CRG Seminar: South Africa's empire on the rivers and the militarization of Caprivi Zipfel, c. 1948-75

The north-western portion of South-West Africa, known since the early twentieth century as Caprivi Zipfel, was a contested region from its first definition in the Heligoland Treaty of 1890. Up until the 1970s, its borders remained disputed between the colonial powers and post-colonial states of the region, and even the status of the South African administration of Caprivi was challenged within the United Nations under the terms of the Mandate. By the mid-1950s, as the process of decolonisation began in one African colony after another, Caprivi’s future was hotly debated between the colonial administrations of Bechuanaland, Angola, and Northern and Southern Rhodesia, and with the governments of South Africa, Britain and Portugal. African nationalist parties joined in these debates, often objecting to colonial plans for Caprivi, but sometimes also asserting claims over Caprivi’s sovereignty, while South Africa embarked upon its own programme of militarisation in the volatile riparian landscape between the Zambezi, Kwando and Okavango rivers. History, and pragmatic politics were deployed in equal measure to justify the claims for Caprivi, as each player sought to legitimise and authenticate their vision of Caprivi’s future place in the political ecology of the region.  For some, especially the South Africans, decolonisation presented an imperative to recolonise Caprivi, and in these discussions the voices of Caprivi’s own population struggled to be heard.

This presentation by Prof. David Anderson (University of Warwick) examines these debates, charting the development of South Africa’s imperial and military strategies in Caprivi up to the invasion of Angola in 1975, to reveal the contested, often contradictory, and sometimes sinister motives that lay behind this story of claim-making in Caprivi Zipfel in the age of decolonisation. As other empires were ending, it was in Caprivi that South Africa’s own empire was made.

This seminar is organised by the CRG 'Patterns of Living in Southern Africa, 1870s to the present'.

Photo: telegram about a German military operation to Caprivi-Zipfel, 1908. Via Wikimedia Commons.

David Anderson is a Professor of African History at the Global History and Culture Centre, University of Warwick, Great Britain. He is a former Director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa, Nairobi, and Professor in African Politics at the University of Oxford. He has published about water scarcity and violence in Kenya, African rural futures, and histories of colonial violence.




Date, time and location

25 January 2024
15.30 - 17.00
Pieter de la Courtgebouw / Faculty of Social Sciences, Wassenaarseweg 52, 2333 AK Leiden
Room 0.A28