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Windhoek: biography of a place

Avatar of inke inke - 09. November 2018 - Discover Namibia

Aerial view of Windhoek 2016 with the Auas Mountains in the background. (Photo: Hp.Baumeler)

Brigitte Weidlich

At an altitude of nearly 1700 metres where high-rise buildings shape the skyline, the Namibian capital Windhoek with nearly 500 000 inhabitants is a modern and busy city. One can hardly believe that in 1890, just 127 years ago, there was only the African bush and a derelict ruin of an abandoned mission station in what is today’s Klein Windhoek.  

Foundations laid

On 18 October 1890, the German imperial military officer, Hauptmann (Captain) Curt von Francois laid the foundation for the first clay brick building, the Alte Feste (Old Fortress). That date is regarded as the founding of Windhoek. The fortress still exists today as a museum. Von Francois had drawn up the plan for the fortress himself. Down the hill, where the Goethe Institute is situated in the former Estorff House and a few metres to the right of the fortress, where the Lutheran church (Christuskirche) is, were hot springs. Most springs were sealed a few years ago. Further east, in today’s Klein Windhoek, hot springs were at the Wasserberg (water mountain). These springs gave off steam. 

Jonker Afrikaner arrived first

The Herero people who had settled in today’s north-western Namibia in the 1700s and the Orlam and Nama-clans, who had immigrated from South Africa in the early 1800s, knew about these hot springs. The Nama-leader Jonker Afrikaner is said to have settled with his people at the Wasserberg springs in 1840. He called them “Ai-Gams”, meaning “fire water”. The Herero people named them “Otjomuise” (place of steam). Afrikaner and his men had been engaging in several tough battles with the Herero in 1835 and took their cattle. “The devastating drought of 1829-30 had driven the nomadic Herero far south even to the Fish River,” wrote Nicolai Mossolow in his book This was old Windhoek. The various Nama and Orlam clans feared for their grazing grounds.

Renaming to Windhoek

According to Mossolow, Jonker Afrikaner changed the name Ai-Gams to Windhoek (windy corner) around 1860. Apparently this was due to prevailing winds many days of the year. Another theory is that Jonker, who was said to have been born at Winterhoek (winter corner) in South Africa’s Cape Province, renamed it Winterhoek (‘hoek’ = Dutch word for corner). Jonker built a house at the place where the South African embassy is situated today, the former Berg Hotel. He also had a church built, which could seat 500 people.

Despite several peace treaties between the Nama and Herero in 1842 and 1870, they still clashed and raided each other’s cattle. On 20 August 1880 at Gurumanas, just west of Windhoek, there was another bloody clash between the old foes. Chief Maharero in retaliation had all Namas killed at Okahandja three days later. Jan Jonker Afrikaner, who had succeeded his father, fled Windhoek with his people, warning his missionary, J.G. Schröder to do the same. On 26 August 1880 Schröder hastily left for Rehoboth. At noon the Hereros moved in, pillaged the Nama huts, looted the mission house and partly destroyed it. The beautiful orchards with 200 citrus trees and nearly 2000 grape vines were abandoned and perished. Hardly anybody settled in Windhoek for the next ten years.

Windhoek (around 1908) seen from the south. (Private Collection Walter Rusch)

German colonial days

On 7 October 1884, Imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck declared the colony of German South West Africa. Curt von Francois arrived in Windhoek on 17 October 1890 with 32 soldiers of the protection force (Schutztruppe), having landed at Walvis Bay earlier. He and his brother, Hugo von Francois, also an officer, moved into the only brick house (or what was left of it) in the area, being missionary Schröder’s house in Klein Windhoek. Von Francois had the house provisionally repaired and ordered his officers to revive the gardens.

Von Francois had several erven (plots) measured out down the hill from the fortress, in what became Kaiserstrasse (Independence Avenue since 1990). They were offered for sale in January 1893. The trader, August Schmerenbeck, bought the first one. The company Mertens & Sichel bought the second erf and Wecke & Voigts the third one. All three companies set up shops.

Fast development

Windhoek grew fast, with more traders and their families settling in the town and also in Klein Windhoek, among them John Ludwig. By 1893 about 55 whites lived in Windhoek, including Klein Windhoek and Avis and approximately 400 blacks, mostly Damaras, according to Mossolow. 

The German colonial era ended during World War I when South African troops occupied Windhoek in May 1915 on behalf of the British Empire. A South African military government administered the country for five years. In 1919, South West Africa was assigned to the United Kingdom as a mandate by the newly formed League of Nations, and South Africa administered it. In 1920, the two separate town councils of Windhoek and Klein Windhoek were merged and rates and taxes were introduced. Little development took place in Windhoek and the country, partly because of the economic recession (1920-1924) and the great depression (1929-1933) followed by World War II. 

Windhoek (around 1908) seen from the north. (Private Collection Walter Rusch)

After World War II, Windhoek’s development gradually gained momentum, as more capital became available to improve its economy. After 1955, large public projects were undertaken, such as the building of new schools and hospitals, tarring of the capital’s roads (a project begun in 1928 with Kaiser Street), and the building of dams and pipelines to stabilise the water supply. Windhoek introduced the world's first potable water recycling plant in 1958, treating recycled sewage and feeding it directly into the town’s water supply. Around 1960, Katutura, a new township for blacks was constructed. Many people resisted the move from the “Old Location” to there, but were moved by force. 

In 1964 a new municipal building was inaugurated. Another wing was added 52 years later, in 2016. 

Windhoek received its town privileges on 18 October 1965 at the 75th anniversary of its second foundation by Von François. Some 45 000 people lived in Windhoek then, according to Brenda Bravenboer’s book Windhoek – Capital of Namibia. Just 25 years later at independence in 1990, Windhoek had 233 500 inhabitants. The fact that Windhoek was 100 years old in October 1990 was hardly noticed. Namibia had just gained its independence six months earlier.

The Curt von François memorial was inaugurated in Windhoek on 13 October 1965. (Photo: Wiebke Schmidt)

After independence

In 1992, the first post-independence town council elections took place across all towns, including Windhoek. A new law for local authorities kicked in, making municipalities the third arm of government (after the central and the regional government). The same year, Mathew Shikongo became the first black mayor of Windhoek. 

As in other parts of the world, Windhoek has had to cope with informal settlements especially after 1990. About 600 new arrivals flock to Windhoek every month and erect tin shacks in the north-western outskirts, increasing the demand for potable water and electricity connection. To date the total population in Windhoek stands at around 450 000. Windhoek also has had its own city police force since 2004. 

Driving from the quiet affluent eastern suburbs and the bustling central business district (CBD) to Katutura or Wanaheda is like entering a different reality: the sidewalks there are occupied by informal traders like hairdressers, car washers, fruit vendors and small bars, also called shebeens. The most famous (or infamous) area is Eveline Street, which has become a tourist attraction for guided tours through Katutura. This area is brimming with life until late at night.  

Future plans

The chief executive officer of Windhoek, Robert Kahimise unveiled a five-year master plan taking the city to 2022. Land servicing and housing for low-income groups top the agenda, as well as securing the capital’s water supply after the severe drought. Improved transport and traffic flow in the city is also part of the master plan. A dual carriageway from Windhoek to Okahandja is under construction.

Aerial view of Windhoek 2016 with the Auas Mountains in the background. (Photo: Hp.Baumeler)
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