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The Namibians of South-West Africa

1 April 1978

Namibia is a large country, well-endowed with commercially exploitable resources, with an African population who have been severely oppressed for most of the last hundred years under colonial occupation by first the Kaiser’s Germany and then South Africa. South Africa has ruled the country under a mandate initially bestowed by the League of Nations after ‘the war to end all wars’: a mandate intended as a ‘sacred trust’ until the territory’s people could rule themselves. After another World War, unlike the other colonial powers which began dismantling empires – sometimes willingly, sometimes reluctantly – South Africa doggedly clung to its valuable colony in the face of opposition from all other members of the United Nations, numerous UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, and in defiance of the International Court.

Unlike most of the reports from the Minority Rights Group, this report does not deal with people who are numerically a minority. Over 90 per cent of the population of Namibia are African or ‘coloured’ people of African descent. Less than 10 per cent of the total population are white, and many of these have been residents in Namibia for relatively short periods, especially those involved in the present South African administration. Yet there are overwhelming grounds for regarding the Namibian people as a suitable subject for an MRG report, for (as previously in Zimbabwe before independence in 1980, and as currently within South Africa itself), the majority of the population are effectively excluded from political power on any terms other than those laid down by the white administration and are denied any opportunity for economic and social equality. This equality of opportunity cannot be realized under South African rule; therefore, for most Namibian people, independence is vital. Unless free elections can be held, as demanded by the Security Council of the UN, and without South African interference or intimidation, ‘independence’ will be in name only, and the conflict will continue and will probably only find a violent solution.

When the first edition of this report appeared in 1974, even though the dispute between South Africa and the UN had continued on this issue for over 28 years, the conflict in Namibia was rarely reported. Little known in the outside world: the name ‘Namibia’ – over eight years in existence at that time – needed ‘South West Africa’ in brackets after it to ensure that even relatively well-informed people would know its location. Four years later, a second edition of the report was published when South Africa claimed that Namibia would receive its independence by 1979 in the form of an ‘interim government’ after elections in which SWAPO had been excluded. The years since then, ironically, have seen true independence for the Namibian people as remote as when the first edition of this report was written. This is even though the liberation movement, SWAPO, has gained a large degree of international credibility and has seemingly the support of the great majority of the Namibian people across both geographical and ethnic lines. It is also despite increasing international concern at the stalemate in Southern Africa, especially by the Western powers who (in the form of the ‘contact group’) have placed political pressure on South Africa to come to an arrangement to grant independence to Namibia.

1984 has been a decade’s most significant year politically for Southern Africa. It signified a series of defeats for those front-line states who achieved independence from Portugal in 1975, only to be riven by civil war, compounded by economic recession and the most severe drought in Southern Africa this century. South Africa has placed severe pressure upon the regimes in Angola and Mozambique by signing the ‘Lusaka Agreement’ and the ‘Nkomati Accord’ in February and March, respectively. These agreements linked the ending of South African involvement in both countries with each country’s disowning of links with African liberation movements. In the Lusaka Agreement, the South Africans agreed to withdraw from the territory they occupied north of the Cunene River within 30 days, while Angola agreed to an immediate ceasefire. While the Angolans have cooperated in denying the guerillas any access to the territory being vacated, step by step, by SADF, it was only in April 1985 that the majority of South African troops were withdrawn. The results for SWAPO have been another setback, although it has enabled them to concentrate on guerilla warfare within Namibia. SWAPO has insisted that it will maintain an armed struggle unless South Africa will abide by a UN-negotiated settlement. An attempt at negotiation was made in May 1984 when President Kaunda of Zambia attempted to bring the Namibian and South African sides together in reaffirming general support of Resolution 435 and in July SWAPO President Sam Nujoma met the AdministratorGeneral of Namibia, Dr van Niekirk, on Cape Verde Island. SWAPO insisted that any advance to independence must occur under UN auspices, guaranteed by a multi-national monitoring force. The South Africans expressed a willingness to sign a ceasefire agreement without an immediate implementation of Resolution 435, but when SWAPO would not agree to this, the talks broke up. Many commentators doubt how serious South Africa is concerning any attempt at real independence for Namibia.

