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Hendrik Witbooi, a strategic political fighter

May 15, 2018

Known by his people as "!Nanseb Gaib Gabemab" (the snake in the grass), Hendrik Witbooi rallied his Nama people to rise up in a guerrilla war against German imperialism in what is today Namibia.

Illustration Hendrik Witbooi
Image: Comic Republic

Hendrik Witbooi, a strategic political fighter

When did Hendrik Witbooi live? Hendrik Witbooi was born around 1830 in Pella, a district which today is part of the Northern Cape of South Africa and borders Namibia. Witbooi came from a long line of chiefs of the Witbooi Nama, a previously nomadic tribe belonging to the Khoikhoi people of southwestern Africa. In 1863, the Witbooi Nama moved to an area that became known as German South West Africa (now Namibia). There, Hendrik Witbooi received formal education by German missionaries. He later resettled to the mountains southwest of Windhoek, establishing and leading a well-ordered Nama community. He died on October 29, 1905, in the village of Vaalgras in a battle against German colonizers.

What was Hendrik Witbooi known for? He was known for his sharp mind, his early recognition of the menace of colonialism, and his calls for warring African tribes to unite against the German colonizers. The Nama were few in number and poorly supplied compared to the German troops. But Witbooi's tenacious tactics earned him the title "!Nanseb Gaib Gabemab" or "the snake in the grass."

He was respected by the Germans – the colonial administrator of German South West Africa, General Leutwein wrote of Witbooi: "I still see him before me …modest, yet self-possessed, loyal yet not without political cunning, never deviating from what he considered his duty or his right." Witbooi communicated extensively with other African and European leaders and UNESCO has registered his letters and diary (written in Dutch) as world documentary heritage.

How did Hendrik Witbooi become a symbol of united resistance? As the Germans claimed more and more territories in South West Africa, Hendrik Witbooi wrote to the chief of the neighboring Herero tribe. Although the Nama had fought fierce wars against the Herero, Witbooi called for the two groups to stop fighting and to unite against the colonizers. The alliance was largely unsuccessful – just over a decade later the Germans decimated the Herero and Nama in massacres considered in a United Nations report as "one of the earliest cases of genocide in the 20th century." However, Witbooi's call for unified resistance cemented his reputation as a great leader.

Hendrik Witbooi, a strategic political fighter

But didn't Hendrik Witbooi have a cozy relationship with the Germans? In 1893, German troops attacked Witbooi's mountain community, killing mainly women and children. After this, Witbooi signed a protection treaty with the Germans. For the next decade, he collaborated with the colonial authorities, even supplying troops for battles against other tribes. He reportedly had a "cordial friendship" with General Leutwein. But in 1904, Witbooi launched a Nama uprising against the German occupiers, leading the guerrilla resistance for a year before being fatally wounded.

What are some of Hendrik Witbooi's famous remarks?

"We did not give our land away, and what has not been given by the owner, cannot be taken by another person."

"When one chief stands under the protection of another, the underling is no longer independent, and is no longer master of himself, or of his people and country."

Before he died on the battle field, Witbooi is said to have called for peace: "It is enough. The children should now have rest."

How is Hendrik Witbooi remembered? Hendrik Witbooi remains an honored figure on Namibia's pathway to independence which the country finally achieved in 1990. His face decorates Namibia's $50, $100 and $200 banknotes and his revolutionary spirit and role in taking up arms against German imperialism and defending his country is still taught and recognized in Namibia's schools.

Victoria Averill, Renate Rengura and Gwendolin Hilse contributed to this package. It is part of DW's special series "African Roots," dedicated to African history, as part of a cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation.