Nestled among rolling hills in a valley created by the sloping Khomas Hochland Plateau to the west and the Auas Mountains to the east, Namibia’s capital, WINDHOEK, is scenically situated. What’s more, at an altitude of almost 1700m the city avoids the excessive heat experienced in much of the rest of the country, with daytime temperatures rarely topping 30 degrees in summer, or dipping under 10 degrees in winter. Strolling down Independence Avenue, Windhoek’s tree-lined main street, it’s easy to feel you’re in a provincial town in northern Europe, with tidy, clean streets lined with pavements and dotted with German colonial architecture, lacking the frenetic and chaotic pace and horn-honking mayhem more readily associated with African capital cities. Yet this is a city striving for modernity, keen to shrug off its small-town image and colonial past: new high-rise buildings now pierce the CBD skyline and the brash multi-million-dollar post-independence constructions, such as Heroes’ Acre, dominate the surrounding hillsides.
Whether due to meticulous German planning or serendipity, Windhoek lies almost in the centre of the country, which makes it the perfect starting point ofany tour of Namibia. Although somewhat short on sights beyond a few modest museums, a stroll round the National Botanical Gardens and a day’s outing to the attractive surroundings of Daan Viljoen Game Park – Namibia’s smallest reserve – will whet your appetite for some of the extraordinary landscapes and wildlife that await. Besides, Windhoek is a pleasant place to spend a couple of days getting your bearings at the start of a trip – as well as stocking up on supplies, or unwinding at the end of a hectic safari.
The five thousand-year-old archeological remains of elephants and hunting implements found in central Windhoek are evidence that the city’s hot springs have played host to hunter-gatherers for many years. However, it was Captain Jonker Afrikaner of the Oorlam who established the first recorded settlement here in 1840. At that time Windhoek was known as |Ae||Gams – “fire water” in Nama – and Otjomuise – “place of steam” in Otjiherero; both names make reference to the importance of the springs to the future capital’s location and development. Yet the origin of the name Windhoek remains more of a mystery, either recalling the Winterhoek Mountains in South Africa, home to Jonker’s ancestors, or a corruption of the Afrikaans for “windy corner”. Either way, the name stuck, whereas the settlement did not – at least not initially, as the ongoing conflict between the Nama, whom Jonker was leading, and the Herero more or less destroyed the place.
German colonial rule
The foundation of modern-day Windhoek came in 1890, six years after German South-West Africa had been claimed as a protectorate, when Major Curt von François, leading the German Imperial army, laid the cornerstone of the Alte Feste (Old Fortress), establishing it as the HQ for the Schutztruppen. The chosen location served as a strategic buffer between the warring Nama and Herero and was ideal for agriculture on account of the natural springs. After an initially slow start, the influx of German colonists from both Europe and South Africa, was given greater impetus when the Swakopmund–Windhoek railway track was completed in 1902, and some of the colony’s main buildings, such as the Christuskirche and the Tintenpalast, were erected. Businesses were established and small-scale farming took root and by 1909, when Windhoek finally became a municipality, the population topped 2700. All the while the indigenous populations were gradually pushed out to the margins, to serve the colonists’ interests, or were driven away altogether.
South African rule
German rule came to an abrupt end with defeat in World War I, and the black populations were forced to exchange one colonial power for another as the South African military moved in to rule on behalf of Britain. Periods of growth followed, especially after World War II. The next seismic shift in Windhoek’s development occurred in the late 1950s and 60s as South Africa began to impose apartheid policies of segregation and surveillance, forcibly removing large swathes of the “black” and “coloured” populations to townships.
Despite the post-independence dismantlement of the apartheid state in 1990, and the reclassification of the former townships as “suburbs”, the racial and socio-economic divisions within the capital still largely persist. In the 25 years since independence, migration to the capital has intensified, with bulging informal settlements or “shanty towns” proliferating on the periphery, especially round Katutura – stark reminders to the municipality and to central government of the ongoing challenge of addressing the city’s swelling population as well as its continuing inequalities.