The main surviving group of Basters are those inhabiting the ‘Rehoboth Gebiet’, a territory of 5,000 sq. m., some 50 m. south of Windhoek in South-West Africa. The size of the population living in the ‘Gebiet’ at any one time is difficult to estimate. According to the 1960 census the Basters numbered 8,960, a figure which remains more or less stationary. In addition there were about 40 Whites, well over 2,000 Nama and Damara, and a good many recent Coloured immigrants from other parts of South-West Africa and from the Republic, as well as other non-Whites to the number of about 5, 000. The majority are thus the descendants of early Basters, the pioneers of the territory during the latter half of the 19th century, and they insist on being called Rehoboth Basters, a term which they reserve strictly to themselves. The Administration of South West Africa has decided that the Whites in the ‘Gebiet’ must sell their land to the Administration within a stated period. Such land will afterwards be settled by Basters.
These Baster pioneers of South-West Africa (about 90 families) emigrated from the Cape Colony in 1868 to avoid competition and conflict ‘with the more wealthy, pushing and determined Boers’, who were encroaching on land the Basters regarded as their oven. The trek took place under the leadership of their missionary, J. C. F. Heidinann, and their captain, Hermanus van Wyk. They moved slowly and were constantly on the look-out for a tract of country in which they could settle. At Nisbet Bath (Warmbad) they stopped for a month. Here they drew up a constitution, elected a Raad, and gave formal recognition to the office of their captain. By the beginning of 1870 they were in the neighbourhood of the Konkiep River, where they heard of an unoccupied stretch of fertile country owned by the ‘Rooinasie’ (Hottentots). They obtained this land (later called Rehoboth) from the Rooinasie, and here the Baster people were built up.
The constitution of Nisbet Bath was amended in 1872 and new laws were made to suit the needs of this self-governing community, which now began to lead a more or less settled existence. Life in the new land, however, was by no means easy or without danger. For over 20 years the Basters were forced to take part in the wars between Hottentots and Hereros, now on one side, now on the other, for the sake of self-preservation; and in 1875 their new land was in danger of expropriation when emigrant Transvaal Boers (who later settled in Angola) tried to secure the territory from its former owners. The insecurity of the Basters was temporarily alleviated by the advent of German rule, which became effective in 1893, although as early as 1885 they had entered into a treaty of protection and friendship with the Germans. The Basters agreed to recognise the protectorate, and assisted the Germans during the Herero and Hottentot rebellions of 1904-06. In return their traditional autonomy was guaranteed to them.
But as the Germans gained more power in South-West Africa the Basters began to lose their autonomy. For example, in 1906, after the death of Hermanus van Wyk, the office of captain was no longer recognised; and Van Wyk’s son Cornelius was styled Gemeindevorsteher (a sort of Mayor) by the Germans. In 1915, during the First World War, the Germans repudiated the treaty on the grounds that the Basters had refused to take part in military operations, and that allegations of violence on the part of the Basters against certain White farmers and a policeman had been received. War was declared against the Basters in April 1915, but bloodshed was averted by the arrival of Gen. D. McKenzie and his South African troops.
After the war the new status of South-West Africa as a territory under a C mandate of the League of Nations greatly affected Rehoboth, as its immediate result was the proclamation of an ‘Agreement’ in 1923 regarding the administration of the ‘Gebiet’ (this German form of the name having survived) between the Administrator of South-West Africa (as representing the Government of the Union of South Africa) and the Basters. Although this ‘Agreement’ was signed by all the members of the Raad except the Captain, who was ill, it had been rejected only a few days before by the overwhelming majority of Rehoboth Burghers on the grounds that it made serious inroads on their traditional autonomy. (In point of fact the ‘Agreement’ restored some of the rights which the Germans had revoked in 1906.) It is said that the Raad acted against the wishes of the majority of the Burghers because they feared the consequences of opposing the Administrator. Their fears appear to have been justified, for as soon as it became clear that the majority of Basters were not prepared to accept the ‘Agreement’, a proclamation was issued transferring all powers and duties of the Captain to the Magistrate, and making any attempt to usurp these powers an offence. When the Basters flouted this piece of legislation and elected their own captain and councillors, police troops and three aeroplanes were sent to Rehoboth to capture the village. No shot was fired, but over 900 Basters were found guilty of unlawful assembly.
Order was gradually restored, but the Magistrate continued to hold the office of Captain, and provision was made for an advisory board consisting of six Basters to assist him. Up to 1920 Rehoboth had only one church, a branch of the Rhenish Missionary Society, which served the whole of the community. Today there are five churches: The Rhenish Church of South-West Africa, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Church of the Province of South Africa (Anglican). The members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Rhenish Church of SouthWest Africa all used to belong to the old Rhenish Missionary Society, but for theological and other reasons they now constitute separate denominations. Closely connected with the churches are the schools, of which there are 35, including a high school. Most of them are farm schools.
Although the Gebiet contains some of the best cattle country in South-West Africa, its potential productive value has never been realised, owing mainly to bad farming methods and a continuous process of subdivision of land. As a result many members of the community have tended in recent years to become migratory labourers, since money can be earned in the larger towns, especially in the fishing industry at Walvis Bay, to augment local incomes.
The Basters and Coloureds mix freely with one another, but rigid segregation is maintained between the Baster-Coloured group and the Nama-Damara group, which constitutes the domestic and labourer class in the community. The Whites tend to keep to themselves, although certain White and Baster families are on friendly visiting terms.