Series Editor: Jonathan Crush

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 27

PLEASE NOTE: Readers are welcome to reproduce and reference
this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.


Namibia is a large, sparsely populated country, which shares common borders with Angola and Zambia to the north, Zimbabwe and Botswana to the east, and South Africa to the east and south. As a largely semi-arid country, drought is endemic to Namibia, yet at least 60% of the population live in the rural areas. The more fertile and better watered northern and north-eastern regions are home to more that half of the national population of 1.6 million. Windhoek is the capital city, and with a population of around 220,000, is about seven times the size of the second largest urban centres of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, which are situated on the Atlantic coast, deep within the forbidding Namib Desert. Oshakati in the central north is growing rapidly, and is fast competing for second place to Windhoek in terms of population size and annual growth rate (Figure 1).

Namibia won its independence from South Africa in 1990, and this political liberation heralded a new era of border control between Namibia and South Africa, which had remained porous for both Namibians and South Africans until that time. Tighter cross-border controls were accompanied by the total removal of internal influx controls. Independence therefore brought with it considerable changes in the internal migration patterns and population concentrations in the country. On the one hand, migratory labour to South Africa all but ceased; yet, on the other hand, internal migration and urbanisation grew rapidly.

Because Namibia only became independent in 1990, statistics were not kept for the former South West Africa, as the territory was considered part of South Africa, and administered as a fifth province. Cross-border movement between Namibia and South Africa was therefore unrecorded until 1990, while formal cross-border movements between Namibia and its other neighbours were virtually non-existent, due to the war in the northern areas of the country, and the significant military presence and control of the borders.

Moreover, any formal movement between the former South West Africa and other countries would have been enumerated under the auspices of South Africa, and so remain undifferentiated for the period up to 1990. Compounding this situation, Namibia has taken some years since independence to set up systems and controls relating to cross-border migration, thus contributing to the dearth of data in this regard.

There is no substantial research available which addresses the complete range of internal and international migration dynamics, particularly since 1980. The focus of migration research has been on internal migration to Windhoek, and to a far lesser degree, to other towns in Namibia.[i] This gap in the knowledge base of Namibian domestic migration justified the first national migration survey in Namibia, which focused on internal migration, and was carried out in 1998.[ii] This chapter therefore draws significantly on these recent findings regarding migration trends and patterns in post-independence Namibia.

With regard to cross-border migration, particularly, between Namibia and South Africa, there is likewise little official documentation available. Nonetheless, where information has been made available by government sources, it is reported in this chapter. The South African government keeps contemporary statistics on Namibians in South Africa, and this data has also been included. The Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) commissioned a national opinion survey in Namibia on cross-border migration issues in 1998, and where possible, relevant data from that project have been used to substantiate cross-border migration trends reported.[iii]

This overview chapter examines in some detail the cross-border and internal migration trends and patterns in Namibia after independence, and considers the central policy implications of the findings for the country. The chapter is divided into three major sections: (a) internal migration and urbanization, (b) cross-border migration, and (c) policy implications.

[i]  I. Tvedten and M. Mupotola, Urbanization and Urban Policies in Namibia. SSD Discussion Paper No. 10, Social Sciences Division of the Multi-Disciplinary Research Centre, University of Namibia, 1995.

[ii] W. Pendleton and B. Frayne, Report of the Findings of the Namibian Migration Project. Windhoek: Social Sciences Division Research Report No. 35. Multi-Disciplinary Research Centre, University of Namibia, 1998.

[iii] Bruce Frayne and Wade Pendleton, Namibians on South Africa: Attitudes Towards Cross-Border Migration and Immigration Policy, SAMP Migration Policy Series No. 10, 1998.