Namibia: The Last Buffer

South Africa persists in fighting a guerrilla war to prevent the installation of another Marxist regime on its border

THIRTY YEARS AGO, Otillié Abrahams was sent to Cape Town for high school, because it was impossible for non-whites to get a decent education in South West Africa. She joined a militant student union that advocated her country’s independence from South Africa. She was twelve years old.

At twenty-two, she was caught smuggling arms and helping plan a guerrilla war against South Africa. She barely escaped with her life. For the next five years, she and her husband were in and out of prisons in various African countries, as their governments took sides in the factional disputes within what had become the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO). They went on to live the idyllic, if lonely, life of African intellectual exiles in Sweden.

Today they are back at home, the beneficiaries of an amnesty declared in 1978. While their former SWAPO brethren fight a seemingly endless bush war with South African soldiers, the Abrahamses look for another way to achieve independence for their country, which most people now know as Namibia.

Otillié Abrahams is hardly typical. She is known as the first black woman college graduate in her country. Even that statement is not strictly true, for officially she is not a black. Alternately considered a “Coloured” (the mixed-race group that was formed centuries ago in South Africa’s Cape province) or a “Baster” (a smaller mixed-race group, regarded as the pioneers of civilization in Namibia), Abrahams was finally classified under the apartheid laws as a member of racial group number 69: “Other.” She lives in Windhoek, the capital, among middleclass whites, rather than in the townships reserved for non-whites on its fringes. That is now her privilege, as the regulations of petty apartheid begin to be lifted in Namibia.

NAMIBIA IS ONE of the most sparsely populated countries in sub-Saharan Africa. With an average of three people per square mile (compared with sixty-six per square mile in Kenya and 202 in Nigeria), it is made up mostly of the Namib and Kalahari deserts and the high plateau in between–all the more desolate and forbidding as a result of the severe drought that has afflicted southern Africa for the past several years. But its million people could probably live in relative prosperity if the nation’s mineral wealth were ever fully exploited. Namibia is rich in diamonds, copper, uranium, and other strategic minerals. (An old saw has it that the deposits are so rich that they sometimes disturb the instruments of airplanes flying tens of thousands of feet over Namibia.) That helps make it the most fought-over and negotiatedover territory in Africa today.

But Namibia has a symbolic importance for South Africa far beyond its minerals. Now that white-ruled Rhodesia has become the independent blackruled nation of Zimbabwe, Namibia is the last geographical buffer between the apartheid state and the rest of Africa; it is also the last political distraction that stands in the way of a more intense focus by the outside world on the explosive situation in South Africa itself.

A hundred years ago, imperial Germany bargained with Britain and Portugal and staked out South West Africa as probably its most valuable African property. But not much had been built or developed in the vast territory before it was occupied by South Africa, during World War I. Woodrow Wilson helped to block South African annexation of the country after the war, and the Treaty of Versailles placed it under South African administration—the rest of Germany’s African empire being divided among Britain (Tanganyika and parts of Cameroon and Togo), France (the other parts of Cameroon and Togo), ant) Belgium (Rwanda and Burundi). The League of Nations later formalized South Africa’s mandate.

For decades the South Africans ruled with indifference toward the indigenous peoples and without much challenge from inside or out. But legal trouble began in 1946, when South Africa and the League’s successor, the United Nations, began to quarrel over the country’s status. The UN would not consent to South Africa’s newest push for annexation, and South Africa would not agree to make it a “trusteeship” under the UN system. South Africa argued that it could still administer Namibia as a “sacred trust of civilization,” even though its other obligations had disappeared with the League. The UN said that those obligations were still in force and that South African conduct in Namibia violated the mandate.

In 1960, Ethiopia and Liberia, the only two countries in Africa that had never formally been Western colonies, brought a case against South Africa at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, challenging its right to be in Namibia and its performance there. The best legal minds of South Africa fought the court battle for years. The Court equivocated on the issue until 1971, but meanwhile the UN became bolder. In 1966, it revoked South Africa’s mandate in South West Africa. The General Assembly declared that the UN would have direct responsibility for the country until it became independent. The next year, it created a “Council for South West Africa,” and in 1968 it adopted for the country the nationalist name of Namibia. Repeatedly ever since, the UN Security Council has demanded that South Africa grant immediate independence to Namibia, and South Africa’s refusal has contributed to its growing diplomatic isolation within the United Nations and the world community.

