Music, social movements, and patriotic cosmopolitans in Namibia, c 1990: a personal account

I arrived in Namibia in the early southern winter of 1990, just over two months after the country’s day of independence. Those were exhilarating times. Wherever I went, Namibians hummed with excitement – the young and the old, urbanites and rural dwellers, the poor and the well-off, those who had just returned from years of exile and those who had remained inside the country. Music was everywhere, especially on weekends. Whether I tagged along to braais (barbecues) in Windhoek’s Katutura township, or joined my new Namibian friends for their parties in the city’s modest, increasingly racially mixed suburbs such as Windhoek North, similar tunes resounded from ghetto blasters and Hifi systems.

My new friends were an energetic lot. A few weeks after my arrival, some of the younger gender activists, with whom I had begun my research on the Namibian women’s movement and nationalist politics (Becker 1995), roped me into a range of activities and social events. Those were confident, mostly university-educated women. We talked politics and love interests, and on weekends partied until the early hours.

These women formed part of the small Namibian intelligentsia, which mostly consisted of those who had driven the internal anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s. The activism of students, workers, women, and township resident associations became momentous in the internal anti-apartheid struggle, much to the irritation of SWAPO, which was suspicious of any efforts beyond its control. (Becker 1995: 171-226) This nationalist yet fiercely independent intelligentsia included black and a few white Windhoek-based activists of the urban social movements of students, workers, women, and community activists, who were joined by a few of those who had just returned from exile in countries around the world. There could be no doubt that these activists, women and men, most of whom were in their late twenties and thirties at the time of independence, enjoyed their jols immensely; they were dancing the nights of hard-won freedom away to the tunes that had accompanied the years of struggle.

Namibian life music events were rare. In fact, there was only ‘Jackson’, as everyone referred to the Keetmanshoop-born musician Jackson Muningandu Kaujeua who had won acclaim when he lived in the United Kingdom in the 1970s. His songs such as ‘The Wind of Change’ had put Namibian protest music on the international map. Jackson, who had just returned home after eighteen years of exile, still regularly performed his freedom songs, yet the tune that had crowds jumping to their feet in newly independent Namibia was ‘!Nubu !Gubes’, which became his biggest hit. Crowds swayed to the rhythm and roared the chorus. Often Jackson followed it up with the soulful, slow ‘Ti mama’. At the time Jackson Kaujeua was the ‘closest thing Namibia ha(d) to a pop star’, as one of my friends put it. Okay, one could perhaps add the Reggae singer Ras Sheehama, another – younger – former exile, but that was about it as far as popular Namibian music was concerned in the early 1990s.

The truth that I encountered soon after my arrival in Windhoek – quite unsettling for the passionate postgraduate researcher cum anti apartheid activist that I was – was that the most popular music in Namibia came from her immediate past colonizer down south. Particularly prevalent was ‘Bubblegum’, the South African pop music style that had arisen in the mid 1980s, distinctive with its call-and–response vocals, electronic keyboards and synthesisers. Most celebrated were the female Bubblegum stars Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Brenda Fassie. Their songs were inevitably blasting away in the early 1990s at Windhoek township braais, and parties of the educated Namibian left of exile and especially those of internal struggle provenance. I was flustered: Why would the very activists who had fought energetically for independence from Namibia’s powerful southern neighbour and former colonizer listen enthusiastically to South African music? In other words, how did it come about that the Namibian internal struggle activists particularly were so heavily influenced by South African popular tastes in music?

Getting to know the active supporters of 1980s Namibian urban social movements, making friends, and eventually recording some of their life histories helped to unravel this apparent mystery. I learnt that many of this activist generation had close links with South Africa. They had studied at South African universities, where they had often also become involved in South African anti-apartheid struggle activism. They had brought back ideas, tactics and styles from their participation in student and community activism ‘down south’, most often in Cape Town, which they put to use back home in Namibia. André Strauss, for one, who became one of the leading activists and intellectuals in Windhoek had been a student at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) near Cape Town. This university had been established in 1960 as the apartheid higher education institution for ‘Coloureds’, the South African racial category for people of mixed decent (and about everyone else who could not conveniently be classified otherwise, thus including also, among others, South African Chinese and descendants of the ‘first people’ Khoisan populations). By the 1980s however UWC had become known as the radicalized ‘intellectual home of the left’ and enrolled students irrespective of ‘race’ and ethnicity. Namibian UWC students and graduates particularly came to play a major role in in the movement of community-based organisations (CBOs, as the social movements were collectively referred to) as activists, human rights lawyers or social workers (cf. Brown and Leys 2005: 52). In South Africa young Namibians had read Fanon, Gramsci, Lenin, and significantly had become acquainted with the Black Consciousness movement. Some of the Namibians, such as Lindi Kazombaue, a leading women’s movement activist of the 1980s Namibian Women’s Voice had joined the South African Students Organisation, SASO.

