Who Are the Mysterious Basters?

Daniel Carvalheiro-Santos, Staff Writer

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Many may be thinking that I am using profane language, however, when I refer to Basters, I am talking about a Namibian ethnic group of the same name. They are defined as a group of Namibians that are descended from intermarried Boer (Dutch farmers who lived in South Africa) and African couples. The Basters are predominantly Protestant Lutherans who speak either Dutch or Afrikaans, although the use of English is beginning to grow as of late. Their ancestral home is Rehoboth, giving them their official name: Rehoboth Basters; Rehoboth is a small fairly developed city of about 30,000 inhabitants located south of Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. The population of Rehoboth is mostly comprised of the Basters, making the cityscape look like an African Amish village. But how has this group managed to survive imperial, governmental, and political changes that have occurred since their development in the mid-1800s?

The Baster community has endured many hard times, however, they would probably argue that they are experiencing many more ethnic identity issues today. Unfortunately, the Basters aren’t recognized as a separate ethnic entity by the majority of Namibians or their government. Their use of Afrikaans and Dutch, both in education and liturgy, has been limited by the government, who refuses to grant these languages official status in the Rehoboth region. In a recent interview with the assistant Kaptein of Basterland ( the name under which they were recognized by the South African government until 1990), he admitted that the tyranny of the Namibian government could be considered a sort of cultural genocide and oppression. He preferred the time when they were ruled the South African government, from whom Namibia gained its independence in 1990. Under the South African government, the Rehoboth Basterland was designated as a bantustan or an area with indigenous African peoples.  These peoples were thereby granted a limited, yet a generous level of autonomy, as well as the right to govern under the original laws established by the community’s founders in the 1870s, when the first council of Rehoboth Brothers met and formed the Free Republic of Rehoboth. The South African government (ironically during the apartheid) respected the indigenous traditions and customs of the Rehoboth Basters and allowed them to live there happily. Relations between the current Namibian government and the Rehoboth Basters are likely more hostile today than they were under German colonial powers who controlled modern-day Namibia (with the exclusion of World War I, where relations deteriorated). Under the German Empire, they were recognized and given limited autonomy by the emperor. Several treaties representing mutual agreements were signed between the two “nations”, including one that established a small Baster military force that helped the German forces quell African revolts in German Namibia. The Basters approved of this clause, however when the Germans asked to fight against the white South African forces, they intelligently refused, knowing they might one day be encompassed into this region.

The current Kaptein and his council state that the Namibian government and its constitution has no jurisdiction in Rehoboth and that they will not respect the government until granted proper recognition. Today, the community is distraught and struggles to hang on to its distinct cultural identity. Their central local monument, the First Kaptein’s House, is dilapidated and falling apart because it is owned by the government and the Basters are not allowed to enter and care for the birthplace of their community. Despite the condition of this monument, the Rehoboth Baster council funded the building of a museum in Rehoboth that describes and illustrates Baster traditions, language, and cultural identity.

The best solution for this problem is likely to be the creation of a Rehoboth Reservation. Similar to Native American Reservations, in the Rehoboth Reservation, the Basters would be able to live under their own constitution, the Paternal Laws, and implement the use of Afrikaans and, to a lesser degree, Dutch. They could control their police force, military, government, and religion. This is the ideal solution for a better preservation of this culture’s identity; however, it is imperative that the Basters are allowed to freely go to other parts of Namibia and that they are properly integrated into the national population if they so desire. Distinguishing between separate ethnic groups can sometimes cause difficulties because a nation is always looking out for itself. In this case, Namibia must loosen its control over Rehoboth and must allow the Basters to follow their constitution and other laws. Until then, the Basters must live oppressed by a “foreign” tyrannical power, as they are not allowed to follow their beliefs and customs, neither are they allowed to speak their language, while the Namibian government commits “cultural genocide.”

Photo Credits to Gondwana Collection

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