The Rehoboth Basters are one of a number of groups of mixed heritage which emerged in the Dutch Cape Colony in the eighteenth century and were forced by their non-white status to live on the fringes of white colonial society – they were among the many people who were later designated as “Coloureds” in apartheid South Africa and Namibia. They primarily share a mix of black African and European settler heritage that is reflected in the name they proudly bear (which is a corruption of “bastard”). Originally settled in the Northern Cape, the Basters began their great trek north across the Orange River in 1868, when new laws were introduced preventing Coloureds from owning land. Led by their own “Moses”, the Basters’ first Kaptein, Hermanus van Wyk, some 300 or so Afrikaans-speaking, devoutly Calvinist Basters eventually set up the Free Republic of Rehoboth, 100km south of Windhoek, in 1872.

Initially, the Basters were careful to maintain their neutrality in the simmering conflicts of central and southern Namibia. But in 1884, they became the first group to sign a “Treaty of Friendship and Protection” with the Germans and for the next twenty years they threw their lot in with the newly arrived colonial power, even supplying troops and assisting in the genocide of the Nama and Herero during the Namibian War of Resistance (1904–09). With the outbreak of World War I, the Basters reasserted their neutrality, only agreeing to enlist after having been given assurances that they wouldn’t be asked to fight their South African neighbours. In April 1915, the Germans ordered the Basters to guard some South African prisoners of war and retreat north away from Rehoboth or be disarmed. Around 300 Basters deserted their posts and, with their families, retreated to Sam Khubis, 80km southeast of Rehoboth. The Germans pursued them, and on May 8, 1915 confronted the Basters in the Battle of Sam Khubis. Outgunned all day long, the Basters were left without ammunition by nightfall, but their prayers were answered when the very next day the Germans were ordered to retreat in the face of the advancing South African army. It’s a divine miracle that has been celebrated every year since by the Rehoboth Basters.

With the end of the war, the Basters were keen to re-establish their autonomous republic but were thwarted by the new South African rulers of Namibia. In 1924, the Rehoboth Basters revolted, appointing themselves a new Kaptein – the South African response was brutal, sending in troops, bombing the town into submission and arresting over 400 Basters. From that low point, the Basters have been engaged in a long hard struggle to try and reclaim and hold onto their unique status, applying to the UN for help; they even eventually made a deal with the apartheid regime to create a Rehoboth bantustan in 1979.

After independence, the Namibian government took control of many of the Basters’ communal lands. Since then, they have been fighting an even more desperate rearguard action to try and win back the ancestral land which they originally bought off the local Nama, to preserve their culture – a case which looks likely to fail.

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