Alternative names: formerly South-West Africa
Location: Large desert country in south-western Africa
Population: 1-1.3 million (est.)
% of population: Ovambo approx. 50%; no other group more than 10%
Religion: Christian (Lutheran, Catholic, Anglican), indigenous African beliefs
Language: various

Namibia is a multi-ethnic country, which, after having spent a century as a colony of other nations, is scheduled to achieve independence in April 1990. Although the indigenous African Namibians are the great majority of the population, they have, in effect, been treated as an underprivileged minority, and have been denied self-determination and equality. As a newly independent nation, one of the problems Namibia will face is to give equal opportunities to its various constituent peoples.

Ethnic groups

Population figures in Namibia are not especially reliable because of effects of war and refugee exodus and because there is good reason to believe that the African population has been underestimated by South African officials. In addition apartheid-type terminology has been employed dividing the African population (but not the white) into ethnic-subgroups. However Namibians are not as divided as the official classification might suggest as many of them are of mixed descent; some groups are closely related to others and many groups live in close proximity.

Over 90% of the Namibian population is African. Of these the Ovambo are by far the largest group, comprising over half-a-million people, or about 50% of the total population. They were primarily a pastoral people who came from the north centuries ago to settle and today occupy the area of northern Namibia known as Ovamboland. The Herero are traditionally herdspeople who settled in the centre of present-day Namibia some time after the Ovambos in the north. They probably constitute between 7% and 8% of the population. The Namas are often referred to as Hottentots, a name they resent. They are related to the San (Bushmen) but settled in the area much later. They are settled in the south and probably comprise about 5% of the population. The Damara arrived with the Namas and lived among the Hereros and Namas, working for them as herdsmen. They probably comprise between 7% and 8% of the population. The Kavango are one of the largest groups living in the north-east of Namibia and may comprise anything between 6.5% and 9.5% of the population. The Orlams are a group of the Namas who returned from further south in the nineteenth century due to pressure from white colonial expansion in the Cape. Many spoke Dutch and were Christians. The Rehoboth Bastars are of mixed Nama/Afrikaner ancestry who today constitute about 2.5% of the population. There is also a larger group of about 4% of the population classified as “Coloured”. Other African groups include the East Caprivians of the extreme north-east, the San (Bushmen), the Kaokovelders of the north-west and the Tswana.

The White population comprises well under 10%, but large numbers who are counted as Namibian in the census are in fact South African officials and their families. Most whites are of Afrikaner descent with 25% of German descent.

South-West Africa

The original inhabitants of Namibia were the San hunters and gatherers, who were later displaced by the Ovambos, Hereros, Namas and others. From the late nineteenth century Afrikaners began to move into the territory on a small scale and although one Herero leader urged the Cape government to stop such migration and for Britain to extend a protectorate to the territory, such warnings were not heeded. In 1885 the Germans established control over the territory and named it South-West Africa (SWA). The Germans never really established control over the northern Ovambos but launched a genocidal war on the Hereros and Namas, killing three-quarters of their population and destroying or confiscating thousands of their cattle.

Between the years 1915 to 1919 the territory was under South African military rule and the South Africans hoped to annex it after the war; however it was awarded to them to administer under a League of Nations mandate. Under the terms of the mandate they were to prepare the territory for eventual self-determination and were not to profit from its administration. South Africa was to have full powers of administration over the territory but in the case of any dispute between itself and the League, if negotiations failed, it could be settled at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). South Africa almost immediately broke the terms of the mandate, white settlers flooded in, land was stolen, and there were several African rebellions which were brutally suppressed. Ovamboland was occupied and the area split between SWA and Portuguese-ruled Angola.

In 1945 the United Nations replaced the League of Nations and established the Trusteeship Council (the UN Fourth Committee) to look after the Trust Territories. South Africa again applied to annex SWA but this was rejected. South Africa then refused to place SWA under UN Trusteeship although it maintained that it would “. . . administer the territory scrupulously in accordance with the mandate . . .”. Protests from the African population to the UN went unheeded by the South Africans and the UN sought an advisory opinion from the ICJ in 1950. The Court ruled that South Africa had a legal obligation to fulfil the original mandate and could not unilaterally modify the international status of the territory. South Africa ignored this ruling and began to introduce aspects of the Apartheid system into SWA. At this time African political parties began, most notably the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), but also others. The ICJ made several further rulings on the SWA case but after a reversal of judgment in 1965 most UN member states demanded firmer action and in 1966 the General Assembly passed a resolution terminating South Africa’s mandate. It appointed a Council for Namibia (as SWA was now renamed) to seek to administer the territory until independence.

