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The Old Location: Trigger for the Struggle for Independence

Avatar of inke inke - 11. décembre 2015 - Discover Namibia

Moving from the Old Location to Katutura. (Namibia National Archives)

One small spark was all that was needed to trigger the eruption. The atmosphere was thick with anger, people crowded around the buildings, hundreds of men and women. Some held stones, others carried iron rods. The police commander’s calls for a peaceful dispersal were answered by boos and whistling. Suddenly a stone banged onto the roof of a police vehicle. The spark. Shots rang out, people screamed and fled in panic, a shower of stones clattered onto the police and vehicles, one of which burst into flame.

It is probably impossible to reconstruct the exact course of events of 10 December 1959 at the Old Location on the western outskirts of Windhoek. An official report issued by a commission of inquiry chaired by a judge based on evidence given by both sides ultimately justified police action. However, various collections of statements made by witnesses who attested to police repression and intent also exist. Thirteen people died that day and at least 44 were injured. What was the cause of the bloody riot?

The onset of the incident was simple. Windhoek was growing steadily, the “white” parts of town as well as the Old Location where the “non-whites” lived. The Old Location on the western outskirts, between what today is Hochland Park and Pionierspark, had developed in 1912 and had continued to grow. People built their shacks from mud, wood and corrugated iron and in rare cases from brick or rock. Several huts shared a tap and a privy, there was a communal shower room, but no sewerage system. Food was cooked in three-legged iron pots over open fires and light was provided by paraffin or self-made lamps. Some of the plots were municipal property and some were owned by their inhabitants.

The municipality had planned to improve living conditions in the Old Location since the early 1950s. The intention was to build modest houses connected to electricity, water and a sewerage system. The houses were to have kitchens with chimneys and a shower and flush toilet in the yard. The size of the plots was about 12 x 22 m. The budget for the project amounted to 1.25 million pounds.

At the same time the South African administration was working on the implementation of its Apartheid policies. This included the physical segregation of the various population groups. Mixed neighbourhoods in towns were broken up and inhabitants resettled elsewhere. The best known example was District Six in Cape Town where forced relocation began in 1968. Generally several kilometres of no-man’s land were left between the “black” and the “white” parts of town.

The Old Location in Windhoek, on the other hand, was separated from the “white” residential area only by a dry riverbed. The authorities were annoyed that whites enjoyed going to the Old Location in the evening or during weekends to visit friends or shebeens. Furthermore the municipality saw the hilly terrain of the Old Location as an attractive area for upmarket “white” housing.

Construction work on a completely new neighbourhood therefore began in 1956, northwest of the capital, on the other side of a 5-km strip of no-man’s land. Electricity, water and a sewerage system were supposed to be the attraction to make moving more palatable to the inhabitants of the Old Location.

But the tactics did not work and the idea of moving was rejected by the Old Location community from the start. Their representatives on the Non-European Advisory Board of the city council named the suburb “Katutura”, literally translated: “The place where there is no settling down”. They criticised the authority’s patronising attitude and condemned the architecture of the Apartheid policy. Apart from a separate section for coloureds (Khomasdal) and “safe” strips of empty land, different blocks of housing had been planned for the various population groups, e.g. Ovambo, Herero, Damara and Nama. Bachelors and contract workers were no longer allowed to live within the community but were to share rooms in large apartment blocks, the so-called single quarters.

Segregated areas were accompanied by economic and legal discrimination. In the Old Location properties were often owned by those who lived there, in Katutura the municipality owned everything; here they were able to walk into town, there they had to use municipal busses; here they paid a small fee for municipal services, there they looked at high rentals and bus fees; here they had enough space for vegetable gardens and small businesses, there the ground was limited to a small strip around each house.

The people living in the old location were fully aware, according to a community spokesman, that the South African administration spoke of “black diamonds”, alluding not only to Karakul sheep but also to the African population. The high cost of living and sparse property ownership prevented social advancement, while the constraint of personal independence resulted in an increase in dependence on employers. However, outside of politics the sentiments of the local inhabitants played a decisive role in the unravelling of events. People were angry at being evicted from their much-loved home.

This anger was further fuelled by the municipality’s steps to control the sale of alcohol. Raids on “illegal” shebeens and a ban on the traditional brewing of beer were intended to establish the monopoly of municipal “beer halls”. However homebrewed beer was an important source of income for women in particular.

In September 1959 women demonstrated against increased police brutality in their actions against shebeens. At the end of October there was open confrontation in the city council when an Old Location representative categorically declared “We will not move”, to which the Mayor, Jaap Snyman, responded “If you don’t want to listen, find out the hard way”. Plainly, those who would not move voluntarily had to expect eviction and would not receive any compensation.

The inhabitants of the Old Location finally turned to the country’s highest authority and on 8 December 1959 hundreds of women marched to South West Africa House in Leutwein Street (now Robert Mugabe Avenue), the office of Administrator Daan Viljoen. Viljoen refused to face the crowd and accept a petition, as did the magistrate.

The people of the Old Location responded by organising a boycott mainly against the large beer hall. Hundreds gathered there on 10 December. When stones were thrown at several boycott breakers the police took three of the throwers into custody. Resentment increased. Around 10 p.m. white policemen arrived as reinforcements and repeatedly called on the crowd to go home. In return, community spokesmen demanded the release of those taken into custody and the withdrawal of the police. It was a charged, deadly stalemate. Around 2,000 inhabitants, some of them armed with stones or iron rods, confronted 36 policemen who had 2 sub-machine guns, 2 rifles and 17 revolvers. 

In hindsight it was impossible to clarify whether stones flew first, as the police claimed, or shots rang out, as witnesses from among the inhabitants testified. It is anyway of little import, considering the conflict that had been building up between the African population and the rulers of European descent for decades. That evening the shooting and stone-throwing continued for about two hours, with vehicles and buildings in flames, until shortly after midnight when an armoured army vehicle arrived on the scene. Thirteen civilians were killed, including a woman (Anna Mungunda) who apparently had set the mayor’s car alight, and 44 were injured. Nine policemen were injured. 

The authorities now forced the inhabitants of the Old Location to move. Dwellings were evacuated and flattened one after another by bulldozers. The last inhabitants of the Old Location moved to Katutura in 1964.

The massacre signalled that the Apartheid government would not tolerate resistance and was prepared to use force, if deemed necessary. Three months later 69 protestors, including women and children, were shot dead in Sharpeville in South Africa. 

In Namibia 10 December 1959 signifies the start of the struggle for independence. Sam Nujoma, co-founder and leader of the resistance movement was standing on the veranda of the clinic when the first shots rang out. In April 1960 he went into exile and organised the liberation struggle from outside the country. Thirty years later, in Namibia’s first year of independence, he said at the commemoration of 10 December 1959: “When I saw the body of Mrs Mungunda, she looked beautiful in death. It motivated me to go forward in the liberation struggle.”

Since 1990, 10 December has been observed as International Human Rights Day as well as Women’s Day and the victims of the massacre are commemorated at the cemetery of the Old Location.

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