The procrastination of the South Africans has undoubtedly been aided by the question of ‘linkage’. This concept attempts to tie the question of the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola with the withdrawal of South African forces from Namibia. While there is a substantive difference between the two situations – the Cubans were invited into Angola by the recognized government of the day, while South African forces are occupying Namibia in direct contradiction to UN resolutions – the question of mutual troop withdrawal has become a major block to any negotiated settlement. This is especially because the present administration in Washington sees its priority as ‘rolling back communism’ in Southern Africa, and the ‘Namibia card’ as a chance to pressure Angola into sending the Cubans home. Angola has already offered a phased withdrawal of its Cuban forces, in return for a complete South African withdrawal from both southern Angola and Namibia and ending of direct support for the UNITA rebel movement ; however this might take up to three years, and South Africa has demanded a withdrawal within three months if the two countries are to conduct ‘serious negotiations’. Yet given the state of civil war in Angola it is unlikely that the Luanda regime can survive without some military support from outside. In the meantime, South Africa has shown no sign of ending its support for UNITA. South Africa is determined that any independent Namibia should be cut off from ‘Marxist’ influence across the Cunene River. As yet, there is no clear outcome for Angola and Namibia. The British publication Africa Confidential said bluntly in its issue of 14 November 1984 that the negotiations would ‘take time – probably years’ but that the reelection of President Reagan meant that South Africa “has another four years to ensnare Luanda in its web of client states . . . once Luanda is in, the rest of the jigsaw – including Namibia – falls into place’.

Within Namibia, the South African response has been to support forming a new ‘interim government’ through the Multi-Party Conference (MPC). The main task of this government will be to draft an independent constitution, which will then be placed before the Namibian people in a ‘national referendum’, which will take the form of a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. Pretoria hopes that despite overt Western hostility in establishing an internal government at this stage, tacit Western backing for such a strategy will be forthcoming. Yet the South Africans, through the Agent General for Namibia, will retain veto power over legislation proposed by the new Assembly and direct control over foreign affairs, defence and internal security. However, the MPC appears to have little popular support and is highly factionalized, while SWAPO and its allies, despite the setbacks of recent years, have credibility both inside and outside Namibia.

As this report goes to press, there are signs that the US is finally becoming impatient with South African procrastination. There are new and urgent pressures in the US to put pressure on South Africa – notably the renewed campaign against apartheid, the rising wave of dissension within South Africa and the brutal repression of black protest. After four years of frustration with its policy of ‘constructive engagement’, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Dr Chester Crocker, has presented a compromise agreement to the South Africans and Angolans to resolve the differences concerning a Cuban withdrawal from Angola. This involves withdrawal by Cuban forces in southern Angola in step with the implementation of 435 but with some 5-10,000 to remain in the north to protect the oil industry in Cabinda – the source of 90 per cent of Angola’s income. As of June 1985, Pretoria had yet to respond to the Crocker compromise formally. If there is a negative reply, then the US has made it clear that the continued interest of the US in seeing a mediated settlement in Namibia would be limited. This might mean that the US would be reluctant to protect South Africa at the UN, especially with its veto at the Security Council. If this were to happen and the UK were also to abandon South Africa, then UN sanctions and other action might be a real possibility. But whatever the scenario, there appears to be no quick or easy road to independence for the Namibians. This report attempts to provide background on the Namibian case, an account of the events of the last decade, and some of the problems facing a newly independent Namibia. Until the advent of independence, with genuinely free elections under UN supervision and control, there will be no hope of ending almost a century of oppression, violence and injustice.

Please note that the terminology in the fields of minority rights and indigenous peoples’ rights has changed over time. MRG strives to reflect these changes as well as respect the right to self-identification on the part of minorities and indigenous peoples. At the same time, after over 50 years’ work, we know that our archive is of considerable interest to activists and researchers. Therefore, we make available as much of our back catalogue as possible, while being aware that the language used may not reflect current thinking on these issues.

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Peter Fraenkel