Towns like Oshakati and Rundu, which have a less-than-salubrious history as SADF forward bases during the border war, are today burgeoning hubs of commerce, industry and construction. The Chinese have a lot to do with this fact, which could be why some of the locals resent it. By RICHARD POPLAK and KEVIN BLOOM.
Four years ago, there was a lodge on the Kavango River in the far north of Namibia where all a journalist or writer needed to do – if he or she were starved for material – was sit at the bar and takes notes. The place was called the Sarasungu River Lodge, and from its edges you could stare across the water and watch life happen in the small Angolan town of Kalay. At the lodge’s bar sat men like Deon and Spider and Andre, veterans of the disreputable war that the South African Defence Force waged in the nearby bush, and other men like Fernando and Joao and Alberto, who fought on the opposite side. The Angolans had come to befriend the South Africans in the years since the ceasefire, perhaps because the mortars had so ravaged their town that they needed a comfortable place to drink. Whatever the reason, they would come across the river in their boats almost every night.
Our notebooks had been filled with stories from this bar when we last visited, in December 2006, which was the primary reason we decided to stop over again on our way into northern Botswana. But you can’t step into the same river twice, as Heraclitus once said, and this time as we dropped onto the Kavango floodplain from the main streets of Rundu, we sensed something was off. The air was putrid with the smell of rotting vegetation, the sand track to the lodge was covered in animal tracks, and there wasn’t a car in sight. There was a lot more water on the road than we remembered.
The lodge, we were told by a listless concierge, was closed. Floods had swept through the plain, the worst in fifty years, and forced the owner to lock the doors. Later that night, when we enquired around town as to the fate of our friends at the bar, we were told they had all left – for Upington and Cape Town, and back for good into Kalay. Still, the trip wasn’t a complete waste. We learned from a local businessman that by the end of 2011, the Chinese will have tarred the road from Rundu into Oshikango, and from there all the way up to Luanda. For the first time in over three decades, we discovered, a network of smooth highways would connect the cities of Angola with northern Namibia. Floods or not, commerce would be returning to the region.
And commerce was certainly the defining factor in Oshakati, the regional capital and largest town in Owamboland. About 70 kilometres from Oshikango and the Angolan border, it is also the ugliest town in this part of Namibia – the B1, which runs through unimaginably sublime landscape only a couple of hundred kilometres to the south, becomes here a dusty dual carriageway buttressed by large aluminium warehouses and belching factories. Like Rundu, Oshakati was used as a base of operations by the SADF during the border war, and in February 1988 a bomb exploded at the First National Bank leaving 27 dead and injuring another 30 (mostly teachers and nurses). Nobody claimed responsibility for the blast, and in 1990 the case was dropped in the interests of reconciliation, but in January 2011 there’s still an edge of menace to the place. It earns its reputation as the “dirtiest town in the North”.
Oshakati is a nodal point, linking the vibrant and growing trade economy between Angola and southern Namibia. Oshikango, the frontier border town, is another node. There, bonded warehouses sit full of Chinese merchandise that’s waiting to be transported through the entire country, town by town, trading post by trading post. The Chinese, it is said, arrived in Oshikango in 2000, before the end of the Angolan civil war, and started setting up shop. They used trade as a jumping off point to get involved in the construction industry, and now they’re moving into mining. Namibians, as we’ve already noted, eye them with suspicion, and nowhere more so than in Oshakati.
“They’re cockroaches,” insists a large, young Boer at the Oshakati Lodge, late on a Saturday night. Oshakati is an entirely segregated town: Portuguese, Boer, Owambo and Chinese keep their factional hotspots as heterogeneously pure as they can. The Oshakati Lodge is no exception. White people: drinking very, very hard. It’s possible, in the few hours we observe the phenomenon, that more Jagermeister is consumed by this tight crowd than in bars four times the size in Joburg.
Here, the Chinese are viewed as competitors who’ve already taken the crown. The sense of marginalisation – that this is a beleaguered minority in proud, worthy decline – is difficult to shake. The Toyota Hiluxes outside, glinting with bull bars and roll bars and other aftermarket appendages, are purchased from Harry Pupkewitz, Namibia’s wealthiest man (net worth: 2.2 billion Namibian dollars), who owns the Toyota franchise in Namibia, along with PEP, and Pupkewitz Mega-Build. Despite Pupkewitz’s standing at the top of the charts (he narrowly beats out founding father Sam Nujoma, and Swapo stalwart Dr Frans Ndonga), one gets the sense late on Saturday night that the time of the white in Namibia has run its course. But millenarianism comes with the booze and the hour. A nine-year-old girl – the soberest person in the bar – shows us to the bathroom, and we make our way back to the hotel.
The C45 to Oshikango, from where we plan to drive to Rundu on a direct route, is flooded out, so we must head south to Tsumeb, across to Grootfontein and then north to Rundu. Namibia is wetter than anyone can remember, and the landscape is dark and clotted with verdant flora. Uncharacteristically, the sky is low and bruised. We drive through rural villages that are movie-set African – small, neatly kempt kraals built from wood and grass and stone, occasionally thumping with Eminem or Rihanna. Namibia – after Mongolia the least populated country on earth – can seem preternaturally lonely, and Rundu, which crackles with lightening, is no exception. This despite the fact that the town has grown; new malls and complexes have sprung up on both sides of the main road.
Another bar, another disaffected white Namibian. In this case, a man named Neil – who has that day become a grandfather – puts down his pool cue long enough to tell us that the Chinese-built projects in town are jerry-rigged, poorly made garbage, cracking at the seams before the tenants even moved in. The portion of the C45 they’ve constructed is also rubbish, potholed and badly paved, he says. Neil insists that there’s no plus-side to the Chinese advance in the country. It’s a refrain we’ve heard echoed time and again.
But it’s a view from that segment of the population who’ve had the run of the economy for a long time, and therefore have the most to lose. Across the border in Botswana, at the Maun Lodge, there’s no such animosity. The businessmen here seem pleased with the partnerships they’ve forged with the new arrivals; to them, the Chinese advance represents opportunity and growth. We’ve heard, too, that the government of Botswana has negotiated with Beijing more stridently than its Namibian counterpart – that there’s way less corruption and flouting of labour laws. Today we head to Selebiphikwe in the far east of the country, which is 65 kilometres away from a Chinese-run dam construction project. Once there, we expect that the picture will get some much-needed nuance. DM
Photo: Oshikango by Potjie.
To see excellent, albeit disturbing, images of the Namibian War, see John Liebenberg’s Bush of Ghost.