Thinking with empire: A view from Namibia

This paper briefly explores the concept of empire for rethinking some of the parameters of southern African history. Framed from a perspective of Namibian history, I first elaborate on some of the limits posed by national historiography and how, in Namibia, history has been increasingly tuned to nationalist agendas. This has been accompanied, as I argue in the paper, by a growing sense of self-referentiality in much of the academic and public debates on Namibia’s past. Yet, Namibia’s growing isolation in the realm of African scholarship is in part also a legacy of the country’s long experience of South African colonial occupation and, we might argue, tutelage in the realm of knowledge production. The intellectual relationship with its southern neighbour continues indeed to be troubled by a deep structural inequality, which requires any historian of 20th century Namibia to inevitably engage South African historical frameworks and debates, while on the other hand South African history remains by large indifferent to Namibian history and reluctant to acknowledge its own history as a colonising power.

Against this backdrop the paper draws from my work on the history of the Red Line, a border fence that materialised during South African occupation, and came to constitute one of the key structural elements in Namibia’s history. Thinking about this border in terms of what Jürgen Osterhammel has called the imperial barbarian border, the paper argues that the Red Line can be understood as the border of a South African imperial formation and hence invites us to think about the sub-continent’s history in terms of and with empire.

About the Author

Giorgio Miescher holds a postdoctoral research and teaching position for Namibian and Southern Studies at the Centre for African Studies of the University of Basel. His research interest lies in the field of history, geography and visuality and the intersections of these three fields. He currently works on a book entitled ‘Thinking with empire: Historical geographies of South Africa’s imperial space’ which explores the material and visual construction and representation of a supposed imperial formation in Southern Africa in the 20th century. He was previously a researcher and curator at the Basler Afrika Bibliographien, a Namibia resource centre in Switzerland, and was a part-time lecturer at the History Department of the University of Basel.

Giorgio Miescher has widely published in the field of Namibian and Southern African history with a special interest in questions of space and visuality. He is the author of Namibia’s Red Line: The History of a Veterinary and Settlement Border (New York, 2012), published also in German in 2013. He is co-author of the recently published exhibition catalogue Usakos: Photographs beyond ruins – the old location albums, 1920s-1960s (Basel, 2015) and of the award winning African Posters (Basel, 2004). He co-edited the Special Issue ‘South African Empire’ of the Journal of Southern African Studies 41 (3, 2015), Global Perspectives on Football in Africa: Visualising the Game (London, 2013), Posters in Action: Visuality in the Making of an African Nation (Basel, 2009) and New Notes on Kaoko (Basel, 2000).

Since 2007 Giorgio Miescher has curated several exhibition projects which were an integral part of an international European-Southern African collaboration between students, lecturers and curators of institutions of public learning such as universities, archives and museums.


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