Month: May 2017

Know the History: Stock Theft and Taxes in Namibia

Published in The Namibian, 27 May, 2016. p. B16. [URL] [PDF]

Farm Workers with Karakul Stud Ram –
National Archives of Namibia Photo Collection 20011

I was sifting through files in the National Archives of Namibia last year working on my M.A. Thesis on economic and labour history in Southern Namibia. Throughout these long days, one inevitably finds archival files and boxes which, unopened, seem useless for the specific project one is working on. But when explored further, really interesting insights come forth. This is one of those cases.

Taxes and Labour

I was trying to understand the relationship between taxes and labour recruitment during the early years of South African colonialism in Namibia. In these years, seemingly strange taxes and fees were implemented and enforced: the Wheel Tax, the Dog Tax, Dipping Fees, etc. When one compares the revenue gained to the large financial costs of enforcement, it becomes evident that there were other motives to these taxes than just supplementing the state budget. Enforcing the dog tax in rural areas required huge amounts of ammunition, petrol, horses, metal for badges, not to mention the salaries of overworked police and bureaucrats. It is difficult to do a formal cost analysis because of the often incomplete data, but it’s clear that many taxes were a net loss for the colonial state. Why implement and enforce them then? In order to explain further, let’s get some context.

Dr. Wolfgang Werner, Associate Professor at N.U.S.T., wrote in his 1998 book ‘No One Will Become Rich’: Economy and Society in the Herero Reserves in Namibia, that the early years of South African colonialism were a time of ‘self-peasantisation’. This means that black Namibians were deliberately trying to remove themselves from wage labour to pursue an independent existence. Mobility and land access was facilitated by the internment of many German farmers and the removal of German police; it took time for the South Africans to move in. One of these strategies Dr. Werner briefly explored in his dissertation was stock theft. This intrigued me, so I looked deeper.

Stock Theft in Keetmanshoop

I found an interesting file in the National Archives describing a controversial case of stock theft near Keetmanshoop. Mr. R.J. Van Wyk migrated to German SWA from the Orange Free State around 1907 with Sara Bloom, a South African woman, and her two children from a previous marriage: Christian and Susanna. They arrived in Keetmanshoop district and began raising sheep.

In September, 1915, Van Wyk wrote to the Administration in Windhoek reporting stock theft and his subsequent inability to find any black Namibians who would work for him. When the war broke out, Van Wyk left Keetmanshoop district for Prieska in South Africa for ‘business reasons’. He left behind 3000-4000 sheep under the supervision of his stepson Christian. When he returned a year later, he found only 963 sheep remaining. Out of confusion, he searched nearby farms and black locations, noting a significant increase in the numbers of black-owned sheep. In addition, all of the sheep he found in the locations had the ears ‘mangled’ – cut off low at the base of the ear, removing any ID tags Van Wyk would have used. He had no other identification for these sheep, so the administration responded to his letter saying that he cannot prove they were stolen.

When the Magistrate interviewed Christian about the matter, he found it was far more complex than a case of spur-of-the-moment stock theft. Christian, Susanna, the workers and servants were regularly beaten by Van Wyk with sjamboks. Christian claims that he was once hit by Van Wyk with a brick and knocked unconscious. Also, Van Wyk was never actually married to Christian’s mother. After her death in 1911, Van Wyk began forcing himself upon Susanna, Christian’s sister, aged sixteen, and he fathered a child with her. The actual reason for Van Wyk leaving to Prieska was to avoid being prosecuted for indecency: fathering a child with Susanna and falsely stating that she was his wife. He fled just before the arrest was to be made.

Black Karakul Sheep – National Archives of Namibia Photo Collection 02580

These testimonies can teach us a lot about stock theft during this period. Christian admits that a few hundred stock were sold to pay for workers’ wages, food, and clothing after Van Wyk fled to Prieska. He also notes that there was near universal hatred for Van Wyk. It becomes clear that the sheep were taken in a planned manner with forethought, perhaps with the assistance of Van Wyk’s ‘stepson’ Christian Bloom. Regardless of the new owner of the sheep, all had cut the ears to reduce identification purposes.

A Political Statement

So what does this have to do with taxes? In these early years of South African rule, taxes became an important way to coerce black Namibians to work on white-owned farms; many taxes were not about state revenue. As Dr. Werner pointed out, many black Namibians were distancing themselves from wage labour. Stock theft was a way to gain self-sufficiency; stealing enough sheep so you could qualify for a ‘labour exemption certificate’ was a crucial way to avoid becoming dependent on abusive white employers like Van Wyk (exemption was granted to Namibians with more than ten cattle or fifty small-stock). Taxes served as a way to make independent existence more difficult and cut into the gains black Namibians made after the Germans were defeated.

To conclude, was all stock theft like this? No. Many stock were stolen on a one-off basis; someone wanted a sheep, so he took it. What the R.J. Van Wyk case shows us, though, is that stealing sheep during this time was more than just a ‘criminal’ activity; it was a political statement: a desire for economic and social autonomy from the white colonial state. And it had the support of many people; one person could not have stolen over 3000 sheep from Van Wyk.

-N.B.: Names have been changed to protect anonymity. For those interested in learning more, consult National Archives of Namibia, ADM box 2, file A.13/15.