South Africa also began to face a military challenge in Namibia in the late 1960s. SWAPO, previously a political protest movement, launched low-level guerrilla attacks in the Caprivi Strip, the knife-shaped piece of Namibia that juts eastward between Angola, Botswana and Zambia. But once the United Nations recognized SWAPO as a “national liberation movement” and the “authentic representative of the Namibian people,” in 1973, the nationalist rebels began to attract Soviet and other Eastern-bloc aid, which helped them turn the skirmishes into a war. After Angola became independent from Portugal, in 1975, SWAPO obtained a new sanctuary; eventually, it brought together the offices it maintained in Zambia, Tanzania, and Zaire, and established a headquarters in Luanda, the capital of Angola. When the UN General Assembly gave SWAPO its further imprimatur as the “sole legitimate” representative of the Namibian people, in 1976, it helped the group to rally additional African and other Third World support.

Most white South Africans have gradually come to accept the idea that Namibia will become independent—that it is not worth fighting an all-out war to try to hold on to South Africa’s only colony, and that such a war would, in any event, probably be unwinnable. But the South African government cannot accept the installation of another militant Marxist regime on its border. It is already made nervous by the rhetoric of Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and it fears that a SWAPO-ruled Namibia would be one more base for the African National Congress and other groups that want to carry the struggle against minority rule to South Africa. So a smaller-scale guerrilla war seems tolerable, at least until arrangements can be made that are acceptable to the white South African political system and internationally as well.

Many South Africans, of course, would have liked to impose on Namibia the same farcical kind of “independence” that has been accepted by Transkei, Ciskei, BophutaTswana, Venda, and other black “homelands” within South Africa. But Namibia is far too big, and too much an international cause célèbre, for any such status, and so the goal of the protracted military and diplomatic struggle is to find some way to avoid simply handing over Namibia to SWAPO. Six years of negotiations under UN auspices by a “contact group” of five Western nations (the United States, Britain, France, West Germany, and Canada) have produced many elaborate cease-fire and election formulas, but never an actual resolution. That resolution has seemed all the more remote ever since the Reagan Administration proposed, and the South African government delightedly seized on, a linkage between the Namibian settlement and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. South Africa and the United States say the Cubans must go before peace can come to Namibia. Angola, supported by most of the rest of Africa, says the Cubans cannot go until peace has come to Namibia and the South Africans stop invading Angola. The Angolans and South Africans have begun to meet privately, but their positions still seem far apart.

MEANWHILE, FOR ALL the swirl of international diplomatic activity, in Namibia itself, the economy has deteriorated. Taxes on mining companies provide the bulk of local revenues, but mineral prices are down, and so revenues are too. Some beef is exported, but even the fishing business is in a slump, and South Africa’s annual economic and military subsidy to prop up Namibia is estimated at $1 billion or more. For the moment, war and politics are the country’s only growth industries.

Windhoek is the center for both, and so, oddly, it has the aura of a boomtown. It is like an outpost where a few skyscrapers were built in anticipation of growth that never occurred. Despite its size, its isolation, and its languor, Windhoek has a veneer of worldliness. There is a “Bangkok Massage” parlor, an exotic way to flaunt the permissiveness that has emerged in this society as the South Africans have begun to let go. But the real symbol of the outside world is the Kalahari Sands Hotel. There, people just in from the bush stand baffled as they try to figure out how to use the escalator from the shopping level up to the hotel lobby. They are serenaded with “Winter Wonderland” through speakers, even as the temperature outside goes to 100° and beyond. Perhaps half the patrons of this hotel and its bar openly carry weapons; many of them are young, rowdy South African soldiers just back from “the border” (also known as “the operational area”), stopping to clean up and have some fun on their way home.

