Tuesday, August 13, 2013

“Caprivi Strip” No More—but Does the De-Germanization of Namibia’s Map Have an Intertribal Agenda?

The international press is unanimous this week that the Republic of Namibia’s decision to rename the Caprivi Strip “the Zambezi Region” is a triumph of indigenous culture over colonialism.  A European name is erased from the map and replaced with the quintessentially African name Zambezi, for the noted river.  But the political subtext here is more complex, and it involves interethnic troubles in the strife-torn Caprivi region and in Namibia at large.

First, some history.

Count Leo von Caprivi
Though it sounds Italian, the name Caprivi is a legacy of colonialism by Germany, which ran Namibia (then known as South-West Africa) from 1890 until it lost it to the British as war booty after losing the First World War.  The Strip was named for Georg Leo Graf von Caprivi de Caprera de Montecuccoli, a Prussian count who succeeded Otto von Bismarck as German chancellor and whose curiously Italianate name derives from his father’s landed titles reaching back to the Italian-Slovenian borderlands on the Adriatic Sea.

When the Kaiser lost the Great War, he lost Namibia too.
The shard of land named for Count Caprivi is Namibia’s “panhandle,” as it would be called if it were an American state: jutting eastward from Namibia’s northeastern corner between Zambia, Angola, and Botswana.  It was originally part of the United Kingdom’s Bechuanaland Protectorate (i.e., Botswana).  However, in 1890, the year Caprivi succeeded Bismarck, the Crown traded it, along with the North Sea island of Heligoland, to the German Empire in exchange for Zanzibar.  The Germans wanted the strip to fill in a supply route between South-West Africa and German East Africa—i.e., Tanganyika, the mainland that later joined with Zanzibar to form today’s Tanzania.  This treaty was known as the Heligoland Treaty, indicating that its European border swaps were what were considered important about it in Berlin and London.  Later, it became notorious in the annals of the scramble for Africa because it also squiggled a small dogleg into the Kenya–Tanganyika border in order to put Mt. Kilamanjaro in German hands.   You see, Queen Victoria’s grandson Wilhelm II had been pouting because he didn’t own as many African mountains as his English cousins.

In any case, after the defeated empires of the Central Powers were hacked back by the League of Nations at the close of the First World War, the emasculated German Reich was stripped of its overseas colonies.  The newly independent Union of South Africa, then still a dominion of the British Crown, was put in charge of South-West Africa, including Caprivi.  By the 1970s, South Africa, still stewing under apartheid after nearly the whole rest of the continent had been liberated, was again using the Caprivi Strip as a supply route—this time to run guns to white Rhodesian militants in what is now Zimbabwe.  Some Caprivi natives also helped UNITA, the Angolan army backed by South Africa.  (The underground African National Congress also smuggled arms to leftist militias backed by Cuba in Angola’s civil war during the same period.)

Namibia’s homelands during the apartheid era
By the time those conflicts had settled down, in the 1980s, Caprivi had become something else again: a “homeland.”  These glorified reservations, also called “Bantustans,” which the South African government tried to sell to the world as generous experiments in indigenous sovereignty, were scattered throughout South Africa and South-West Africa.  Bophuthatswana, in northern South Africa, site of the famous Sun City entertainment resort, was the most famous.  Most were barren patches of land onto which apartheid’s architects tried to expel Africans, hoping they would take the demographic and political “problems” they represented out of the South African body politic.  In South-West Africa, there was even a homeland called Rehoboth or Basterland, for the Baster people, a mix of Dutch and native Khoisian (“Bushman”) ancestry—the name baster being the Afrikaans equivalent of the English word bastard.  In some ways, these homelands had genuine autonomy, and the Lozi people of the Caprivi Strip were given their small degree of self-rule largely, many felt, as the apartheid regime’s reward for facilitating the white-supremacist gun-running during the Rhodesian business.  Whether that is a fair characterization or not, when South-West Africa finally did become independent, as the Republic of Namibia, in 1990, the homelands were abolished, and Caprivi Lozis found themselves feeling in some ways less autonomous than they did under apartheid.

