WORLD

Illusion of victory in the desert

A special report on Africa’s longest war

April 27 1981
WORLD

Illusion of victory in the desert

A special report on Africa’s longest war

April 27 1981

Illusion of victory in the desert

WORLD

A special report on Africa’s longest war

As diplomatic exchanges over the future of Nam ibia heated up this week—a call for sanctions against South Africa was a possibility at the United Nations—Africa's longest-running war was continuing between guerrillas of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) and the South African army. Maclean’s correspondent Cary le Murphy, who returned last week from the front., filed this progress report..

The name Eenhana means “place of the hills,” but around this hot, flat, dusty bushland in the northern reaches of Namibia there is nothing that resembles a hill. The highest point is a gun tower and observation post strung with camouflage netting. Below it are an airstrip, a parking lot filled with mine-proofed vehicles and a tented army camp dotted with bright green and yellow signs in Afrikaans and English: SHOOT TO KILL; THE PEOPLE AT HOME BELIEVE IN YOU AND SUPPORT YOU; HISTORY IS WRITTEN BY VICTORS.

Eenhana Camp is field headquarters for South African Infantry Battalion 54. The several hundred young white South Africans based at this remote military outpost are in the front line of the country’s battle with SWAPO insurgents who operate from Angola just eight kilometres away.

In 1966—the same year the United Nations ordered South Africa to leave Namibia and it refused—this conflict was spawned by a clash between a small band of black guerrillas armed with Soviet sub-machine-guns and pistols and a South African police patrol. Today, it involves some 6,000 insurgents and at least 20,000 South African soldiers.

It is also a war that has come under increasing international attention since Zimbabwe’s independence a year ago. Four years of diplomatic efforts by Canada, the U.S., Britain, France and West Germany to work out a ceasefire as a prelude to elections for an independent government ran into a brick wall last January when, at a United Nationssponsored conference in Geneva, South Africa refused to sign a ceasefire, calling any settlement “premature.”

The Reagan administration has made Namibia one of its foreign policy priorities. Last week, the assistant secretary of state-designate for Africa, Chester Crocker, completed a race through 11 countries in 13 days sounding out heads of state about his proposals to revive the stalled Western initiative. It was not always smooth sailing. Six “frontline” African states—Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana and Tanzania—meeting simultaneously, accused the United States of supporting “puppet” South African-backed guerillas trying to topple the Angola government, and sharply “reminded” the Western Five of their “responsibilities” over Namibia. In addition, Crocker was snubbed by Mozambique’s President Samora Machel and South Africa’s Prime Minister Pieter Botha, the latter because Crocker refused to call SWAPO a Communist-controlled movement. The American envoy will discuss the results of his trip with the four U.S. allies in London this week as the UN Security Council meets.

As far as the military in Namibia are concerned, however, the failure in Geneva was fine. “Winners don’t sign ceasefires,” said one colonel. From the commander-in-chief on down to the lowly privates, the South Africans believe they have SWAPO beat. “We’re getting better equipment, better weapons, we’ve improved our tactics, and we know the enemy far better,” says blonde, bespectacled Brig. Rudolf Badenhorst, sectional commander in Ovamboland, the heart of the operational area. Badenhorst, known to his troops as “danger,” paints a bleak picture of SWAPO: low morale, badly trained and very young recruits. “Any force which loses 100 to 150 men a month cannot fight on ad infinitum,” he says. South Africa says it killed 1,447 “terrorists” last year and so far this year close to 400, losing 95 men in 1980 and nine so far this year in the process.

The main reason South Africa has the upper hand is that it has taken the war into southern Angola. Its air and ground forces strike daily, and they do so with impunity; neither the West’s condemnations nor the Soviet and Cuban forces on the ground deter them. South African officials also claim they are winning what they call “the real battle” for the support and confidence of the 450,000 Ovambos who make up almost half Namibia’s population. But that is not at all certain.

“If SWAPO has lost support, why are they [the South Africans] afraid of signing a ceasefire and allowing an election?” retorts black Anglican Bishop James Kauluma. Even some senior South African officials serving in Namibia say privately that SWAPO is gaining support. Elections late last year for a South African-backed local government were cancelled and none of the political parties opposing SWAPO can hold political meetings. A lieutenant briefing his men prior to a security patrol tells them: “The local population does not usually give us information about the enemy.” An officer says during a briefing: “SWAPO moves in civilian clothes. They operate at night quite extensively [despite a dusk-to-dawn curfew], The facts are, they are getting to the people.”

Two weeks ago, about 45 guerrillas infiltrated the white farming area of Tsumeb. In January, they carried 122mm rockets almost two metres long over 50 km from the border to attack an army base at Oshakam. A few days later the bridge on the main road between Oshakati and Ondangua air base was blown up. Telephone lines and water pipes are broken regularly. And the captain responsible for lifting land mines, whose victims are usually black civilians, says he finds more now than a year ago. Two weeks ago, a convoy to Eenhana was attacked by a group of 51 insurgents. These incidents scarcely hurt the South Africans. But, says SWAPO member Daniel Tjongorero: “SWAPO’s aim is not to defeat this mighty army, that would be stupid.They are trying to keep them busy with sabotageuntil it becomes too costly to go on.”

South Africa is a long way from being tired of the war, one it regards as crucial to its own security. It introduced conscription for all Namibian males last January and appears to be digging in. New airstrips are being built on the border. The 208-km road from Oshakati to Ruacana on the border is being tarred. New gun towers are going up.

“To eliminate SWAPO as a military force and break its will to fight. That is our objective,” says the South African commander, Gen. Charles Lloyd.

Thirteen years ago, SWAPO’s cofounder-president, Herman Toivo ja Toivo, foresaw this test of wills. And before he entered a South African jail to serve a 20-year sentence for “terrorist activities” he said: “I know that the struggle will be long and bitter. I also know that my people will wage that struggle, whatever the cost.”