Windhoek also has quaint German churches, restaurants that serve heavy German food, and German street names that commemorate Bismarck, the Bahnhof (railroad station), and even Hermann Göring’s father, who lived here for a time. The main street is called Kaiserstrasse. Germans still make up almost a third of Namibia’s white population, officially estimated at 76,000. They farm, run gem shops and other retail establishments, or work as professionals. They have seen many crises come and go in their beloved “Südwest,” and find it hard to imagine that they might ever have to flee. Most of them have lived here all their lives; they work and shop and pray in German and get most of their news of the world from a German-language daily newspaper published in Windhoek. Politically they are moderate, and they tell you privately that they believe the South Africans have made a mess of things in this beautiful land.

Most of the other whites are Afrikaners, members of South Africa’s unique white group, who tend to see themselves as political missionaries serving nobly on the front line of civilization. Some are descendents of the Dorsland Trekkers (Afrikaans for “travelers to the thirsty land”), men who went north from South Africa in search of opportunity. They sometimes went as far as Angola, where they married Portuguese women and returned to this frontier territory. Here they could start ranches or easily find other jobs, and count on greater tolerance of their mixed marriages than they could at home. The frontier mentality still prevails for many Namibian Afrikaners, and they have a rigid view of the future that has seriously complicated South Africa’s problems. The nationalist party to which most of them belong is so right-wing as to be an embarrassment to its counterpart back home.

Namibia’s black population is very diverse indeed. The Ovambo, of the north, because they make up at least half the country’s population, are often feared and resented by the other groups, especially the Kavango, Herero, and Damara. The Basters, who are mulatto, have held themselves apart as a group entitled to privilege. Nearly everyone has persecuted the San (also called Bushmen), and the Khoikhoi (also called Hottentots), the original inhabitants of the area, who have been reduced to a presence and a status roughly comparable to that of the American Indian. Over the years, all of this conflict played into the hands of the South Africans, who are ideologically intent on proving that everyone is better off if each group lives separately.

It is almost as difficult in Namibia as in South Africa to keep everyone truly apart, but the interim governmental system established here by Pretoria for the transition to independence has turned out to be a highly sophisticated form of apartheid. “AG-8,” the South African administrator-general’s decree that serves as the country’s temporary constitution, provides for two separate “tiers” of government. The first tier is the national authority, but it actually has little responsibility for the matters that affect people’s daily lives, such as education, housing, health, and agriculture. Those are reserved, for the most part, for the second tier, or ethnic authorities. There are eleven, each for a distinct tribal group, including one for all the whites.

Each ethnic authority is entitled to tax its own people as it sees fit, and that is the mechanism by which the whites continue to assure themselves the best schools and other services without even having to think of sharing them with other groups. The duplication is obvious, and the waste and corruption enormous. The Ovambo ethnic administration, for example, seeking to assert its jurisdiction in the north, where SWAPO is strongest, bought a fleet of MercedesBenz for the use of all its top officials. Ovamboland is governed according to a sophisticated system of political patronage, with the local elite awarded privileges that will discourage them from flirting with SWAPO or otherwise challenging the established system.

And yet, as much as the ethnic divisions have been formalized and strengthened in Namibia, Windhoek, as the cosmopolitan capital, is a place where people of different colors actually mingle freely at political and social gatherings, where white families have been known to adopt and raise black children. A few years ago, the South African authorities began to recognize that some form of black rule was inevitable in Namibia, and set out on a good-will campaign to demonstrate that an independence on their terms would be preferable to one on SWAPO’s terms. They began by improving the facilities available to the majority of the people. So it is that the slick new hospital designated for blacks has the only intensive-care unit in town.

The township where most of the blacks of Windhoek live is called Katatura—a Herero name that translates roughly as “the place to which we do not wish to go.” (The name was originally an informal one; it is not clear whether the government knew what the word meant when it accepted the name officially.) In fact, the black people of Windhoek resisted their forced removal in 1959 from another part of town, the “old location,” to make way for a construction project. On December 10 of that year, the South Africans shot and killed eleven of the protesters who refused to leave their homes, and wounded forty-four others. Those people are still revered as martyrs, and the older generation resents the very existence of Katatura, but today most of its residents live in relatively decent conditions. Even with a substantial immigration of rural Namibians into the capital (now that “influx control” has been lifted), there are none of the filthy squatter camps that have become so common on the outskirts of the black townships near Johannesburg, Cape Town, and other South African cities. In one of many local ironies, the best neighborhood in Katatura, with the nicest houses and the most modern amenities, has been informally dubbed “Soweto"— after the seething black township outside Johannesburg that holds many more people than all of Namibia.

