When Namibia gained its independence in 1990 there was still something missing on the map. South of the Swakop River there was an 1124 km2 hole where Walvis Bay should be. Why did South Africa cling to this enclave and why did Namibia want it unified with the rest of the country?

Walvis Bay was claimed by the Cape Colony back in 1795 but was only formally annexed by Britain in 1878 to prevent Germany from claiming this strategic natural deep-water harbour. In 1910 it became part of the Union of South Africa on its formation. After the Great War, the rest of South West Africa was added onto Walvis Bay to be administered by South Africa as a mandated territory. Realising the political tides were changing and preempting possible formal sanctions, South Africa decided in 1977 to return the harbour to the Cape Province. Slick move… Only the UN didn’t think so and demanded that Walvis Bay’s annexation be revoked, stating in its General Assembly resolution 32/9 D that the area is an integral part of Namibia. But at independence, South Africa still would not let go.

Calling it the enclave, South Africa held onto Walvis Bay for another four years, administering it from Cape Town as a part of South Africa, even though the harbour is situated in the centre of Namibia’s Atlantic coastline. The ridiculousness of this situation was manifested by a border post and a large sign welcoming visitors to South Africa when entering the enclave.

Walvis Bay’s great strategic importance on a long stretch of arid and dangerous coastline that has no natural deepwater harbours had been recognised by the British 200 years prior. For the same reason they denied the harbour to Germany. During the Cold War, Walvis Bay was seen as a valuable forward base not only because of the deepsea harbour but also because it would place Soviet naval bombers and reconnaissance planes within range to control most of the Southern Atlantic and its critical sea routes. For this reason, South Africa could not immediately jettison Walvis Bay in 1990.

The Namibian government felt, and rightly so, that Walvis Bay and its people belonged to Namibia. At the same time, the country was being denied a valuable economic asset. This was proven when the Trans-Caprivi and Trans-Kalahari highways opened in 1999 and 1998 respectively. These roads link landlocked African countries to Walvis Bay, giving its port vital economic importance.

By 1992, however, the Cold War had ended and maintaining a far away base had become a financial headache to the South African government. The writing was also on the wall that white rule in the country was going to end soon and holding on to a piece of land that’s more than 600 km north of your border is aimless.

During negotiations between the two governments in August 1993, South Africa finally agreed to relinquish sovereignty over Walvis Bay to Namibia. “Rarely in the history of mankind does a time come when all the parties to a conflict can truly claim to be victorious. The return of Walvis Bay and offshore islands by South Africa to Namibia is one such moment in history,” said then Prime Minister Hage Geingob on the eve of the handover.

In front of a packed Kuisebmond Stadium, dignitaries from all over Africa, Founding President Sam Nujoma, and South African Justice and Defence Minister Kobie Coetzee representing his president, FW de Klerk, the South African flag was lowered at midnight on 28 February 1994. In the morning residents for the first time woke up under the Namibian flag, knowing that the last puzzle piece that made up Namibia was firmly in its rightful place.