Diamonds or Self-Determination? – South West African Nationalism | THE GREAT WAR 1920

Diamonds or Self-Determination? – South West African Nationalism | THE GREAT WAR 1920


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history content you can handle. And now on to the show. It’s February 1920, and the Versailles Treaty
and the new League of Nations have begun to create a new world order. In South West Africa,
one of Germany’s former colonies has high hopes for the future – but its powerful
neighbour has some ideas of its own. Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to the
Great War, which is made possible by the generous support of our Patreons. Help us keep The
Great War free for everyone as a learning resource and support us at patreon.com/thegreatwar
– and now on to the show. In the late 19th century, Germany had entered
the colonial Scramble for Africa later than its European rivals, but by the outbreak of
the First World War it had established several colonies. Troops from neighbouring British
and French possessions attacked in 1914, and soon captured most German territory, although
some German forces held out in the East until even after the armistice. In diamond-rich
German South West Africa, today’s Namibia British and South African forces had begun
occupation in July 1915. With the war over, in early 1920 the fate of the colony rested
with the newly established League of Nations. Wilson’s ideas of ethnic self-determination
did not go unnoticed in Africa, but native soon learned that the Great Powers had no
intention of applying it to colonial peoples. Germany had lost the colony for good, and
the League decided in early 1920 that German South West Africa would become a Class C Mandate,
under the oversight of the League of Nations. The Class C Mandate categorization was given
to quote “…those colonies thought least able to govern themselves…” It would be
placed under the formal control of South Africa, a Dominion of the British Empire. From now
on, South Africa would administer South West Africa on behalf of Britain, with the League
overseeing the arrangement. But the situation was not as simple as it
seemed. The wartime occupation of German South West Africa by South African troops since
1915 had not been an easy one. One local magistrate recalled in March 1920: “When one looks back on the past four and
a half years and with what we have had to contend – dealing with a hostile population,
wholly insufficient and inefficient staffs, incompetent and almost useless police, a complete
change of native policy, the disorder following on active warfare, and above all, an Administration
which was necessarily unstable and to a certain extent temporary and uncertain – it is not
to be wondered at that conditions today are still far from ideal or even satisfactory
[…]” (Emmett 83) It was during the turbulent 1915-1918 occupation
that the Union of South Africa commissioned a report into the condition of the colony,
including the misdeeds of the former German colonial regime and their record as colonizers.
Published in 1918, the “Report On The Natives Of South-West Africa And Their Treatment By
Germany” is better known as the Blue Book. The Blue Book consisted of over 200 pages
of accusations against the German colonial system, and it contained a catalogue of evidence
of German atrocities – which were often backed up by interviews with native South
West Africans. Especially important was the war and genocide
the Germans waged against the Herero and Nama-speaking peoples of the colony between 1904 and1908.
This period, according to even conservative estimates, resulted in the death of over half
of the African Herero population and one third of the Nama-speakers in the colony. As many
as 100,000 people are thought to have died. Although some of these were killed in battle
with the German military during a Herero-led uprising, most perished when the Germans forced
them into the barren deserts or into harsh labour and concentration camps. Today, this genocide is now recognized as
the first of the 20th century, and by highlighting these abuses the Blue Book’s authors wanted
to show that the Germans were unsuited to be colonizers. But they also wanted to make
the case that the South Africans, who were occupying South West Africa when the Blue
Book came out in 1918, should receive the coming Mandate. The Blue Book presented German
colonization unfavorably compared to British colonization, which, it claimed, was carried
out with a greater degree of justice and competence. This was further supported by claims of ignorance
about German crimes in its colony: “Coming here full of British ideas of the
administration of justice, with echoes of German vaunts of superior civilisation in
our ears despite hints from Belgium, and not suspecting that that civilisation carried
with it views of the exercise of the law in regard to natives utterly different from those
with which it was carried out in regard to Europeans, for some time it did not occur
to anyone to make serious investigation into the manner in which the German Government
had fulfilled its obligations in this respect towards its coloured subjects.” (Blue Book
162) Now, it should be noted that Germany was not
alone in committing terrible crimes in Africa. Africans suffered brutally in British and
French colonies, while King Leopold’s Belgian colonies in central Africa witnessed atrocities
even greater in scale those of German South West Africa. But, by 1918, Germany had lost
the war, and now its policies were up for scrutiny by those who had defeated it. So, in many ways, the Blue Book served as
South African propaganda to support claims for its expansion after the war. Although
recent historians have concluded its evidence against the Germans was not false, it also
provided South Africans at the Paris Peace Conference, like soon-to-be Prime Minister
Jan Smuts, with ammunition to get what they desired: South West Africa as a colony of
the Union of South Africa in all but name. Now, on paper, the status of South West Africa
as a mandate meant that South Africa would only administer the colony until ‘self-rule
