Dr.-Ing. Klaus Dierks

After a long history of suffering and injustice Namibia finally has claimed her freedom. But, she still has not reclaimed her history yet. This statement is also true for Namibia's history of her roads system. The real history of Namibia's roads was never investigated in a methodical way. In order to move from the stolen past by the more than hundred years of colonial administration to the real history of the independent Republic of Namibia, it was necessary to fill this void. During the initial research work for my PH.D.-thesis: "The Development of a Roads Model in an African Country illustrated by a Case Study for an Independent Namibia", I also analysed the early road networks in Namibia, by studying the old files in different state archives, using oral history and physically investigating by driving and walking thousands of kilometres on the forgotten ox wagon roads. This analysis resulted in the first systematic research into the historical development of Namibia's present-day roads system. The results of this research are represented in the following short summary of my publication on "Namibian Roads in History".

Due to the fact that this topic was never investigated in a systematic way so far, it is not surprising that some new findings have been established. For instance, it was one of the discoveries that archaeological evidence has determined that Namibian indigenes built the first pathway around 1250 A.D. The evaluation of transport networks in the 19th and early 20th century revealed that it was established early that short east-west road connections are much more in the infrastructural interest of Namibia than north-south connections directed towards South Africa. The research regarding the early ox-wagon roads for different time levels resulted in some important findings of identities of places, which were no longer known or had been forgotten. For instance, these research efforts led to the discovery of the oldest Namibian urban settlement, ||Khauxa!nas - Schans Vlakte, east of the Great Karas Mountains, which was built by one of the Nama communities before the turn of the 18th century. This historical find resulted in the identification of the first systematic building structures in an engineering sense in the history of the country.

The investigations for the old ox wagon roads of the last two hundred years also revealed the fact that Alexander's "Robber Henrick's Place" or Ridsdale's "Klip Fontein" are to be found in the ancient stone ruins on the farm Narudas at the eastern edge of the Great Karas Mountains, and that they represent the forgotten main settlement of the ||Hawoben during the 1830s and 1840s. The identity of another Nama settlement, Kai Gurub, which was also lost, has been established. Another important finding showed that it were Namibian indigenes and not only Europeans who initiated and built the first roads in the country. It has also been proved that the will of Namibian indigenes to initiate such roads was destroyed with the coming of the colonial powers. Their will to continue road building was reduced and then eliminated by the growing colonial control and the fact that many of the old Namibian transport routes and trade flows associated with them were inimical to the new colonial objectives of firstly the Germans and later the South Africans. The historical investigations led to the conclusion that, as from the middle of the 19th century, roads increasingly served the economic and strategic interests of the white trader/missionary alliance and henceforth created the basis for the subsequent colonial status of Namibia.

It can thus be stated that the Namibian roads history began as early as the 13th century when Namibian nomadic communities built the first pathway in the central Namib Desert. This history was continued with the entering of European adventurers and Orlam groups into Namibia at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. Fairly rapidly, a process of fundamental change took place under the Nama-speaking indigenes of Namibia's south. This change occurred parallel with the advent of the first established, still very rough ox-wagon roads, which were initiated by the Orlams and the first European missionaries but built by the indigenous population. With the arrival of more European missionaries, traders, hunters and adventurers more roads came into existence. As early as in the 1860s, almost one quarter of a century before the official annexation of Namibia by the German Empire, the major functions of control over this country were switched to the European traders and missionaries, facilitated by an ever increasing network of adequate ox-wagon roads.

For the Namibian indigenes the colonial era did not begin with the year 1884. Namibian history teaches us that through forms of social organisation, imposed by invading Orlams on the original Nama inhabitants, the political, economic and social controls fell off these people's hands. When the power of the Orlams and their Nama associates were broken by a European trader/missionary alliance, this marked the final stages of political and economic independence for the inhabitants of Namibia. It also marked the end of any road building initiatives by Namibian indigenes when the colonial structures destroyed the will of the Namibian people to pursue such activities further.

With the beginning of the German epoch this process of dispossessing the indigenous inhabitants of Namibia of their human and political rights as well as of their access to the economic resources of the country worsened. The road developments in this era were clearly geared to serve the interests of the colonial power only. Beneficial developments were the establishment of more east-west road links towards the harbours on the Atlantic coast in order to make Namibia more independent of neighbouring South Africa. Also beneficial were many systematic surveys and proclamations as well as efforts to plan Namibia's roads system during this time. The actual construction of roads as limited in scope and still dictated by the parameters of the rugged ox-wagon.

