News and Information

Katima Mulilo: From Contract Labour Hub to Apartheid Garrison Town
September 28, 2009
Wolfgang Zeller Current Coordinator at African Borderlands Research Network, (ABORNE) PhD cadidate

The Versailles Conference brought Caprivi, along with the rest of South West Africa (SWA),under the League of Nations Mandate handed to South Africa. Between 1919 and 1939 responsibility for the administration of all or parts of the Caprivi Strip was passed back and forth several times between various administrators in South Africa, SWA and the surrounding British colonies. Their geographical location made Caprivi and the adjacent Barotseland Province of Northern Rhodesia peripheral to developments along the line of rail, native labour being their key asset.

By the end of the 1920s, contract labour bureaus were hiring tens of thousands of Lozis who worked and lived in ethnically segregated communities in all the major mining centres of South Africa and the Rhodesias.

In 1935, flood-prone Schuckmannsburg was abandoned in favour of a new administrative centre 70 km upstream at Katima Mulilo. Four years later the outbreak of the Second World War highlighted the strategic location of the Caprivi Strip in the heart of Southern Africa and Pretoria took over its direct administration.

A Special Company of the Native Military Corps was based at Katima in 1940 to reinforce protection of the Victoria Falls Bridge near Livingstone 200 km downstream. In the same year, the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA or Wenela) built the first air strip near the town. By then hundreds of Caprivi men were joining the stream of Lozi labourers setting off from across the Zambezi every year. The airstrip instantly became Caprivi’s most important military and civilian link to South Africa and SWA.

In the years following, Katima Mulilo grew gradually and modestly. New offices and housing for a Native Commissioner and other basic administrative facilities were constructed. A Catholic mission from Northern Rhodesia expanded existing health and education facilities. But for postal and banking services Katima’s residents had to cross the Zambezi to Sesheke. The South African administrators perceived the Caprivi Strip to be unsuitable for white settlement and low in commercial potential and consequently continued Streitwolf’s cost-efficient administrative model of a dual chieftainship under the supervision of one white government officer.

The end of Caprivi’s existence as a remote, sleepy backwater came in 1963. Following the Odendaal Commission’s recommendation of a roadmap towards a self-governing homeland,the South African administration began to implement large-scale, financially costly plans for direct government-driven development in the Strip.

Katima Mulilo, the designated seat of the future ‘bantustan government’, saw an unprecedented inflow of white officials and inhabitants from the region tasked with steering developmental efforts. Zambia had just attained independence when work began in November 1964 on a new layout of Katima Mulilo as an apartheid town.

The authorities demolished several villages and relocated their inhabitants inside the new town boundaries where developments included administrative and service headquarters and adjacent areas set aside for white settlement, commerce, and the segregated black township Ngweze.

Over the ensuing years, Caprivi men and women were sent for training in government services to South Africa. In the rural parts of Caprivi, government built up health services, road infrastructure, fire and wildlife management, animal husbandry, boreholes and irrigation.

At considerable cost, the first unpaved road connections to Katima from the Botswana border
at Ngoma and from Rundu through Western Caprivi were bulldozed through the dense bush. In 1969, postal and telegraph services were directly connected to South Africa. Eastern Caprivi was finally inaugurated as a South African Bantu homeland with a Legislative Council in 1972.

Four years later, a Caprivi ‘government’ was formed, complete with a constitution,regulations for ‘Caprivian’ citizenship, a state flag and national anthem. The Legislative Council consisted of the Fwe and Subiya chiefs and their councillors, who received salaries.

By then Ngweze had grown from a residential area with one primary school in 1965 to an apartheid township It had secondary-level schools, teacher training colleges and vocational schools with boarding facilities and several denominational churches. The Bantu Investment Corporation (BIC) had started various business enterprises and an open market. New Look was established as an additional township in 1978, and by 1979 Katima Mulilo officially counted 4,600 inhabitants (including 575 whites), compared to about 500 in 1963, of which 148 were whites.

The actual number of Katima Mulilo’s black residents was, however, much higher than these figures suggest, as numerous shanty towns mushroomed in the vicinity of government installations.The townships and shanty towns also became fertile ground for ideas of black emancipation, often introduced by Caprivi residents returning from work or government training in Zambia and South Africa. The white authorities observed these developments with great suspicion. The benign side of strong, government-driven development in Caprivi was
thus, from the outset, accompanied by political and security concerns, which gradually moved centre-stage over the following years.

The Caprivi African National Union (CANU) was formed in 1963 with the aim of achieving self-government for the Caprivi Strip. Its first President, Brendan Simbwaye, was arrested in 1964 and subsequently disappeared at the hands of the South Africans.38 Mishake Muyongo, another leading member of CANU and a prominent member of the Fwe royal family escaped arrest and fled to newly-independent Zambia with a group of CANU activists, meeting leading members of SWAPO in Lusaka in November 1964 where Muyongo agreed to a SWAPO-CANU merger. Nowadays he maintains that SWAPO president Sam Nujoma promised that Caprivi would be granted either special political status or complete autonomy after Namibia’s independence.

SWAPO disputes this claim today, but the issue played a vital role in the emergence of the
Caprivi secessionist movement of the late 1990s, which Muyongo masterminded.

WRITTEN by:Wolfgang Zeller’s Specialties: Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Caprivi, Western Province, Lozi, borders, borderlands, smuggling, policing, vigilantism, traditional authority, transport corridors, non-state regulation and state formation. Current Coordinator at African Borderlands Research Network, (ABORNE) PhD cadidate at University of Helsinki

Wolfgang Zeller Phd Cadidate


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