IT IS EXTRAORDINARILY difficult to obtain reliable information about the war that is being fought 500 miles to the north. There are none of the traditional body counts or public announcements of military engagements, and strict censorship laws prevent both the South African and the Namibian press from displaying much initiative. As the mother of one young South African assigned to “the border” put it, “We really don’t find out anything. Some of our children just turn up wounded, and a few don’t come back at all.” The numbers are still small enough to discourage reckless curiosity or serious protest.

A visit to “Bastion,” the South African Defense Force (SADF) headquarters in Windhoek, produces a briefing on operations in the war zone. Elaborate wall charts and detailed slides reveal a gradual decline in the number of “terrorist incidents” caused by SWAPO forces, but a continuation of “intimidation,” both “hard” and “soft.” Hard intimidation occurs when the guerrillas demand food and other help from the villagers, explains the South African briefing officer, and “soft intimidation is when they just go into the village and talk.”

It is scarcely possible to make out the Namibian-Angolan border on the military’s maps of the operational area, except that on the northern side there are many spots labeled “KUB” to indicate the location of Cuban troop concentrations or bases. As far as one can tell, the Cubans keep to the task of supporting the Angolan government while Angolan forces fight their own bush war, against rebels led by Jonas Savimbi, and they maintain a distance from SWAPO, thereby minimizing direct contact with the South Africans. But the briefing officer makes no attempt to conceal the frequency and ferocity of South African incursions into Angola in search of SWAPO bases. Especially effective are the members of the “Three-two Battalion,” ex-Angolans and American and European mercenaries who joined up with the South Africans in Namibia after the civil war in Angola in 1975. They are known for taking no prisoners.

The picture that emerges is of a South African rout of the insurgent forces. The number of SWAPO’s fighters has apparently dwindled to fewer than a thousand inside Namibia, and perhaps 5,000 in Angola who want to invade Namibia but are unable to do so, because the South Africans have succeeded in shrinking the border area where they can operate freely; the guerrillas have been known to fill out their ranks by kidnapping Ovambo schoolchildren and putting weapons in their hands.

While occasional boasts of success are good for morale, the South Africans have actually been reluctant to acknowledge the extent to which they hold the upper hand in the Namibian military struggle, and there are several possible explanations for this reluctance. Certainly the government does not want to risk a decline in popular support for the war effort or to face the allegation that it has sent too many troops north. (The exact number is secret, but reliable estimates run to 35,000.) The need to contain the menace of a nearby Sovietarmed enemy has been politically useful for South African Prime Minister P. W. Botha. Then there is the argument, widely credited in Windhoek, that the South African government has used hidden bases in the northern part of Namibia, some 1,000 miles north of any base inside South Africa, to fly photo reconnaissance missions over central Africa and beyond, and to conduct secret commercial relations with Zaire and other black-ruled nations that are official enemies but valued customers.

In any event, the SADF appears to control South African foreign policy in southern Africa, and it takes a dim view of the endless negotiations over Namibia. “We would not be happy with a negotiated settlement,” the briefing officer at Bastion said. “Why should we give it away, when we’re winning the war?”

In the meantime, the South Africans have begun to militarize Namibian society, creating a South West Africa Territory Force as an alternative to SWAPO—the embryo of an army for an acceptably independent Namibia. To a degree, the tactic has worked. Many black Namibian soldiers are fighting at the border on the South African side; in Windhoek, they strut along the streets in military dress. As one local politician put it, “Until recently, our girls wouldn’t even think of dancing with men in uniform. Now that’s changed. The soldiers are becoming heroes. The army has become the chief employer, a symbol of economic security.”

IF THE SOLDIERS strut, the politicians sit and scheme—ever hopeful that an election is just around the corner and eager to be in the right position when it comes. In the daytime, they stop at Schneider’s Tea Parlor to collect the latest rumors; at night, they gather at the Kalahari Sands to speculate on their country’s future. If an outsider should be in town, whether from America, Germany, or just Johannesburg, they will converge upon him and seek his opinions, informed or otherwise, on the prospects for a resolution of Namibia’s troubles.

