis Bay in 1914, just before the start of World War I. He described the town in his travel book The Destiny of Walvis Bay in 1915 as the “Cinderella of the British Empire - despised by all our politicians, nor one of whom has visited this part of the Union!”

McDonald noted that in 1914, the total population of the town was 736 persons, 71 were Europeans and 635 ‘Coloured’. Ten of the Europeans were government officials, among them a magistrate. Water had to be desalted in a condenser, despite water in the Kuiseb River and at a brackish water spring nearby at Sandfontein. More fresh water came weekly in barrels by ship from Cape Town. The then small harbour with one wooden jetty – constructed in 1898 - was rather busy and there was a missionary school and a church (built 1879). Whaling was a thriving business. 

McDonald, however, lamented that “nobody can buy or sell land” and the overall neglect: “Everything is old, poor, dilapidated and falling to pieces.” 

He ignored that by 1880 already a basic grid street pattern had been designed and the first five parcels of land were sold, one of them to the Rhenish Mission Society. It acquired the land on which the prefabricated wooden church from Hamburg was erected in 1879.

The Rhenish Mission Church in Walvis Bay was erected in 1880. It was proclaimed a national monument in 1972. (Photo: Brigitte Weidlich)

After World War I

The area which became Walvis Bay is located at sea level and partially below sea level. Although it receives very low rainfall of below 30 mm annually, rains in the hinterland occasionally cause the Kuiseb River to flood. This occurred in 1917, but luckily the few (wooden) houses were constructed on stilts. Another historic flood occurred 17 years later in 1934 and lasted from January to May. “Each house had its canoe or raft moored at the front door” writes Jan Wilcken in the book The History of the Port and Settlement of Walvis Bay, published in 1978.

In 1922, the South African government passed a law, stipulating "that the port and settlement of Walvis Bay would be administered as if it were part of the mandated territory of South West Africa and as if its inhabitants were inhabitants of the mandated territory".

The same year, a health committee was established in the settlement. It took charge of water supply, local business licenses, hygiene issues and the control of "native locations". The new law also brought South Africa’s segregation policies between the black and white populations. Also, in 1922 a railway link was constructed along the sea to Swakopmund, connecting Walvis Bay to the rest of the country.

Walvis Bay in 1918. (Source: Swakpmund Scientific Society)

Rapid developments

The Railway and Harbour Administration took over the land from the current harbour zone up to approximately the current central business district. The R&H administration constructed a water extraction plant near Rooibank in 1923. The residential plots close to the lagoon and the harbour area were registered in the official general plan of 1924 and were gradually bought up. 

Between 1924 and 1926 the port facilities were extended, and the harbour basin was dredged to accommodate larger ships. In 1925, a village management board was set up. Three years later, the Cottage Hospital, Walvis Bay's first medical centre, the first municipal offices and the police station were constructed, according to geographers Hungiree Wilson Billawer and Muriel Same Ekobo. They published a Human Geography Atlas of Walvis Bay in 2002. 

In 1932, electricity, which was only supplied to the harbour and hospital by a local cold storage company, was extended to the main town with the installation of two new generators. Some 25 years later a bigger power station was built. Sewerage was discharged into the Atlantic Ocean, according to Billawer and Ekobo. That was changed a few decades later with a proper sewerage system.

Municipal status in 1931

On 16 March 1931, the town acquired municipal status and the first town council with six members was established, a mayor, Mr Blyth was elected. A town clerk was appointed. The name Walvis Bay, which means Whale Bay, was gazetted in South Africa's two official languages, English and Afrikaans: Walvis Bay and Walvisbaai respectively.

Interestingly, during World War II the town lost its municipal status from 12 December 1940 until 15 April 1948 and was run by the town clerk under the supervision of the Swakopmund magistrate, according to Jan Wilcken’s book.

Walvis Bay harbour in 1968 seen from the north. (Source: Namibia Scientific Society)

Economic development

The railway line opened avenues for exports via the port of Walvis Bay like minerals, karakul pelts and live cattle. More imported goods were recorded. 