For very obvious reasons, the South African colonial power ignored any road developments in Namibia before 1915, or any such developments, which did take place were at least completely disregarded by them.

In fact, when South Africa had taken over from Germany, the colonial situation remained the same with the aggravating addition that the concentration on north-south roads to connect Namibia solely with South Africa hurt the interests of the Namibian inhabitants even further. This is also true regarding the development of a network of modern roads purely for the political, economic and social interests of the mandatory power and of the white population group in Namibia. This situation of domination, even as far as the development of the Namibian roads system is concerned, came only to an end on 21 March 1990 with the advent of Namibia's hard won independence.

The development of Namibia's roads system can be categorised into four phases with some subsections:

1. The Precolonial History of Namibian Roads

The Prehistoric Era circa 1250 - circa 1770

During the 13th century first trade patterns developed in Namibia. Somewhere during this period the first human initiated road links must have come into existence in Namibia. Examples are the pathways in the Brandberg and in ||Khauxa!nas. This has been established by archaeological research whose results can be dated to approximately 700 years ago.

The Era of the Orlams circa 1770 - circa 1840

As from the second half of the 18th century Orlam communities of Nama descent escaping from the growing colonialising efforts of European settlers in the Cape Colony in South Africa as well as European adventures, explorers and traders began to penetrate Namibia. Around 1750 the first historic records on Namibia written by Europeans can be traced. For the same period the advent of the ox-wagon as transport mode for the following 130 years can be reported. The first documented building of roads is the Bay Road from Bethanie to Angra Pequeña. This road was constructed by the Bethanie-Orlams under the leadership of the missionary Schmelen between 1814 and 1820.

The Era of Jonker Afrikaner circa 1840 - circa 1860

The next documented road builder was Jonker Afrikaner. He built the first road through the Auas Mountains in 1842. The important Bay Road from Windhoek to Walvis Bay was built in 1843/44.

The Pre-German Era circa 1860 - 1884

At the middle of the 19th century the southern and central parts of Namibia had a well developed ox-wagon roads system at their disposal. This concentration of roads in the southern two-thirds of the country reflects the available historic source material, but not necessarily the physical reality. It is most likely that the Namibian north, especially Owambo, also had a well developed system of paths and perhaps even tracks. This can be assumed in view of the density of the population there, the long-standing social, economic and political links across the present-day Angolan border as well as the nature of political organisation of the various communities like Ondonga, Uukwanyama, Uukwambi etc. Even though there may not be any known recorded account of the situation there, the possibility of a precolonial roads network in the north of Namibia has to be mentioned.

The "Original Map of Great Namaqualand and Damaraland - compiled by Theophilus Hahn, 1879", gives a survey of the existing ox-wagon roads at the end of the pre-colonial epoch in the transport history of Namibia, shortly before the Germans arrived. From Hahn's map it can be concluded that the pre-colonial Namibian roads network was well established, especially in the southern and central parts of the country. Adequate ox-wagon roads were in existence as far north as the Ugab River and as far as to Outjo with a track leading to the central parts of the Owambo regions, to the Waterberg and the area around Grootfontein. The southern and central Namibian roads system of this time was mainly orientated towards the Orange drifts at the border to the Cape Colony with some very prominent roads to the Atlantic coast, the two "Bay Roads" to Angra Pequeña and to Walvis Bay, respectively.


2. The History of Namibian Roads in the German Era

The Initial Era of German Occupation 1884 - 1902

The beginning of the era of the German occupation in Namibia, in 1884, did not bring any new technological improvements to the roads system. The ox-wagon still determined the design parameters for any road building activities, but from now on new road building developments in Namibia were initiated by the requirements of the German forces. Initially, this development seems to have been limited in its scope. A comparison between Hahn's map of 1879 and Langhans' map of 1894 establishes the fact that no great differences in the ox-wagon roads networks existed between these two periods in the areas south of the Swakop River. The only exception is a remarkable increase of new east-west links. From the Swakop River, in a northerly direction to Damaraland, to the Owambo regions, the Okavango and the Kaokoveld a tremendous expansion of the ox-wagon road network had taken place.

During 1897 the rinderpest descended upon the draft oxen and decimating their number unmercifully, for a long time stopped all road traffic with ox-wagons. The supply line literally collapsed and made it imperative to find alternative transport solutions. Consequently, building activities moved swiftly from road improvements to railway construction.

