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Beer, politics and identity – the chequered history behind Namibian brewing success

A bottle of Windhoek beer and a half-filled glass next to it
A bottle of Windhoek Lager beer stands on the terrace of Hotel Thule in Windhoek. Oliver Berg/picture alliance via Getty Images

A concise history of the beer industry in Namibia written by history scholar Tycho Van der Hoog begins with the pithy observation by American singer-songwriter Frank Zappa to the effect that every nation worth its salt needs an airline and its own beer.

As it happens, the first no longer holds true, while beer remains a marker of national and, for that matter, subnational identities.

The brewing industry is today regarded as a source of national pride in Namibia. Windhoek Lager has not merely conquered the domestic market but has made substantial inroads south of the border where South African Breweries held a de facto monopoly for decades.

This is a tale, lovingly told, of an unlikely success built on the most fragile foundations. The early sections of Breweries, Politics and Identity: The History Behind Namibian Beer are, in effect, a careful piecing together of fragments of information about a series of operations that were very small and left little trace.

The history

The nascent breweries relied on the consumption of a very small number of Germans who remained in what was then known as South West Africa after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 under which Germany finally ceded loss of the territory. The territory was part of the German Empire from 1884 until 1915 when it was invaded by South Africa.

The first local brewery was established in 1900. Van der Hoog traces the fierce rivalry between breweries in the “beer triangle,” consisting of Windhoek, Swakopmund and Omaruru. This rivalry culminated in the eventual merger that constituted South West Breweries in 1920 – the company that eventually assumed the current name of Namibia Breweries Limited.

The main rival to South West Breweries from the mid-1920s was the Hansa Brewery. These two companies struggled through the ups and downs of the decades that followed. During World War 2, the breweries were suspected of pro-Nazi sympathies and were placed under close surveillance. The author provides a brief, but fascinating account of the subterfuges that were necessary to acquire German hops, the distribution of which was routed through third countries.

The most satisfying section of the book investigates the relationship between South West Breweries and South African Breweries. Van der Hoog notes that the South African company initially acquired a stake in South West Breweries (which had taken over Hansa Breweries in 1967) and acquired the right to make and sell Hansa Pilsner under license in South Africa. When the two companies parted company, South African Breweries retained the use of this trademark for the South African market.

The author maps a long history of suspicion, and eventually open warfare, between the Namibian brewery and its much larger South African neighbour.

Realities of South African rule

The story after 1919 is intertwined with the realities of South African rule, initially under a League of Nations mandate from 1919 to 1945 and subsequently under occupation in defiance of the United Nations. A ban on the sale of alcohol to Africans was imposed in 1920. This was in conformity with the terms of the mandate and was arguably more restrictive than in South Africa itself.

This changed with the passage of the 1928 Liquor Act, which entrenched racialised prohibition in South Africa, following which the liquor laws seem to have converged. In line with the South African model of control, beer halls were opened by municipalities dispensing an imitation of “native beer” – the proceeds of which financed the administration.

In both countries, illegal brewing and shebeens proliferated in the 1950s. This led to the abandonment of racially exclusive liquor legislation over the following decade. This happened in Namibia in 1969, seven years later than south of the border.

Van der Hoog demonstrates that the escalation of the liberation wars across the subcontinent had an important impact on the beer industry. The north of Namibia, particularly Ovamboland, had been treated as a South African labour reserve and had been isolated from the rest of the territory. No beer could be sold there, in effect, but the author indicates there was a lively trade in smuggled beer from Angola. The civil war that accompanied the messy withdrawal of the Portuguese had an impact on the cross-border trade in the mid-1970s.

South African soldiers, who backed one side in the war in Angola from bases on the northern border, created a demand for South African beer. But there was also an opportunity for South West Breweries to sell its beer into Ovamboland effectively for the first time.

Interestingly, Van der Hoog also reveals that brewing changes were made as late as 1986 to differentiate the products of the company from those of South African Breweries. With a lower alcohol content, Namibian beer incurred lower excise duties in South Africa.

Identity politics

The identity politics surrounding Namibian beer set in soon after. The author points to the elision from beer as a white Germanophone preserve to the embodiment of the newly independent Namibian nation after 1990. Despite a chequered relationship, the author notes that once in power, the South West African People’s Organisation – which led the war against South African occupation and took over running the country after independence – repeatedly blocked South African Breweries from establishing a brewery in Namibia to protect the brewery. This decision was reversed in 2015.

At the same time, Namibia Breweries Limited was able to make significant inroads into the South African market. The creation of a brewery inside South Africa, in tandem with Heineken, positioned the Namibian brewer within a regional struggle for dominance among some of the largest corporate players in the alcohol market.

The book is based on a wide range of archival sources and interviews and is accompanied by some fascinating photographs and examples of advertising material. The writing is understated, and it does not set out to make grand statements – even in relation to the matter of identity. It is also much more about the history of Namibian brewing than of beer consumption per se.

Given the richness of the material, it is a monograph that one feels could have been fleshed out in many different directions. The author has laid down a marker that he, or someone else, will hopefully follow up in the future.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Journal of Wine Economics.

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