The Rehoboth Basters

The Rehoboth Basters regard themselves as a distinct community by virtue of their unique history and the fact that they have been living in their own territory for over a century. Their origin dates back to 1652 when the first Dutch colonists under Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape of Good Hope. European settlers came into contact with the local Khoesan peoples and the children born from this association were called ‘bastards’ or ‘coloureds’, giving rise to two distinctly separate groups of people, descendants of whom later moved to Namibia.

In the mid-1800s some ninety Baster families moved northwards from the Cape, first residing at Warmbad, then migrating northwards to Berseba and, in 1870, finally settling at the hot-water springs called Rehoboth. This area had formerly been occupied by a Nama tribe, the Swartboois, who had moved to Bokberg or Erongo over Otjimbingwe and Salem, and eventually to Fransfontein. In due course the Rehoboth Gebiet became the fatherland of the Basters, recognised as such by the South African Government in as early as 1915.

The Rehoboth Baster community of today consists of approximately 72 000 people. Their first language is Afrikaans, and their way of life resonates that of their Afrikaner forebears. In Baster society the family is the most important socioeconomic unit, functioning independently within the community. At their own request they are registered as Rehoboth Basters, as they regard themselves as a separate community from the Coloureds. While the word ‘Baster’ traditionally denoted ‘of mixed blood’ in a derogatory way, the group calls themselves Rehoboth Basters with pride.

Their surnames reflect that they are of mixed descent, as evidenced in well-known Baster family names such as the Afrikaans Cloete, Beukes, Diergaardt, Mouton, Maasdorp, Louw, Coetzee and Van Wyk; the English and Scottish Wentworth, McNab and Dunn; the German Bayer, Rittmann and Husselmann; the Nama Witbooi; the Damara Garises and Gowaseb and even the Italian Bertolini. Traditionally stock and crop farmers, today’s Rehoboth Basters are involved in many other economic sectors, especially the building trade. A large number commute to Windhoek on a weekly or daily basis.

Christianity has greatly influenced Baster communities and lifestyles, playing an important role in their lives to this day. There are no less than 40 churches in the small town of Rehoboth, mostly Lutheran and Roman Catholic, with many splinter groups, a number of which are amalgamations of traditional tribal beliefs with Christianity.

An annual festival that serves to strengthen the national identity of the Rehoboth Basters is the two-day commemoration of their confrontation with the German colonial troops at the place called Sam Khubis on 8–9 May, 1915. A group of Basters had resisted joining up with the Germans against the South African forces, especially when they realised that the South Africans were likely to gain the upper hand. Fearing for the safety of their families, they left Rehoboth with their wives and children and took refuge among the koppies at Sam Khubis. Here, they were ambushed by the German forces, and suffered many casualties. Upon hearing that large contingents of South African troops were advancing from the south, the Germans unexpectedly withdrew, and the Basters gained the impression they had retreated. The Basters have commemorated these two days every year ever since. In 2000 a monument was built at the site to honour their kinsmen who had lost their lives at Sam Khubis.