was thought feasible’. But the 1920 mandate fit with a longstanding idea of a South African
“sub-empire.” For South African Prime Ministers like Jan Smuts and Louis Botha,
both of whom oversaw South Africa’s war effort, the idea predated their leadership
and even the formation of the Union of South Africa back in 1910. British imperial expansion
had long been pursued in southern Africa, especially since the efforts of British businessman
and imperialist Cecil Rhodes in the 1880s and 1890s. Rhodes used business ventures and
his position as Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony to extend an informal Greater
South Africa at the expense of native Africans and independent Boer states, and even had
his eyes on Portuguese Mozambique. Rhodes firmly believed in the righteousness of his
cause: “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the
world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. […] If there be a God, I think
that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as
possible.” (Cecil Rhodes, “Confession of Faith”, 1877) Once the Germans arrived in South West Africa
in the 1880s, Rhodes tried to infiltrate the colony by proxy business deals, but eventually
his zeal for conflict with the Boers caught up with him and his plots in the German colony
were exposed as well. So, by the late 1800s, South Africa’s influence
in German South West Africa was stifled. However, Rhodes’ failure would foreshadow a coming
conflict connected to the expansion of South Africa. Tensions between the Dutch-speaking colonists,
known as Boers, and the more recently arrived British colonists in the southern part of
the continent led to the two Boer wars. The second of these ended with a British victory
in 1902, and the defeated Boer states were integrated into South Africa. But the British
were exhausted after a tough guerilla war which saw the introduction of concentration
camps to control the Boer population, in which thousands perished. Now, it was the Boers
who would turn their defeat into political advantage. They united the various British
colonies and Boer states into the Union of South Africa in 1910, which became a large
and powerful British Dominion. The new government, led by Prime Minister Louis Botha and his
fellow former Boer general Jan Smuts, now made common cause with the British. Though
they had just fought two wars against each other, the Boers and British had one thing
in common: they were white communities in Africa, and solidarity brought them advantages
in the colonial context. Here’s what Jan Smuts had to say on the
issue: “At the southern corner of a vast continent,
peopled by over 10,000,000 barbarians, about have a million whites have taken up a position,
with a view not only to working out their own destiny, but also of using that position
as a basis for lifting up and opening up that vast dead-weight of immemorial barbarism and
animal savagery to the light and blessing of ordered civilization. Unless the white
race closes its ranks in this country, its position will soon become untenable in the
face of the overwhelming majority of prolific barbarism” (Vinson 5) When it came to South African conquest of
German South West Africa in 1915 and then as a mandate in 1920, this same logic also
applied to the few thousand Germans who were allowed to stay in their former colony after
the war. In a region that was sparsely populated and had a relatively small white population,
integrating German settlers into the new white ruling class allowed the South African government
to have more stakeholders interested in maintaining the system of colonial oppression. The local Germans essentially had little choice
but to join with their former enemies. They basically made the same decision as many Boers
did twenty years earlier. It was a decision of self-interest designed, to preserve their
position at the top of the colonial society and economy. As part of the eventual alliance between these
groups, almost all copies of the 1918 Blue Book were destroyed, since the German settlers
felt it sullied their reputation. The South African government also sought to bolster
the white population in South West Africa with immigration. Boer farmers, who had been
rendered unemployed due to the rapid industrialization of South Africa, were provided with farmland
in South West Africa, and encouraged to settle across the border. So the white settler populations in South
West Africa had made common cause to preserve their dominance after wars with each other,
but the native population did not sit idly by. As the 1920s began, the people of South
West Africa looked for new ways to push back. In the early years following the German defeat
in 1915, many Africans living in the settler region of colonial Namibia, the so-called
Police Zone, thought that the South African occupiers would give them more freedom. At
the top of their list was improved access to land and livestock, and eventually perhaps
the opportunity to self-govern. Eventually, some of these African aspirations would be
realized, but not because they aligned with the goals of the occupying administration
– they were either temporary measures or occurred more by accident than by design. Following the end of German control in 1915,
the native population left the Police Zone and took back crown lands as well as abandoned
German farms. Even the decimated Herero people were able to rebuild their communities and
cattle herds – for a time. But the colonists from South Africa now arriving in South West
Africa did not share the same intentions for the colony as the local population. This created
tension, as natives did not see why they should be deprived of their lands. One Herero community
member, Fridoline Kazombiaze, later recalled the differences in understanding between the
native Africans and white settlers in the immediate post war period: “What we don’t understand is that when
two nations have been at war, such as Britain or Germany or Italy, and when one or another
of those nations is defeated the lands belonging to that nation are not taken away from them.
That nation remains a nation, and their land belongs to them. The African people, although
