World News

Namibia: more than a sacred trust profaned

October 2 1978
World News

Namibia: more than a sacred trust profaned

October 2 1978

Namibia: more than a sacred trust profaned

World News

The tense southern African scene tightened a notch last week when South Africa told the UN to break off its attempt to see the territory of Namibia safely to independence. While the five Western nations—Canada among them—responsible for the UN plan considered their position, local guerrillas who had been expecting to take part in a UN administered election got out their guns again and called on the East bloc (some of whose troops and advisers are handily placed in Angola) for arms and aid. Maclean’s Africa specialist, Dan Turner, reports from Windhoek:

When the League of Nations entrusted the windswept, sparsely populated territory of Namibia, then known as South-West Africa, to the government of neighboring South Africa shortly after the First World War, it emphasized that a solemn responsibility—a sacred trust of civilization—went with the mandate.

How South Africa has fulfilled that trust has come in for increasingly critical scrutiny. But the international concern which greeted last week’s decision by South Africa to impose its own political solution on Namibia represents the biggest crisis yet in its 59-year involvement with the territory.

According to Article 22 of the League Covenant, the South African government was instructed to promote to the utmost the material and moral wellbeing and the social progress of the inhabitants of the territory. And three of the 14 prominent tribes did flourish under the trust—the Afrikaners, the Germans and the English. By the 1960s Namibia had the second-highest average standard of living on the African continent, behind only Libya, while its plentiful resources of diamonds, uranium and copper provided a substantial economic base for hardworking whites willing to carve prosperity from the remote Namib, the oldest desert in the world.

Not so fortunate were the tribes that made up the other 90 per cent of the territory’s million people—the Ovambos (accounting for almost half the total population), Damaras, Hereros, Kavangos, Namas-Coloreds, East Caprivians, Bushmen, Basters, Kaokolanders and Tswanas.

Material well-being for the lucky miTiority in this group meant getting to work for low wages in the territory’s prosperous mines and living in generally squalid compounds, separated from families.

Social progress was slow under a segregated South African-run education system whose average 1976 expenditure was $859 per white student, $186 per colored and $56 per black.

There are various explanations for the discrepancy—a white businessman in Windhoek, the capital, says it’s because “the bastards don’t pay the taxes we do.” A senior South African diplomat says it’s because the Afrikaner is so damned honest—“he’s not going to offer educational equality when that implies a political equality he isn’t going to grant.”

Given such concern about their black fellow citizens’ state of development it isn’t surprising to find white reservations about their capacity to handle majority rule. It is not unusual to hear a white South-Wester ask what a black South-Wester could possibly know about democracy when he has never been allowed to vote, complete with the dizzying implied corollary that the same white community which has restricted the voting to itself all these years understands democracy perfectly.

It isn’t surprising either that when the South African government, under increasing pressure from world opinion, produced a plan for Namibia’s “independence” last year that plan involved a system of proportional representation on ethnic lines which would leave the white minority in a dominant position; would keep foreign affairs and defence under South African influence; and would ignore the existence of the SouthWest African Peoples’ Organization (SWAPO) that has been fighting a guerrilla war against South African domination for years.

Nor is it surprising that, in the end, after flirting with a United Nations plan which would have integrated SWAPO into the political system, allowed for one-man, one-vote elections, provided for the virtual withdrawal of South African armed forces from Namibia and the loss of its naval base at Walvis Bay, the Pretoria government has finally decided to buck world opinion.

The official reason for the decision to break with the UN solution was that Namibians were entitled to majority rule quicker than the UN was going to provide it. So after an election by “universal adult suffrage” and transfer of power on Dec. 31 this year, Namibia will “decide for itself” whether it wishes to opt for the UN solution.

The diplomatic war over the UN proposal has arisen because it has important implications. For the UN itself this was an opportunity to refute critics who say it is irrelevant.

For the five Western countries that initiated the UN plan—the U.S., Canada, Britain, France and West Germany—it offered a chance to counter increasing Soviet and Cuban influence in Africa by advancing self-determination and by helping to further a government that would not owe a debt to Eastern bloc military assistance.

For South Africa, the implications were enormous. Daniel Tjongarero, cochairman of SWAPO’s nonmilitary internal wing, said in Windhoek recently that if a solution were found that accommodated both whites and blacks, much stronger voices—both white and black—would be raised in South Africa itself for a similar solution.

This fact—coupled with a need on the part of candidates (see box) for the succession to retiring Prime Minister John Vorster to act tough and a threat that the longer voting was delayed the better would be SWAPO’s chances—clearly outweighed all other considerations, even the threat of an international trade boycott. This in spite of the fact that, as a Canadian diplomat in Pretoria said recently, the South African economy is starving for outside capital and the black unemployment level is starting to become alarming.

What happens now is not entirely clear. Vorster’s announcement had the customary South African political quality-opacity. It seems unlikely, however, that Pretoria will seek to reverse the social changes that in the past year or more have seen the ending of the pass laws which restricted nonwhite movements; the admission to hotel rooms of nonwhites provided they “act white”; and the relaxation of the law that forbade racially mixed marriages or even lovemaking.

Politically, it will be a different story. “Universal adult suffrage” is a comforting phrase, which is no doubt why it was chosen. But the rejection of the UN plan, as Vorster and his colleagues probably calculated, itself was sufficient to goad SWAPO’s main leadership (there is a smaller, less militant wing) under Sam Nujoma to drop out of the elections.

That seems to leave the way clear for the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) led by Dirk Mudge, a white man. Named after the constitutional convention, which first brought blacks and whites together to discuss Namibia’s future in 1975, DTA is divided into 11 segregated units—one all-white party and 10 nonwhite tribal groupings. It is clearly regarded by South Africa as preferable to SWAPO and it was probably the belief that DTA would be defeated in the UN-administered elections that led South Africa to break with the UN.

The repercussions of that decision, however, were felt well beyond the borders of Namibia itself. In announcing its decision not to participate in the election, SWAPO pledged itself to a stepped-up guerrilla war and called for more military help from the East bloc. That in turn, as British Prime Minister James Callaghan and Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda agreed in hastily convened talks at the week’s end, could shake the stability of Namibia’s neighbors. Zambia, which hosts SWAPO guerrillas, is especially vulnerable. South African stubbornness is also likely to increase white Rhodesian reluctance to come to terms with the black majority, thereby prolonging bloodshed there. If it does, more than the sacred trust in Namibia will have been profaned.