At last count, Namibia had about forty political parties. If one added up all of their claimed memberships, the total would probably be more than twice the population of the country. There is a humor and a futility to some of their rivalries, exemplified by the informal competition to see which party can sew and sell the most caftans with its colors to the people in Katatura. There are figures such as Andreas Shipanga, once a dynamic leader of SWAPO, now the head of a breakaway faction called SWAPO Democrats. Although he appears to be ignored at home, he travels in the Western world at the expense of conservative American foundations and think-tanks that have singled him out as an exemplary African leader. And there is a potential for tragedy and fratricidal bloodshed, given the fact that almost every party is thought to be able to mobilize thousands of armed partisans in a crisis.

The issue of independence and how to achieve it has divided many families in Namibia. For example, Otillié Abrahams and her husband have launched their own small political party, the Namibian Independence Party. One of her sisters, Nora Chase, is secretary for foreign affairs and information of the South West Africa National Union (SWANU), one of the original independence movements in the country but now just another small party. While Abrahams lives in town among the elite, Chase affects a more militant stance, living in a black township on principle. Two other sisters still work for SWAPO.

So chaotic is the domestic political situation in Namibia that when the representatives of German foundations came to Windhoek late last year looking for deserving recipients of political development grants who would be tied neither to South Africa nor to SWAPO, they finally gave up and took their money home.

For several years, one Namibian political figure who seemed to be charting a workable temporary compromise was Dirk Mudge, a rich white rancher who said he wanted to take the country out of South Africa’s clutches but still assure a stable, pro-Western course of development. Mudge’s multiracial coalition of ethnic parties, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (named for the historic meeting hall where it was formed), won the internal Namibian election sponsored by South Africa in 1978 (and boycotted by SWAPO), and as a result Mudge became a sort of prime minister of the first-tier authority. But four years later, the most important black politician in the DTA, Peter Kalangula, an Ovambo leader, withdrew from the coalition, with South African encouragement. Increasingly, Mudge’s administration began to look like a minority within a minority, and when the South Africans failed to find a way to replace him with Kalangula, they simply dismissed the first-tier national authority altogether and last January resumed direct rule of Namibia through an administrator-general reporting to Pretoria.

The South Africans hope that a moderate reformist like Kalangula will be able to win the loyalty of Namibia’s emerging black middle class and prevail in an election. Just the appearance of support from Pretoria, though, is enough to brand him a “collaborationist” and doom his prospects. And that, in turn, improves the chances of the current leader of SWAPO and its guerrillas, Sam Nujoma, to win a UN-supervised election, if one is ever held, even if he cannot win the war. Nujoma, by all accounts a man who has no tolerance for opposition or dissent, has not appeared publicly in Namibia in more than twenty years for fear of being killed, but he has come to be seen by the ordinary people as the hero who would liberate them. Thus the South Africans have virtually ensured the fulfillment of their worst prophecy, and that circumstance has become the main pretext for further delaying elections—and independence.

Stalemate in Namibia serves the domestic political needs of the South African government. At a time when P. W. Botha is embarking on a limited reform by bringing Coloureds and Asians (but not blacks) into the governmental system at home, he can hardly afford to be accused by his right-wing opponents of “losing South West.”

But even if elections should come in the next several years, and if SWAPO should come to power by democratic means, it is unlikely that much will change in Namibia for a long time. After nearly seventy years of rule, South Africa enjoys total economic control of the country. It does not consider sovereignty over Namibia’s major port, Walvis Bay—which was a South African enclave even during German colonial days—to be a negotiable issue. (Indeed, it has strengthened its forces there and given Walvis Bay direct representation in South Africa’s white parliament.) The railroad lines, air routes, and roads—not to mention electricity and water supplies—can be easily controlled from South Africa. A simple decision in Pretoria is all it would take to cut off most of Namibia’s food supply within days. A SWAPO government would have to take that into account before it tried to assert true independence from South Africa.

As Otillié Abrahams puts it, “With a little sabotage, the South Africans could starve us all in a month.” In Uganda, after Idi Amin took power and the economy fell apart, she says, “the people could go into the jungle and eat bananas. All we’ve got here is sand.”

–Sanford J.Ungar,