This piece explores the practices of urban development and the preservation of heritage sites in Namibia, using Ondangwa town as a case study. It examines whether the historical sites in the newly proclaimed towns of Namibia are being preserved for economic purposes and future generations.
The raison d’être for this examination emanates from an investigation on the practices of town councils in removing or converting traditional sites into non-productive sectors and sometimes letting them become dormant. The paper exposes possible challenges that may have become part of the practices of urban development after Namibia’s independence and proposes measures that could be applied to overcome such challenges in order to make towns attractive for tourism and maintain their historical true value through heritage sites.
Situated at the junction of the B-1 main road to Angola in the north and to Ruacana via Oshakati in the west, Ondangwa town is the first and the oldest urban settlement in northern Namibia. It became a significant place mainly because it was the only catchment for migrant contract labourers in northern Namibia during colonial times. Migrant labourers were collected by the then South West African Native Labour Association (SWANLA) from the traditional sub-ethnic districts of Ongandjera, Ombalantu, Uukwambi, Uukolonkadhi, Uukwaluudhi, Oukwanyama, Ondonga, and Ombandja, and joined by other ethnic groups from Southern Angola within an estimated radius of 700km, and gathered in Ondangwa. The big hostel for the migrant contract labourers was built in the town in the early sixties to accommodate in-transit migrant labourers on their way to Southern Namibia or to the mines in South Africa through the labour hire system network. SWANLA transported them from Ondangwa to Grootfontein for distribution to potential employers in the south.
For those aspiring to get opportunities for employment through the Ondangwa labour hire catchment area, it was not an easy endeavour. The congestion experienced here can be equated to the biblical scripture that says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”. They faced immeasurably difficult conditions at Ondangwa. They were often beaten, especially when their stampedes in pursuit of job opportunities descended into anarchy and rioting. They also had no privacy during medical check-ups, being forced to walk naked in front of the officials and their colleagues. Sometimes, the aspirants spent months in Ondangwa, struggling to get job opportunities, and they sometimes failed to get them. In such cases, they would be forced to return home, or to travel on their own from Ovamboland to Rundu and then via Mohembo and Shakawe to South Africa, or they travelled by transport organised by the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association Ltd (WENELA) via Grootfontein and Mohembo to Francistown in Botswana and from there by train to the Transvaal (Dierks, 2004). The agreement reached on July 7, 1949, at the Windhoek Conference for the Amendment of Agreement of 13/9/44, as modified at the Pretoria Conference on 24/9/45 (1), provides that: “SWANLA will provisionally engage, on behalf of and as requested by WENELA, Angola Natives offering at its station at Ondangwa and will present them to WENELA medical officer at Grootfontein for medical examination… (3) Natives who pass the WENELA medical examinations at Grootfontein will be dispatched by SWANELA (acting as WENELA’s agent from Grootfontein in WENELA lorries running between Grootfontein and Bechuanaland”. (Namibia Similar National Archives 2004, in Niikondo, 2008).
Due to its unique historical features, Ondangwa is a wonderful town boasting various heritage sites with immense historical significance. Every corner of the town contains striking heritage sites and can thus be expected to attract millions of national and global travellers. Buildings and places with their intricate histories have given Namibia numerous heritage sites to be proud of, such as: the buildings of the notorious old compound for migrant contract labourers, the first shop in northern Namibia, the contract migrant labourers’ clinic, the magistrate’s court, the place where the migrant labourers had their staff delivered (it was called Ongushe) and the bus station where the migrant labourers were dropped off, when they were deported from the south or from South Africa. If these places were preserved, travellers would have plenty to view in Ondangwa, and would come to know the real strength of this historical town. However, at independence, these important historical infrastructures were either ignored, converted into non-productive sectors or just dismantled. (to be continued)