they have always been on the side of the British people and their allies, yet have their lands
taken away from them and are treated as though they have been conquered.” (Kazombiaze 37-38) So, it became painfully clear to the native
population of South West Africa that South African colonial control did not mean freedom,
but instead would see, a group of whites replace the Germans and strive to expand their ownership
and control. By the time the Mandate became official in 1920, the colony’s African population
was looking at ways to spread resistance and create their own sense of identity that also
transcended borders. In South West Africa, two organizations in
particular provided outlets for growing African frustrations: the Garveyite movement, also
known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the Industrial and Commercial Workers’
Union (ICU). Even though the Garveyite movement originated in the United States and the ICU
in South Africa, they were used by Namibian locals as tools to voice discontent, fight
for better conditions, and envision self-rule. These movements took were especially strong
in Lüderitz – the center of the lucrative South West African diamond mining business.
For a period, German South West Africa had provided 21 percent of the world’s diamonds,
resulting in an industry that brought Africans all over the continent to the German colony
in search of work – often in extremely poor conditions. However, the outbreak of war led
to the closure of the mines, and many workers were pushed into German military service.
The reopening of the mines in 1916 by the DeBeers Consolidated Mines company – originally
established by Rhodes back in 1888 – saw workers return, but this time they begin to
demand better conditions, pay and political representations. This was fertile ground for
the ICU, which campaigned mostly for the improvement of working conditions and rights. It was the UNIA, however, that led to a mass
movement and created a truly radical vision of a new South West Africa. Founded in July
1914, it advocated for a quote “Africa for Africans, at home and abroad” and created
a pan-African movement not limited to the European-defined borders on the continent.
In fact, it became the largest black-led organization in history and at its height had around 300,000
dues paying members, a thousand chapters, and a million more supporters around the world.
(Vinson 9) The organization gained momentum in 1920s
South West Africa, just as its powerful neighbor was tightening its imperial grip on the region.
The UNIA also had a mix of goals that allowed it to adapt to the situation on the ground
in the colony. For example, while on a grand scale the UNIA argued for a pan-African state,
on the local level it fought for everyday liberation from imperial rule. UNIA membership
was also quite diverse, and no single ethnic group was in control – the Herero and Nama
peoples, and other groups all participated. This was a major development in a continent
often divided on ethnic and tribal grounds. From its base in Lüderitz, new branches soon
spread across the colony. This rapid increase in membership across a
wide swath of South West Africans was benefited by UNIA’s emphasis on practical improvements
within the context of its wider political goals. It worked to develop an early form
of health insurance known as sick funds, as well as spreading education and information
for native Africans, by native Africans. This all contributed to creating an alternative
vision for the future: one of African self-determination and independence. Often this was communicated
via the official UNIA newspaper, Negro World. In 1921, the leader of the UNIA in Lüderitz,
Fritz Headly wrote an article in the paper outlining the problems the native population
were facing: “We are segregated, discriminated, disfranchised,
jim-crowed in cattle trucks, coal boxes, and last but not least, butchered by the other
fellow with rifle and machine gun bullets. But what we are dealing with mostly is segregation
wholly in its aspects in the former regime of our oppressors the Germans.” (Pirio 262) The UNIA did eventually petition the League
of Nations calling for South West African self rule, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.
In 1922, dissatisfaction with South African imposed restrictions led to an uprising of
the Bondelswarts, an ethnic group in the colony. But this revolt was soon crushed by South
African forces with the help of combat aircraft. The UNIA peaked in popularity in 1923, but
attempts at regaining control by native Africans had led to violent reactions from settlers
and South Africa. This sent a stark message to any native Africans considering military
revolts or revolution. With colonial rule seemingly reestablished for the foreseeable
future, by 1925 the UNIA’s popularity had declined, chapters had closed, and hopes for
self-determination had dried up. So, far from the main European battlefields
of the Great War, the outcome of the conflict had a profound impact on the people of South
West Africa. The hopes awoken by Wilson’s idea of self-determination had been dashed.
The 1920 League of Nations mandate had allowed South Africa to keep control of Namibia, and
crush opposition to its rule. But the dawning of a new era in the world had awakened new
hopes of the peoples of the region, and their drive to organize and resist their new colonizers
was sign of things to come on the continent that the 14 points forgot. We want to thank Will Lyon and Mark Newton
for their help with this episode. Will’s research was made possible by the Gerda Henkel
project as part of his doctoral work at Humboldt University. As usual, you can find all our
sources for this episode in the video description, including links to our amazon stores. To get
access to all our podcast episodes with expert interviews and other perks, you can also support
us on Patreon or by clicking the join button below. I’m Jesse Alexander and this is The
Great War 1920, a production of Real Time History and the only YouTube history channel
that rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.