The most excellent flag of the Caprivi separatists
In 1994, Lozis formed the Caprivi Liberation Army (C.L.A.), aiming to make the Strip a sovereign nation.  In 1999, a series of attacks on police stations and other targets prompted a government crackdown.  C.L.A. leaders were sent into exile, mostly to Denmark but also to Botswana, which was in the midst of a territorial dispute with Namibia.  In 2002, the C.L.A. unilaterally declared the independence of the Free State of Caprivi Strip/Itenge, but no state recognized it.

Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, just east of Caprivi
Today, the Strip is mostly calm, and it has natural wonders that Namibia would like tourists to flock to, being just upriver from the Zambezi River’s spectacular Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe.  So the new name Zambezi Region is partly a rebranding, ditching a name that is mostly associated with civil war.  But why not rename the region Okavango, which some people have called it at times, after the river that runs through the western part of the Strip? or Itenge, a name preferred by Caprivian separatists? or Lozi, which was its name in the late pre-independence period?  After all, the Lozi are the people that live here.

Some nationalists’ vision of a “Greater Barotseland.”
No wonder Namibia is nervous.
Ah, but that is the rub.  The Lozi, also known as Barotse (it is the same name; ba- is a prefix in Bantu ethnonyms, and r and l are sometimes interchangeable), live not only in Caprivi but in a large area to the north called Barotseland, where a quiet revolt has been roiling for several years over the Barotse kingdom’s involuntary absorption into the Republic of Zambia at independence in 1964—a story this blog has been covering for quite a while.  (For example, I listed Barotseland as one of “10 Separatist Movements to Watch in 2013.”)   The last thing the Namibian government—run by the largest ethnic group, the Ovambo—wants is for a Barotse civil war to spill over into their territory.  So far, there has never been much coordination between Barotse/Lozi activists in Zambia and those in Namibia; Zambian Barotse are more focused on shoring up their constitutional monarchy and on challenging the legal basis of the Zambian state.  But that could change once the Barotse monarchy and its army begin to make strides and foment true unrest, as may happen any week now.  And the conservative monarchists on the Zambian side of the border are in no way natural allies of Namibia’s ruling party, the Southwest African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), a former leftist rebel army much in the A.N.C. mold.

The flag of the Barotse monarchy in Zambia
The town of Schuckmannsburg in the Caprivi Strip is also being renamed.  It is now Lohonono.  And Lüderitz, a harbor town at the other end of Namibia, in the southwest, has become !Nami=Nüs.  (Those punctuation marks represent clicks and other sounds unique to the Khoisian languages of the Kalahari Desert, which are perhaps the oldest languages in the world.)  But the renaming of the Caprivi Strip is not really about the European colonialism.  Germans have already been scrubbed from the Namibian political landscape—a neutered and cowed minority.  And the German government in 2004 made a formal apology to Namibia for massacres and concentration camps by which German soldiers killed tens of thousands of Hereros and other indigenous people in the colonial period.  If anything, the residual German-speaking population and their settlements are a tourist draw; one example is scenic Swapokmund, which played the part of the mysterious Brigadoon-like “Village” in the 2009 remake of the television series The Prisoner.  (Fun fact: Swapokmund is a linguistic blend of a name, which literally means Asshole-Mouth.  Mund is German for mouth, and the town is at the mouth of the Swapok River, derived from the indigenous Nama word tsoakhaub, which means anus—a reference to the large volumes of carcasses and reeking waste that wash out through the estuary during flood season.  You’d think that if the Namibian tourist board wanted to do some name changes to give tourism a bump, Asshole-Mouth should be top of the list.)

The Namibian flag flies over Swapokmund,
the colonial-German resort town where the remake of The Prisoner was filmed.
Rather, this rewriting of the map—which in itself is something very right and proper which nearly every formerly colonial state has undertaken—is designed to downplay the interethnic tensions within Namibia.  The Ovambo, whose territory in the north (a former homeland as well, Ovamboland) is only 6% of the country, are nearly half the population and by far the dominant group.  Many minority groups claim that Ovambos are forcing themselves on the rest of the population as the élite and are settling in areas formerly dominated by smaller groups, especially the hunter–gatherer tribes.  So the ruling Ovambos do not want names like Lozi showing up too prominently on maps.  They are trying to forestall the day when their hegemony is seriously challenged—which, to judge from events in Zambia, may happen first in the Caprivi Strip.

[You can read more about Caprivi/Itenge, Barotseland, and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon