Windhoek: Remembering the Old Location massacre

An index to this series appears at the top of the first post.

November 25, 2019

South African Airways resolved a troublesome strike just in time for my flight to Windhoek. If my flight had been a week earlier, I might have shown up the airport with no jet to take me! My friend Dr. Andre Loxton and I flew on SA8126, a direct flight from CPT to WDH, Hosea Kutako International airport. In the same amount of time it takes to reach Johannesburg, we were on the ground in Namibia. Even though the distance from the jet to the terminal was just a short walk, I was impressed by the sun’s power.

Tense arrival

I was in for a nasty surprise when passing through immigration. The information I’d found online suggested that I should acquire my visa upon arrival at the airport, but that apparently does not apply for a researcher who is teaching for three days at the university. The officials wanted to see my (non-existent) letter of invitation from the university as well as a letter noting my paid stay at the hotel. I could only show them the printed flyer advertising my biomarkers workshop and the directions to the hotel. Andre and I had become separated in the lines, and so he wasn’t at hand to address the problem (other officials apparently gave him a hard time, as well). When I mentioned that I had sought directions at the U.S. State Department travel website, they rolled their eyes and told me in no uncertain terms that the U.S. has no power here in Namibia. Didn’t I know that an immigration official could come to the university and arrest me when I tried to teach? After about ten minutes of this tirade, they rather suddenly stamped a tourist visa in my passport and waved me through. Just what was that demonstration intended to prove?

The rest of the airport was small but offered a few businesses. Andre and I each retrieved money from the ATM, but instead of receiving Namibian Dollars, we each received South African Rand! We were happy to discover that most businesses take Rand just as readily as they do Namibian Dollars, and there’s a 1:1 exchange rate so we don’t have to do math with each purchase. Our taxi to Windhoek itself felt a little pricey at 200 ZAR for each of us, but WDH is 38 km from the city’s downtown (the Eros airport, near the center of the city, serves Sevenair and Air Namibia flights). Our driver, Mario, was a good sport and drove more carefully than we have seen elsewhere. He was able to get us to the Casa Blanca Boutique Hotel with a minimum of fuss. The hotel was built in 1970 to resemble Fort Namutoni at Etosha Park. Since the meal served on the jet was minimal, Andre and I wandered next door to the Baines Centre, a small mall built around an OK Foods store. We split a large pepperoni pizza and acquired some drinks and snacks for our hotel rooms.

Andre was keen to get to work on a presentation he would give the TESA group, but I convinced him to join me for a half-hour walk up to the Old Location Cemetery. As we trudged north on Fritsche Street, the sun beat on us mercilessly, but by the time we turned onto the sweeping curve of Jordan Street, clouds had rolled in, and lightning appeared far in the distance. We had both demolished our 750mL water bottles by the time we reached our destination.

Old Location Cemetery

The Old Cemetery matters because it is essentially the only memorial to the demise of Old Location, a long-standing black neighborhood. On 10 December, 1959, Old Location was the scene of a terrible shooting intended to cow the residents into moving to the more controlled Katutura township. The aftermath might have seemed liked “urban renewal” for the white families moving in, but it plainly seemed like erasure for the black families forced out.

In establishing Hochland Park [1990], the outgoing South African regime, which had been in illegal occupation of Namibia, ensured that all physical traces of a crime committed against Windhoek’s African inhabitants were obliterated from the city’s urban landscape. The crime committed and carried out by the South African administration in accordance with apartheid legislation, entailed the forced removal of the city’s African inhabitants from the Old Location, and the subsequent razing of all the buildings that had stood there. By building Hochland Park the outgoing South African regime had ensured that the Old Location would forever be no more than an image existent only in ever-failing memory and without any form of binding to the physical world.

Jan-Bart Gewald, pp. 257-258, Chapter 9 of African Landscapes.

The entrance to the Old Cemetery has a substantial square gateway in red, marked with the words “1959 Heroes and Heroines Memorial Grave.” The effect of these somber words was somewhat offset by a gentleman sleeping in the shade falling beneath that lintel. He awoke as we walked closer, and we saw that he was part of site security.

I was excited that Namibia had created a museum to commemorate the demise of Old Location, but as we passed through the gate, the scale of that museum became apparent. A low marble wall is inscribed with a paragraph of text, explaining the significance of the 1959 killings. It’s helpful context. I would encourage anyone interested in the former neighborhood to visit the photo album “Social Life in Windhoek Old Location” at the Digital Namibian Archives site.

The graves of people killed at the Old Location Massacre

The mass grave, itself, is just a few steps further. The headstone names the fallen “Martyrs of the Nambian Revolution.” A pair of weathered wreaths were atop the marble sarcophagus. I wanted to leave a sign that I remembered them, too, so I borrowed a Jewish tradition. I picked up a stone from the ground and placed it next to the wreaths.

The stony ground of the cemetery contrasts the greens of Hochland Park in the distance.

One of the great ironies of the Old Cemetery as a memorial is that it offers an excellent view of the hill that was once crowned by the Old Location. In 1967, the last remaining building was bulldozed from the site. In 1988-1990, the tony Hochland Park neighborhood was built on the hill instead, using an entirely new layout of streets to assert a more complete erasure of its history. As Andre and I strolled through the graveyard, Hochland Park’s comforts were always visible, separated from the cemetery by a narrow Arebbusch riverbed.

Figure 9.5 from African Landscapes overlays the Hochland Park map on the 1931 map of Old Location.

As we continued away from D.H. Meroro / Hochland road, we saw two small buildings at the Northwest corner of Old Cemetery. I was glad to see that a memorial chapel had been constructed. It does seem like an appropriate place to venerate the lost community. As we approached, though, I saw that someone was asleep inside. Andre called out, and soon another security officer emerged from the chapel. I caught a glimpse of two five-gallon buckets on the floor, so perhaps the chapel is not really a place one would linger to reflect now. My last hopes of finding a room with historical exhibits on the site vanished.

The security officer did, however, highlight that several veterans of the struggle for Namibian Independence were buried quite close by. Among others, we saw the tombs of Moses Mague Garoëb and Peter Mweshihange. I wondered what separated the people buried in this venerable cemetery from those interred at Hero’s Acre, just south of Windhoek. They certainly chose excellent company.

With its original grounds occupied with a suburb, it can be a bit challenging to envision Old Location. In today’s Windhoek, the only businesses I have seen keeping that name alive are a bar and music venue near Hosea Kutako Drive. I was really pleased to see that Henning Melber collected archives for the area into an evocative paper presented at the 3rd Namibia Research Day. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to develop a broader picture of Windhoek in the middle of the 20th century.

A meerkat and a taxi

Our departure from Old Cemetery was briefly brightened by Andre’s sighting of a meerkat. I strained to see, too, but I was only able to see the flash of its tail as it dashed away from us toward the ditch running down the Southwestern edge of Old Cemetery.

Can’t you imagine a meerkat standing on his hind legs just there?

After we crossed D.H. Meroro / Hochland, I decided to flag a taxi so that my foot (recovering from an injury in my driveway) could recover at the hotel. Andre and I mixed Afrikaans and English to explain our destination. In the end, explaining that we wanted to go to the “OK Foods” on Fritsche Street seemed the right strategy. After all, that’s just a block away from our “home” for the next few days!

2 thoughts on “Windhoek: Remembering the Old Location massacre

  1. Pingback: Windhoek: the Owela Museum of Cultural History | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Teaching for TESA: a week in Windhoek | Picking Up The Tabb

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