22 Comments on "Diamonds or Self-Determination? – South West African Nationalism | THE GREAT WAR 1920"


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  2. Really great episode! Definitely a lot of history that isn't commonly known (particularly the influence of Marcus Garvey's work on Nambian independence struggles). Excellent job foregrounding the concerns of the indigenous populations, and adds to the thesis of Walter Rodney on how Europe underdeveloped Africa.

    Reply

  3. Hindsight is 20/20, however, most African countries that were European colonies were FAR better off under European administration than they have been under the rapacious savagery of dictators from among their own people.

    Reply

  4. The South Africans didn't care about the native Southwest Africans, they only used their treatment in order to take the land themselves

    Reply

  5. It's kind of weird that right after fighting with the Germans, the European South Africans still wanted to ally with them against the native Africans

    Reply

  6. I had no idea that the pan-African movement actually caught steam in Africa, I always thought it was just some idealistic plan that never took off the ground

    Reply

  7. Interesting how the South Africans only care about the treatment of the Southwest Africans when the Germans do it but once they do it, they stay quiet

    Reply

  8. GREAT JOB!
    I love Namibia, its complex history is often overlooked… Congratulations for this episode!!

    Reply

  9. Finally a history video that bases my home country too bad you only skimmed the top of the whole herero genocide… interestingly there was a third colonial power with interests in SWA

    Reply

  10. So, am I getting this correct that one of the most powerful (and earliest non-ethnic based?) independece advocating groups in Africa sprung up in the very country that would be the last to actually gain independence?

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  11. An uncomfortable video to watch from South Africa, especially as an Afrikaner (i.e. Boer). I do, however, I have a better understanding of how, for example, Germans feel when confronted with uncomfortable topics from both World Wars…

    Reply

  12. Watched this first on Nebula, great video as always 😊, the last part of the video (about a minute and a half) on Nebula was cut off. Just wanted to let you guys know. Thanks again for an amazing video!!

    Reply

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