-Biographical Note: Bernard C. Moore is a doctoral student at the University of London, School of Oriental & African Studies. He recently completed his M.A. at Michigan State University, USA, with a thesis titled ‘Canines, Carnivores, Capitalism, Colonialism: Some Transformations in Hunting, Agriculture, and Labour in Southern Namibia, 1915-1930s’. He can be reached at 081 613 3538 or

Know the History: Namibia’s Dog Tax

Published in The Namibian, 4 September 2015, p. B3. [URL]

Abraham Morris, ca. 1914 – National Archives of Namibia Photo Collection 17697

“This photo is of Abraham Morris, my grandfather. He fought against the Germans, and then later, the South Africans.” Mr. Timoteus Morris was giving me a short tour of the community museum at Warmbad; every exhibit, every photo and map – he knows the history. “You see these military reports; these were from the 1922 Bondelswarts War, when the Nama people, my people, fought the South Africans.” I asked why the war began – what caused it? Mr. Morris gave three reasons: “Dog Tax, Branding Irons, and Land.”

It’s sometimes difficult to explain to people why I’m studying the history of the dog tax in Namibia. Many researchers from the USA tend to romanticise certain aspects of history – big ideas, big events. When I say I’m working on the dog tax, people American and Namibian alike tend to sometimes look at me like I’m wasting my time; they often respond with questions like: “Is this needed”? History, though, isn’t just the story of big men and big events, it’s the story of how those big events effected the lives of ordinary people. In the Namibian case, looking at the dog tax is a way to understand colonialism and how it created a system to coerce Namibians into the labour force.

Warmbad was one of the first settled places in Namibia and it was once a much larger town before the building of the railway and the growth of Karasburg and Keetmanshoop. As the Bondelswart Nama migrated to the area from the Orange River, they came with their dogs. The Warmbad hot springs were discovered when the Kaptein saw the dogs were soaking wet – which was a sign that there must be a permanent water source. With increased German settlement at the end of the nineteenth century, though, many Bondelswarts found their way of life becoming increasingly at risk – shepherding was not as easy as it once was. White settlement had taken much of the prime land and water holes, so it’s not surprising that they joined up with the rebellion in 1904. Superior weaponry and supplies, however, forced the Bondelswarts to accept a “Treaty of Submission” at Ukamas in 1906. This reduced the size of their territory, initiated pass laws to leave the reserve, and placed them under German law.

In addition, by 1907, the Germans passed the Hundesteuer Ordinance – the dog tax. With regards to the Bondelswarts, negotiations at Ukamas exempted the reserve and the Warmbad location from other fees and taxes, especially the grazing fees. When the South Africans took over after WWI, the dog tax became one of the few enforceable taxes in the Bondels reserve; and for that reason, it was enforced quite vigorously.

Each year, all dogs had to be registered with the magistrate and have a small metal badge attached around the neck (see photo). Under South African rule, the fees increased significantly. Anyone who failed to pay the tax, African or European, was given a fine, the dog was killed, and if he was unable to pay the fine, he was sentenced to prison with hard labour. The 1917 tax collection resulted in at least 3,000 African-owned dogs killed by police; the number of European-owned dogs killed: 135.

By 1921, the tax was increased to £1 for a “standard dog” and £5 for a greyhound or a “native hunting dog.” What was a “native hunting dog”? No one really knew; the magistrates repeatedly wrote to the administration asking for advice for how to determine it. It was up to the individual colonial policeman to decide what dog was a hunting dog and what wasn’t. The only guarantee is that Europeans could not own a “native hunting dog.”

Now why does this matter? It’s because £5 was a lot of money for a Namibian to pay to have his dog registered. At that time, £5 was about three-months farm wages, or the sale of 5-8 small stock. For the registration of a dog, that was a big monetary sacrifice; and for that reason, many Namibians had to hide or kill their own “native hunting dogs” in order to avoid being prosecuted by the police. But why the focus on “native hunting dogs”?

The SWA administration firmly believed that dogs were behind destruction of game. However, only in official communications regarding dog taxes were they blamed. In the archival files labeled “Game: Destruction of,” the culprits were drought as well as poaching by White farmers and South African rifle parties. So although Black Namibians were hunting game from time to time with dogs, this was much more opportune than planned, and it was not the reason for destruction of game.

Perhaps the reason for the dog tax, though, lies in the labour question. Throughout the central and southern parts of SWA at this time, there was a serious farm labour shortage. The growth of the Karakul industry increased labour demand, but yet the mines were still paying higher wages. Indeed, in some of the Magistrates reports, they note that hunting with dogs was a “lazy way” of earning a living, and hunting offset the “moralizing” effects of “honest labour” – contract/wage labour.

Taxing dogs, therefore, had two major results. First, like other colonial taxes, they “monetized” economies, creating a necessity for cash possession and exchange. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, limiting the number of dogs used in shepherding activities severely constrained the ability of shepherds to protect and grow their stock. Paying the tax for dogs, often “native hunting dogs,” necessitated selling some stock each year for slaughter, thereby preventing stock accumulation, or else one had to take up wage labour on White-owned farms.

South West Africa Dog Licence, 1920-21 – National Archives of Namibia Ephemera Collection A0839_X018

The brass dog tax badge looks remarkably like the old German pass tokens for labour in the police zone; perhaps this similarity is not just coincidental, but deeply symbolic. The dog tax played a large role, along with other state policies, in pulling Namibians away from self-sufficient livelihoods into contract/wage labour. The history of the dog tax isn’t the story of big men or big events, but the story of how those big events affected the daily lives of every Namibian who just wanted to hang about with man’s best friend.

If you have any personal knowledge about the dog tax, hunting with dogs, or anything that I briefly brought up above, I’m interested in hearing your story. Please contact me at +1-516-850-4418, or at

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