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Recordkeeping and Missing “Native Estate” Records in Namibia: An Investigation of Colonial Gaps in a Post-colonial National Archive

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Recordkeeping and Missing “Native Estate” Records in Namibia: An Investigation of Colonial Gaps in a Post-colonial National Archive


"This dissertation explores the historical origin of practical challenges experienced in user services of the post-colonial National Archives of Namibia (NAN).

It was motivated by the observation that many requests by Black Namibians for civic records such as divorce orders, adoption records, and estate records from the period of colonial and apartheid rule in Namibia cannot be served by the NAN despite intensive time-consuming searches, while similar requests by White Namibians can be served without problems within minutes. While it could be assumed that this disparity originates from the racial discrimination under colonial apartheid rule, a literature study revealed that the issue why and how the colonial situation affected the content and accessibility of the archives has not been systematically researched.

This research gap inspired an in-depth exploration of the colonial records at the National Archives of the decolonized Namibia, using deceased estate records of Black Namibians (or “Native estates” as they had been called) as a case study. The study investigates the colonial legal framework for the creation and management of the estate records, the actual Native estate files in custody of the NAN, as well as the finding aids, archives databases and the own administrative files of the NAN. It explores the relationship between the historical legal environment, the creation, management, disposal, listing, appraisal, destruction, archiving, indexing and metadata enhancement of the Native estates records over the colonial period, between 1884 to 1990, and their alleged absence from the NAN.
The author discovered a large but not systematic corpus of over 11,000 “Native estate” case files which had been assumed destroyed or lost, but also established substantial gaps in the holdings of such records. Only a few of those gaps could be explained by documented destructions, but the study traces the causes for the loss and inaccessibility of substantial records to the combined effect of racially discriminatory legislation, a confusing and haphazard legislative and regulatory framework for Native estates, and an all-pervasive apartheid ideology that also affected the appraisal and the creation of discovery tools at the Archives.

The dissertation concludes with a programme to “decolonize the archives”, recommending to unlock the full potential of the previously hidden “Native” records, not only by recording and indexing them in discovery tools but also by enhancing search options to alleviate the search problems caused by unstandardized name spellings and non-Western naming and kinship systems.

It is anticipated that this study will raise awareness about similar gaps, stir debate and lead to further research about archival deficiencies with other types of person-related records, in Namibia as well as in other decolonised nations, in order to establish how far their national archival records are responsive to the needs of all citizens."



Ellen Ndeshi Namhila


University of Tampere




Bernard C. Moore


© 2015 Tampere University Press and the author


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PhD Dissertation



Ellen Ndeshi Namhila, “Recordkeeping and Missing “Native Estate” Records in Namibia: An Investigation of Colonial Gaps in a Post-colonial National Archive,” Namibia Digital Repository, accessed March 18, 2019,

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