Whaling was on the decline in the late forties with few whales caught and the appearance of factory ships processing caught whales on board. Namibia’s first President, Sam Nujoma, landed his first job as a young man in Walvis Bay at a Norwegian whaling station. Soon afterwards whaling operations were transferred to Cape Town. This spelt the end of nearly 170 years of whaling.

By around 1900, local fisherman caught snoek that was salted, dried and sold. As this small industry grew, dried snoek was exported to Cape Town and Mauritius. The cold, nutrient rich Benguela current along the Namibian coast attracts a lot of fish species. Yet, only snoek, seal clubbing and crayfish catches were recorded by 1925. 

By 1932 a Swakopmund resident, Adolf Winter constructed an artificial platform in the ocean close to the beach just north of Walvis Bay, the ‘guano island’. He hoped the platform would attract sea birds, mainly cormorants which would breed there and leave their excretions – guano – behind. Guano, also called ‘white gold’ is rich in phosphate and even today is high in demand as fertiliser. Winter’s plan worked, and his descendants still reap guano from that platform this very day.

Fishing industry develops 

"In the late 1940s the harbour was equipped to handle only a small-general trade. Its facilities were limited to three berths along a wharf, six cranes, a couple of oil tanks, a cargo shed, a cold store and oil platforms," wrote Richard Moorsom in 1984 in his book Walvis Bay: Namibia’s Port.

A small canning factory was set up in 1943 and four years later the Ovenstone Group established the Walvis Bay Canning Company and started canning pilchards, which had been caught in smaller numbers. This would soon change. During the fifties some eight new fish factories sprung up and operated on the ports’ premises. By 1953, fishing quotas were allocated to each company. Interestingly, the fishing premises of the ports are until today privately owned by individual fishing companies, which have their own jetties each. 

In 1953, some 289,000 tonnes of pilchards were caught. In 2017; the Namibian government imposed a three-year moratorium on pilchard catches until 2020 as stocks are depleted.

In the 1950s, the port received a storage shed and conveyor belt for copper ore from Tsumeb and fish-oil tanks to service the growing fishing industry. Fish meal factories were set up and visitors to the town could not help but notice the distinct smell emanating from them. Other species like white fish were caught.

In 1967, the fishing boom was still going. More seasonal workers were needed for fish factories. Contract labour increased, male workers mainly from north-central Namibia were recruited during the annual fishing season to work in the factories and on boats. So-called compounds, being hostels were erected as accommodation for them. The influx of thousands of seasonal workers coincided with increased political activities and the founding of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) on 19 April 1960 in Windhoek. The political awakening among black Namibians with the ultimate goal of independence played a major role in Walvis Bay over the next three decades.

New suburbs and military

The municipality started the development of Kuisebmond in 1959 and Narraville in 1962 for black and coloured inhabitants. Many of them previously lived at the Cape Stands and were forced to move. 

From 1962, the South African government stationed military personnel at Walvis Bay and the small aerodrome at Rooikop was changed into a military airport. More soldiers were stationed there over the next twenty years.

The salt works south of Walvis Bay. (Photo: Senta Frank)

White mountains of salt

In the early sixties, evaporation ponds for sea water were constructed along the Walvis Bay lagoon. Since then the company Walvis Bay Salt Refiners has expanded tremendously covering some 5,000 hectares to date. The majority of the annual production of 900,000 tonnes is exported to West African countries. In January 2018, the first 50,000 t of salt were shipped to the US.

In the meantime, the port was steadily expanded by the South African authorities.


Around 1978 fewer fish were caught, particularly pilchards. Another factor, South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia and Walvis Bay resulted in international fleets arriving around that time and added to the overfishing along the coast. In the eighties, far fewer factories operated and fewer seasonal labourers worked in the fishing industry. Political developments accelerated by then, but lack of sovereignty to protect the fish resources led to further depletion.

Meanwhile the South African government had publicly announced in 1978 that it acknowledged Namibia would become independent in due course. The United Nations had adopted Resolution 435 the same year, which mapped the way forward for independence. 

Only on 22 December 1988 however, the UN finally announced the countdown to self-rule with a transitional year starting on 1 April 1989 and independence set for 21 March 1990. Four more years of uncertainty for Walvis Bay continued until 1994, but that is another story. Read about this in the Gondwana story on the town’s reintegration. 

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