Strauss reflected on what he called the mutual influence of South African and Namibian anti-apartheid activism:

I think the predominant influence on the thinking of the youth, whether the Swapo Youth League, or NAMSO, or some of the church youth bodies, came from the university students coming from South Africa. …

That was the story of our generation. But I think if you go back you will find all the generations of nationalist leaders, even Toivo, started in Cape Town. Konzonguizi was there, Apollus was there, the Abrahams were there, I think even President Nujoma was there at one stage, together with other workers. There was always a lot of mutual influence between the two countries. (cited in Brown and Leys 2005: 90)

This influential activist of the 1980s thus drew a line to an earlier generation of Namibians, who had been significant in the nascent nationalism and urban struggles, associated with Windhoek’s Old Location in the late 1950s. The ‘Old Location’ near central Windhoek was home to a socially highly diverse community. It is memorized in Namibian nationalist historiography for its December 1959 resistance against the forced removals to the new apartheid townships of Katutura and Khomasdal while little has been recorded of its social life, including patterns of consumption, cultural and leisure styles, and of course the music, which was played there. (but see Jafta et al 1999) Similar to the 1980s, leading political militants in the Old Location came from an incipient Namibian intelligentsia, to name but two prominent activists, Zedekia Ngavirue and Emil Apollus who had studied in South Africa, where they had become involved with ANC politics. A most interesting project of that first urban activist generation was Namibia’s first newspaper, which was edited and published by Africans.

The first edition of the South West News/ Suidwes Nuus was published in March 1960, a few months after the 10 December shootings of anti-forced removal protesters in the Old Location. The paper reported overtly political issues from a nationalist perspective; however, as Dag Henrichsen (1997: 23) points out, it was also concerned with the everyday life of Africans, thus speaking to, and about, the social and cultural worlds, in which the political activism was rooted. Popular cultural practices and performance, including new forms of language and humour, sports clubs, beauty contests, and significantly jive music were crucial to the urban modernity that emerged in Namibia and across the African continent in the aftermath of World War II. The post-war African modernity was marked by expectations of a bright future and embraced a distinctive cultural repertoire. The first urban generation jazzed and jived – band members of the Namibian Original Jazz Masters, as they are know today, were playing jazz in the 1950s Old Location already. Some of them had brought back the love for jazz from stints of migrant labour in South Africa from the 1940s onwards (Informanté, 28 November 2012).

In the 1980s, similar to the earlier activist generation of the 1950s, the Namibian militants at the forefront of urban political and social struggles had personal experience of social life and politics in South Africa and had brought back ideas and practices of anti-apartheid activism, along with South African tastes in popular music, and the alternative sartorial, artistic, and literary styles of South African oppositional politics. It was indeed a striking recognition during my early 1990s fieldwork with activists from the broad spectrum of CBOs that the internal, urban Namibian opposition to South African rule was as heavily influenced by South African political and cultural styles, as was the apartheid colonial dispensation itself. The transnational entanglements of southern African social movement politics and popular culture complemented, and encouraged the formation of networks among Namibians of different social and cultural backgrounds, both instrumental in the creation of a cosmopolitan nationalism in urban settings, particularly in Windhoek. It comes as no surprise that the South African popular music of the time – along with the styles and tactics of the South African oppositional politics – was appropriated by the opponents of Namibian apartheid colonialism. Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Brenda Fassie and other popular musicians of the 1980s perfectly captured the activist spirit and boundary-crossing desires of the young activists of the late apartheid era in Namibia as much as in South Africa. In the early 1990s, another set of South African bands gained a loyal audience in Namibia, exemplified by the popularity of ‘Tananas’, formed by Steve Newman, Ian Herman and Gito Baloi in 1987, which combined jazz, Mozambican salsa and mbaqanga (township jive).