The Consolidation of the German Era 1902 - 1915

The period from 1902 to the First World War was used to consolidate the roads system in order to achieve the colonial political and economic objectives, namely to create a German settler's colony. In May 1902 the survey office of the German Imperial Government in Windhoek issued a list of all road lengths in Namibia: 116 roads were surveyed with a total length of 18 826 km.


3. The History of Roads in the South African Era

Phase One from 1915 to 1937

While the ox-wagon still determined the road life during the German colonial era, the advent of the South African troops in 1915 resulted in an increasing deployment of motor driven vehicles in Namibia. The invading South African Army was already remarkably well motorised in comparison with the small German "Schutztruppe". Consequently, it has to be noted that the motorising age started with the beginning of the South African epoch in Namibia.

The ultimate colonial transport objectives have remained the same under the South African control from 1915 up to 1990 on the Independence of the Republic of Namibia, despite the provisions of the League of Nations Mandate and the subsequent requirements of the United Nations Trusteeship Committee and the Council for Namibia. The only change between the German and South African pattern proved to be even more disadvantageous for Namibia, because the transport orientation shifted from a more east-west to a South African orientated north-south direction.

Phase Two from 1937 to 1945

Not much of a development has taken place in Namibia in the years 1930 to 1934 due to the world economic depression and a severe drought which was, however, broken by an extraordinary good rainy season - the best so far recorded in the history of Namibia - in 1934. During the period 1937 to 1945 only very few new roads were built but the "Administration for South West Africa" constructed the first 23 bridges.

Phase Three from 1945 to 1952

After the Second World War the South African "Public Service Commission" for the first time made available professional and technical personnel to the Works Branch of the Administration for South West Africa. This enabled detailed surveys, location and design of bridges, and marked the beginning of programmed road building activities in Namibia.

Phase Four from 1952 to 1965

On the 13 June 1953 a new "Roads Ordinance and Road Traffic Signs Ordinance" was promulgated. This Ordinance made provision for four classes of roads: trunk, main, district and public roads. Trunk roads are arterial roads forming part of the roads system connecting Namibia as a whole with neighbouring countries. Main roads are important roads connecting important centres within Namibia. District roads are feeder roads carrying a reasonable amount of traffic which largely serve the - mainly white - farming area and provide access to the arterial and main roads system of the country. The beginning of the construction of the first surfaced road in Namibia commenced in 1956, from Windhoek to Brakwater.

Phase Five from 1965 to 1987

The period from 1965 to date can be characterised by the consolidation and uplifting of Namibia's roads network to one of the finest in Africa. However, one of its striking features is the different status in quantity and quality of its roads system between the so-called modern areas in the southern and central parts and the densely populated and more traditional parts in the north. This phase was highlighted by the surfacing of a large portion of all arterial roads (most of the trunk roads and some main roads, but very few district roads), the creation of high-standard, all-weather gravel roads and many more high-water structures. In 1952, Namibia had just over 10.000 km of trunk and main roads. There were no surfaced roads and very few suitable bridges. Since that time a remarkable development has taken place. The length of proclaimed trunk, main and district roads, the three roads classifications for which the state is responsible as far as construction and maintenance are concerned, has risen between 1952 and 1986 from a little more than 10.000 km to 41.572 km.


4. The Future of Namibia's Roads after Independence

Namibia has more kilometres of road per head of population than any other country in Africa and maybe in the world. But, nevertheless, much remains to be done - existing roads have to be maintained and this is a steadily increasing heavy financial and technical burden. The present state of unequal development of the roads infrastructure means, however, that assessing accessibility of the "common man in street" to means of road transport suggests poorer access, especially in the Namibian north, than in many other independent African countries. At the end of the evolution of Namibia's roads system it has to be concluded that the bridging of this imbalance and the creation of new east-west transport corridors in order to change Namibia's negative north-south direction into a more favourable east-west tendency will be the great challenge of Independent Namibia in the 1990s and thereafter. This will secure that the former colonial "Noose or Lifeline" transport situation will change into Namibia providing a lifeline to the African interior.


Windhoek January 1997



A comprehensive Book on Namibian Roads in  History is available:

Franfurter Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeographische Schriften

Published by:G Gruber - H Lamping - W Lutz - EW Schamp
Editor: R Müller

Book 60

Namibian Roads in History
From the 13th Century till Today
Klaus Dierks

Im Selbstverlag des Institutes für Wirtschaft- und Sozialgeographie
der Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität Frankfurt/Main

ISBN 0340-8345


Address of the author:

Dr. Klaus Dierks
Tel./Fax: +264-61-222188

P.O.Box 11334

Complete Book on Namibian Roads in History