Status of historical sites in Ondangwa
At the end of 1970s, the migrant contract labour system declined, and the hostel for migrant contract labourers built in Oluno township in Ondangwa became dormant. Subsequently, the South African government converted the compound into a military base accommodating Koevoet and the South West African Territorial Forces (SWATF). It is commendable that the original features of the compound were preserved at the time. Close to the compound were the recruiting offices, known in the Oshiwambo language as “oombelewa dhokaholo”. This name was a reference to the fact that the migrant workers selected at those offices for work in South Africa were marked with a string around their necks or arms, with the two ends of the string clamped together with piece of a metal (okaholo).
It is ironic that the South African colonial regime actually kept the site more or less intact, while the new democratic government destroyed something that might have had historical value in the future. For example, after independence, the compound was destroyed and the whole site was converted into a correctional rehabilitation centre, while the office became magistrate’s office. Although the intention was not entirely wrong, it was as if leaders did not see the potential economic value of the site. Another important site of note was the clinic specifically designed for medical examinations of the migrant contract labourers before they departed to the south. They would have to undergo medical examination by queuing naked for check-up at a clinic in Ondangwa. The building that housed clinic is still in existence in the centre of Ondangwa, currently clearly marked “The Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare”. It is not clear whether the building has been converted into offices of the Ministry or whether they just kept the building as it was. This building is in fact a potential national heritage since it was the only such medical clinic in northern Namibia linked to the notorious atrocities of the contract labour system in the country.
Aside from the compound and the clinic, the town also had the first wholesale shop in northern Namibia, called “Ondjondjo”, it was the only shop selling basic commodities to people as far away as Mongua in southern Angola, as well as to Namibians in the places that currently form part of the Omusati, Ohangwena, Oshana and Oshikoto regions. The people travelled on foot or by animal-drawn carts from as far away as Ruacana in the Omusati Region, Okongo in the Ohangwena Region, or Mongua in southern Angola, to Ondjondjo to buy things. Presently, although the shop building is still standing, there is no indication of the value of its historical importance as a heritage site. At one time Chinese retailers were using the building, but currently the building stands empty. Ideally, the building should have been ring-fenced as a heritage site to attract not only travellers, but also historians and researchers, as well as to boost the tax base of the town and to market Namibia internationally. Presumably, it is due to a lack of information that the idea of turning the building into a heritage site had never been considered.
The history of the modern courts of law in northern Namibia has its roots in Ondangwa. During the pre-colonialist period, customary law was applicable to the various communities, and during the colonial era and after independence, it was practised alongside civil laws. Namibia was colonised twice: first by the Germany from 1884 to 1915 and then by South Africa from 1915 to 1989. The period of German colonial rule did not leave significant traces in the legal system. In contrast, the South African regime established courts, especially the lower courts, countrywide, and so the first magistrate court in the then Ovamboland was in Ondangwa. Many people in northern Namibia had their cases heard at the Ondangwa magistrate court. The original magistrate court building is still standing in the town and is currently being used as the offices of various ministries in town, but it is not currently generating an income from tourism as it was supposed to do. (to be continued)
Another building worth mentioning as a heritage site is the then Ondangwa bus station. The migrant contract labourers who were allegedly disobedient to their employers or whom the employers simply did not want any more, or those who, at the beginning of the liberation struggle, were involved in political activism, were all deported to the place then referred to as Ondangwa Station. For example, “Due to his political activities and the mobilisation of migrant workers in Cape Town, Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo was expelled from Cape Town shortly after his petition made headlines in the New York Times and was deported on the 4th of December 1958 to Windhoek and then to Ondangwa where he was kept under house arrest” (Nujoma 2017). Such historical heritage site, ‘the Ondangwa station’ was later converted and it is currently called the ‘Rössing Foundation’ and its historical status is forgotten and its potential economic viability for the town has not been explored.
It is interesting to argue that none of the important historical sites in Ondangwa had survived modifications — even the airport and various religious sites were not exempted. It is worth mentioning that migrant labourers employed by Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) were transported by air to Oranjemunnd and that there were regular flights between Oranjemund and the Ondangwa airport. The Ondangwa airport is the only airport in the north of Namibia. It was converted into a military airbase by the South African Defence Force during their war against the Namibian freedom fighters. After independence, the airport was converted again. Presently, the airport site is divided into two parts. One part consists of an airport under the Namibia Airports Company (NAC), and the other one consists of the Ruben Danger Ashipala Police Training Centre under the Ministry of Safety and Security. Although the government is commendable to approve the proposal to rename the airport after the liberation icon Andimba Toivo-Ya-Toivo, its economic viability is limited. Because of the limited space taken up by the airport, the space occupied by the police training centre would be appropriate for use as airport business ventures in order to create employment. So, the police training centre should be moved for that purpose.
Lastly, the parish of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN) called Onguta (which is the Oshiwambo term that means ‘food before trip’) was established for the migrant labourers who received Holy Communion and church services before their departure to the south. The church was specially and uniquely built with its entrance facing to the north and its altar to the south, thus symbolising the movement of people from the north to the south as migrant labourers. When the new church was built, the historical old building was abandoned and used for other businesses. No one considered that the building, if promoted to heritage status, could become a heritage site that might attract religious communities worldwide and researchers on the migrant labour system in Namibia.
It is important for the Ondangwa town planners to formulate a heritage plan with specific goals, namely, to identify, recognise, protect, enhance and properly manage the town’s heritage resources.