The Namibian affection for South African popular music was matched in the early 1990s with a growing desire for ‘African music’. Congolese rumba and to a lesser extent various genres of West African music garnered considerable interest in Namibia. The newly-discovered ‘African music’ was summarily called ‘kwassa kwassa’. Favourites included, among others, Mbilia Bel and Koffi Olomede, whose recordings were widely available in Windhoek and the northern centre around Oshakati. Pirate cassettes were sold at taxi ranks, open markets and in the street; one could also purchase them as CDs in one of Windhoek’s formal music stores. In 1993 and 1994 well-known African musicians Ismael Lo and Manu Dibango came to perform in Windhoek; their concerts were sponsored by the French Embassy's cultural division. They played to excited audiences. We were dancing away weekend nights again in the packed Katutura stadium. More than that, there was a palpable sense that something new, something of fundamental significance was stirring during these balmy Namibian nights.

‘African music’, along with ‘African fashion’, the West African garments and sartorial styles, which returning exiles had introduced to the newly-independent country continued and expanded Namibian cosmopolitan desires, now taking it beyond the South African metropole. In the early 1990s, Pan-africanist connections with ‘the rest of Africa’ (as it was often put) became particularly desirable, owed, partly, to contemporary aspirations to claim an African identity after the end of apartheid colonialism. Such intentions of re-Africanization did not start with the country’s independence in 1990; already in the 1980s ‘The Namibian’ oppositional newspaper’s telling byline was ‘Bringing Africa South’ (Becker 2013: 191). Listening and dancing to popular music from West and Central Africa came to play a special role in the Pan-Africanist reclamations of identities and citizenship, which Namibians previously could not enjoy when they were cut off from the continent during the years of apartheid colonialism.

In this brief, personal account I have elaborated thoughts on the aspirations of internal and regional boundary-crossing and the cosmopolitan desires of Namibian audiences during the decades preceding the emergence of a vibrant local music scene in the 21st century. It is true that the development of Namibian music was hampered by the dominance of South African popular music, which was due to the colonial rule ‘of a special kind’ where Namibia had largely been treated as the fifth South African province from the 1950s onwards; however, it rather points out that the matter may need to be complicated a bit more. The popularity of South African music in the final years of South African rule was, to an extent at least, owed to the border-crossing, cosmopolitan nationalism of the social movements that made up a momentous part of the internal resistance. Similarly, as also Wendi Haugh (2014: 222) observed in her research with young Catholic singers in northern Namibia, in the 1990s Namibians, who had under apartheid colonialism been both divided on the basis of their allegedly ‘separate cultures’ and isolated from the wider world were looking forward to “negotiating the increasingly interconnected world both within and beyond Namibia that opened up to them after independence.” The new Namibian popular music, which exploded onto the scene from about 2005, has undoubtedly drawn on the desires and appropriations of the ‘patriotic cosmopolitanists’ (Appiah 1997) of the decades immediately preceding and following Namibian independence.


Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 1997. Cosmopolitan Patriots. Critical Inquiry, 23 (3): 617-639.

Becker, Heike. 2013. ‘Nollywood in Urban Southern Africa: Nigerian video films and their audiences in Cape Town and Windhoek’. In: M. Krings & O. Okome (eds.), Global Nollywood: Transnational Dimensions of an African Video Film Industry, pp. 179-198. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Becker, Heike. 1995. Namibian Women's Movement 1980 to 1992. From Anticolonial Struggle to Reconstruction. Frankfurt (Germany): IKO - Verlag für interkulturelle Kommunikation.

Haugh, Wendi A. 2014. Lyrical Nationalism in Post-apartheid Namibia: Kings, Christians, and Cosmopolitans in Catholic Youth Songs. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Henrichsen, Dag. 1997. “’A Glance At Our Africa: The history and contents of South West News”, in: D. Henrichsen, (ed.), A Glance At Our Africa: Facsimile reprint of South West News Suidwes Nuus 1960, pp. 13-44. Basel, Basler Afrika Bibliographien

Jafta, Milly; Nicky Kautja, Magda Oliphant Dawn Ridhway, Kapofi Shipingana, Ussiel Tjienda, Gerson Veii and others. 1999. An Investigation of the Shooting at the Old Location on 10 December 1959, (second edition). Windhoek, Namibian History Trust.

Leys, Colin; Susan Brown. 2005. Histories of Namibia: Living through the liberation struggle. Life histories told to Colin Leys and Susan Brown, London: The Merlin Press.