Perhaps most associated with the region, and indeed the name “Namibia” are the Nama peoples, who share ancient linguistic and cultural roots with San (Bushman) hunters, who have lived on the subcontinent for centuries, and Khoi herder clans from the Cape Province, driven across the Orange River by encroaching European settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Many Nama clans exist to this day, preserving a culture and language rich in music, poetry, oral history and a way of life founded on communal land ownership and leadership by elders (or Kapteins). Historical leaders like Paul Goliath of Gibeon, Jan Christian of Karasburg and the legendary Hendrik Witbooi (whose portrait is depicted on Namibian banknotes) are still inspirational figures in Namibia’s long liberation struggle against colonial dispossession and apartheid rule that would finally end in the first democratic elections of 1990. Among some 15 Nama clans, those found in the Karas region, are the /Hai /Khaua, whose descendants have lived in the Berseba area since 1812; the !Aman whose ancestors came to Bethanie in 1804; and the !Gami#nun (Bondelswarts Nama) from the area around Warmbad and Karasburg in the extreme South of the region.
Due to the intricacies of the tribal war, many descendants of Herero clans fled to South Africa and returned after the second world war and settled around Warmbad. The Kapteins of Warmbad later provided them with land in collaboration with the //Hawoben of Blouwes around Vaalgras. These Herero descendants adopted the Nama language and culture and fall under the traditional authorities of the Nama people.
Karas people in the 21st Century
There are some 69 329 (2001 Population and Housing Report of NPC) people in the Karas region – less than 5% of the total Namibian population. With an average of 0.4 persons to every km², Karas is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the country. The largest concentrations of people are found in major urban/mining centres such as Lüderitz (±13 500); Oranjemund (±11 000) and Keetmanshoop (±12 000), with the remaining population spread across the region in smaller settlements such as Berseba (±5000), Aroab (±5000), Bethanie (±2000) and Tses (±2000).
Improving the lives of Karas people
Much has been done in the past decade to improve the lives and fortunes of Karas people. Happily, expenditure on education now sees school enrolment of some 94 % and an 18+ years literacy rate of 87%. Social services such as health are well served by urban hospitals and district clinics, as are most services such as electricity, sanitation, potable water and communications, which reach the majority of this widely spread population.
Average household income of around N$26 991 pa exceeds the national average (N$17 198), giving this region a so-called “ affluent commercial area” ranking (the second highest in the country) and the latest international HDI (Human Development Index) places the region in the ‘mid range’ of the Human Development Scale. (These figures could be based on the ‘wealth’ of alluvial diamonds, fish, zinc and other precious minerals found in the region. However, these resources have alluded the populations of the region and national statistics on poverty levels rate the regional population below average).
Reaching the region’s poorest
Despite the gains of development in the past ten years, a sizeable rural population still faces many of the developmental pressures of many nations on the African continent: Food Security, HIV & AIDS, and Unemployment.
Though HIV & AIDS infections to date are estimated at in excess of 200 000 people nationally (±11%), the epidemic has the potential to wreak havoc on smaller populations as it has done elsewhere on the subcontinent and Government is actively involved in programmes to halt the spread of the virus and to treat those infected. The threat remains a large one!
Chronic food shortages have, in the past, seen more than 60% of household income in the region spent on food and though addressed by social assistance programmes where possible, Karas recognises the crucial importance of attracting viable and self-sustaining economic activities to outlying and resource-poor areas.
Of the 65% of economically active people over the age of 15, both private and public sector jobs currently account for less than half of all employment – much economic activity in rural areas remains informal and occasional, a situation that can only be improved by a concerted effort to open up more opportunities for the region’s young unemployed and to emphatically improve the pool of skilled labour.
Though many businesses continue to absorb, train and mentor individuals into gainful economic activity in urban centres, rural areas still lag behind. The region has therefore made it an imperative to actively recruit and encourage investors to kick-start a variety of commercial projects and schemes presently under investigation – with highly persuasive benefits offered.