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Botswana and Namibia - Partners in War and Peace

Publishing Date : 19 June, 2017


At the end of this month the President’s of Botswana and Namibia are expected to come together for the signing of a new, comprehensive border treaty between the two countries. The document will supersede the 1890 Anglo-German treaty that, among its other provisions, defined the border between the then German territory of South-West Africa and British administered Bechuanaland Protectorate.

The new treaty has come about in the context of the African Union’s (AU) June 2007 call for member states to pursue bilateral agreements on issues relating to the delimitation, demarcation and management of our common borders, a process that has since been facilitated by the African Union Border Programme’s (AUBP). The AUBP initiative is based on a common conviction that clearly marked borders can enable peaceful co-existence and profitable relations across our continent, while borders that remain disputed, or are otherwise not well demarcated on the ground, may give rise conflict.

In advancing the AUBP process member states have further remained committed to the Organization of African Unity’s (OAU) historic 1964 Cairo Resolution through which African states agreed to accept borders they had inherited at independence. The new Botswana-Nambia treaty has thus resulted from a process of detailed demarcation for the reaffirmation of the 1890 border. This technical exercise, which was given added impetus but actually predates 2007 AU call, has been further conducted in conformity with the AUBP spirit of transforming colonial era boundaries from being barriers to bridges between the peoples of this continent.  

As it is, the peoples of Botswana and Namibia have long been drawn together by common historical circumstance as well as geographic proximity. During the late nineteenth century both territories fell under colonial occupation following brief economic booms based on the export of game products. Throughout much of the twentieth century their peoples have also collectively struggled to assert their independent national identities in the face of the expansionist designs of former white ruled South Africa.

The greater portions of both Botswana and Namibia are encompassed by the Kgalagadi/Kalahari sandveld. Notwithstanding the popular myth of it’s until recent pristine isolation, for centuries communities living in this vast, semiarid region have been linked to each other and the outside world through networks of trade and social exchange. Past contact among and between various Khoisan, Shekgalagari, Setswana, and Tjiherero speaking communities complemented shared lifestyles based largely on migratory pastoralism, hunting and foraging.

For just over a quarter century the colonially defined border between Botswana and Namibia has run roughly down the middle of much of the central and northern Kalahari. As a result many communities, in particular such Khoisan speakers as the //Ai-khoe (Aukwe, Nharon), Nama, !Xo and Zhu/hoasi (Ju/wasi, Kung), have seen their historic hunting and foraging lands politically divided.

Extensive inter-regional contact has also been a long-term feature of life in and around the Okavango and Kwando-Linyanti-Chobe river systems of northern Botswana and Namibia’s adjacent Zambezi (Caprivi Strip) region. In this unique environment of water and sandy savannah interrelated communities of Hambukushu, !Khu, Shua-Khoe, Wayeyi and Veekuhane or Basubiya have also been divided by the border, except for the period between 1915 and 1930, when the Caprivi was administratively integrated into the Bechuanaland Protectorate.

Until the mid-1960s, however, this fact had limited local impact as there were few barriers to the free movement of people, who also continued to freely plant gardens and graze their cattle on opposite sides of the border. The 1885-90 British occupation of Botswana itself came about largely as a strategic response to the 1884-90 German drive into Namibia.

The two countries, however, experienced very different decolonization processes and timetables.  Whereas in 1966 Botswana peacefully regained its sovereignty from the United Kingdom; in the same year Namibians, under the leadership of the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO) began a protracted war of liberation against Apartheid South Africa’s occupation, whose ultimate success culminated in a United Nations supervised transition to full independence in 1990.

In their fight for freedom Namibians in general and SWAPO in particular, enjoyed consistent overt and quiet support from Botswana's government and people. Political solidarity between the two nations, however, dates back earlier to the mid-nineteenth century when indigenous communities throughout the Kalahari found common ground in their collective efforts to resist and/or adapt to the arrival of European socioeconomic and political influence.

In the spirit of re-discovering people to people bridges, where there have been externally imposed barriers, in the coming weeks Builders will explore the shared history that has long existed and continues to unite Batswana and Namibians. It is a history driven by such trans-national figures as Samuel and Frederick Maharero and Simon Kooper, Sekgoma Letsholathebe and Tshekedi Khama as well as countless others whose names may be lost, but whose legacy lives on.



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