The Odendaal Plan: "Development" for colonial Namibia

By Dr. Christo Botha, Head of the History Department at the University of Namibia

In 1963 the South African government published the Report of the Commission of Enquiry into South West African Affairs, commonly known as the Odendaal Report, after its chairman, Fox Odendaal, former administrator of the Transvaal Province. 
In many ways the report can be considered a watershed in the history of Namibia, but not necessarily in the way the South African government intended.
South Africa's decision to commission a study to recommend the best ways to promote development in Namibia, should be seen against the background of increasing domestic and international opposition to South Africa's occupation. The Odendaal Report can be seen as central to South Africa's political and social-economic response to this offensive.

In a revealing statement in the introduction to the report, the authors effectively conceded that very little had been done to promote development of the African people of Namibia. However the report argued that a sound foundation for development could only be achieved by the white population group, which explained why government support was largely directed at the white commercial farming sector. The Odendaal Commission recommended that the next stage of 'development' should be based on the ethnic division of Namibian society.

The creation of so-called homelands for each ethnic group was proposed, not because it was believed that it would provide a better way of promoting development, but because it was argued that a unitary Namibia would lead to constant conflict caused by ethnic rivalry. Critics argued that this blueprint would merely reproduce white domination and splinter development projects. However, to understand why the Odendaal plan failed to achieve its objectives, one should look beyond the ethnic argument. The plan failed to bring development due to its inadequate investment in human resources and the fact that its primary aim was clearly political manipulation, rather than economic development. The plan did have some positive outcomes. A lot of money was made available for capital projects in Namibia. For the first time piped water was channelled to communities in Owamboland. Significant concessions in land were also granted to African communities to expand the former communal reserves. In the former Damaraland alone, 223 white farms were purchased to be included in the new homeland (in purely statistical terms, the land made available to black Namibians in terms of the Odendaal plan substantially exceeds that which has been made available by the Namibian government since independence).

The huge Kunene Hydro-electric scheme was developed in the 1970s to provide power to towns and industries in the rest of Namibia. The Bantu Investment Corporation (BIC) was established to promote small-scale industrial and commercial development in homelands through loans to entrepreneurs, traders and artisans. A significant expansion of health and educational facilities (clinics, hospitals, schools and colleges) took place.

However the fatal weakness of the plan was that it was conceived as an instrument to achieve political, not socio-economic goals. African participation in the administration was to take place in a segregated fashion, thereby preventing the development of an integrated economy and society in Namibia.

Whilst training and education opportunities increased people were channelled into the very limited economic opportunities in the homelands or a few low-paid jobs in the white dominated central area of Namibia What is significant about the way the Odendaal recommendations were implemented, is the fact that unlike in South Africa and Zimbabwe, for example, colonial officials did not drastically intervene in the affairs of African communities in Namibia to support development. In South Africa in the 1950s, this was called betterment. It derived from concerns about soil degradation and its aim was to reorganise communities by separating land into sections for the grazing of stock, cultivation and settlement. The same happened in Zimbabwe when the Native Land Husbandry Act was introduced to compel people to utilise land more effectively, i.e. like commercial farmers. In Namibia when people were resettled in the new homelands, each family was granted a section of a former commercial farm, usually a camp or two.

Here they were supposed to farm effectively, meaning that they were to sell-off excess stock, maintain and repair infrastructure, practice scientific farming practices, in short, invest capital in order to maximise income. The problem however, was that hardly anybody possessed the resources to do this most were very poor, they possessed very little stock and had no access to credit, either private or public. It is no surprise that people failed to farm scientifically and rather simply tried to survive. Interestingly enough, the colonial administration, while constantly telling people what poor farmers they were, avoided introducing drastic steps to force black people to comply with official guidelines. South Africa wanted to establish a social layer of wealthier peasant farmers, who, together with small groups of traders and lower middle class people (teachers, nurses, civil servants) could provide support for the states campaign against political organisations, such as SWAPO. To achieve its political objectives, South Africa resisted introducing measures that would alienate African people in homelands and turned a blind eye to corruption and mismanagement in these areas. The destructive message of the Odendaal plan was that local economic development was dependent upon effective ethnic political mobilisation. Ethnic groups were constructed as competitors, rather than Namibians with a common national interest.

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