Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Basters, a mixed-race Afrikaans-speaking community, are descendants of groups that migrated in the nineteenth century from the Cape in South Africa to settle at Rehoboth, south of Windhoek. Though far less marginalized than some other communities, many Basters have a strong sense of minority identity. They are currently estimated at numbering around 55,000, though there are no official statistics on the Baster population.
Groups of mixed-race South Africans migrated from the Cape to settle at Rehoboth, south of Windhoek, in 1868, where they displaced Nama people and rapidly established their own institutions. Even under German and South African colonial rule, Basters maintained broad autonomy. In 1872, Basters declared their own republic and were able to maintain a certain level of autonomy throughout both the German and South African occupations of Namibia.
It was therefore perhaps not surprising that at Namibian independence in 1990, Basters were wary of losing autonomy over their communal lands, and the Baster leadership even briefly declared independence. Among other grievances, some Basters disagreed with the Namibian government’s allowance of women’s suffrage. Baster leaders sought through the courts to maintain their autonomy, and in 1993 a court ruled in their favour. But in 1995, the government won an appeal, setting the stage for a further appeal by the community. In 1996 the Namibian Supreme Court upheld the ruling in favour of the government, and the following year the Baster leadership, beset by legal bills, announced its acquiescence to the finding and its cooperation with the SWAPO government in Windhoek.
After its defeat in court and the passing of an outspoken generation of leaders, much of the Baster community has moved away from the autonomy issue, and its new leadership has sought reconciliation with the Namibian government. The loss of Baster communal lands has eroded their traditional governance structures and resulted in the settlement of other communities in their territory.