Developments since the end of the mandate

At first the new status made little difference to the territory. The South Africans had received support for their claim from many western nations, including the UK, and they consolidated their previous policies, displacing Africans into Bantustans and keeping the best land for white farmers. Namibia’s considerable economic wealth remained in the hands of white South Africans of multi-national companies, despite a ICJ ruling in 1971 that South Africa’s occupation was illegal and that UN member states should refrain from any acts or dealings implying recognition of the illegal occupation. Since international pressure proved ineffective African Namibians began to organize resistance; in 1966 SWAPO had formed the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) and began guerrilla warfare against the massive South African military presence in the north. In December 1973 the UN voted unanimously to end further dialogue with South Africa and to take steps to expel South Africa from Namibia.

The period between 1974 to 1976 saw many external pressures on South Africa, most notably stemming from the ending of the Portuguese Empire in Africa and more unified pressure from the UN which passed a resolution 366/1974 calling for South African withdrawal and a satisfactory solution by May 30, 1975. The South African government under John Foster announced a Constitutional Conference, dubbed the “Turnhalle Talks”, to find an internal solution to the future status of Namibia. However SWAPO and those who opposed the government were excluded from the talks and, in any case, progress was limited and painfully slow. SWAPO formed their own Namibia National Convention in opposition to the Turnhalle arrangements. During this period the South African military presence in Namibia grew, especially in the sealed-off Northern “Homelands” where SWAPO was conducting a guerrilla war. By the beginning of 1976 South African forces were facing defeat in Angola and a school children’s revolt at home. The UN passed yet another resolution, 435/1976, calling among other things for free elections held under UN supervision and control; the preparations to be made by August 31, 1976. As with other UN resolutions this was not implemented but it laid the basis for a future settlement.

The Turnhalle Talks had produced proposals for independence by 1979 with an interim government in the meantime; however since the interim government was to consist of South African-approved tribal leaders and appointees it was seen by the outside world as a South African puppet state. The plan was dropped in 1977 after pressure from the “Contact Group” of western nations (the UK, France, Canada, West Germany and the USA) and instead new legislation (The South West Africa Constitution Amendment Bill) was passed by the South African Parliament giving new, almost dictatorial, powers in Namibia to the South African President and creating a new post of Administrator-General. In the meantime the Bantustan policy in Namibia had continued with “tribal homelands” becoming “self-governing”. The South African-sponsored elections were held in December 1978 and were “won” by the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, but since the elections were boycotted by SWAPO and allied parties and had been characterized by widespread irregularities and intimidation they had no recognition internationally.

Despite this, however, South African policies continued with few modifications. Under successive Administrator-Generals there has been some restructuring of government departments and functions to make them appear more autonomous; in practice Pretoria still retained considerable influence not compatible with independence. New Legislative Assemblies were created for each “population group” (the term “homelands” had become internationally unacceptable). Racially discriminatory provisions remained on the Statute Book, despite African attempts to remove them. Attempts to foster a political alternative to SWAPO by the administration failed and the DTA retained only limited support. The South African authorities then formulated a new alternative to Resolution 435 in the Multi-Party Conference (MPC) as an anti-SWAPO front. The MPC set a deadline of December 31, 1984 for other parties to join in talks on the independence issue; otherwise it would negotiate self-government directly with South Africa. SWAPO and its allies rejected the offer.

The most serious development however had been the escalation of the bush war in the north of the country (principally Kaokoveld, Ovamboland, Kavangoland, East Caprivi) into full-scale military conflict. Conscription had been extended to the African population and there were regular incursions into Angola to break the SWAPO fighters based there. These raids also affected civilians, as in the 1978 South African bombing of the refugee camp at Cassinga, which killed over 800 civilians. A massive military presence failed to stop the guerrillas but inflicted intense suffering on the civilian population. Thousands of citizens fled from the war zone; health, education and welfare services had been disrupted while the destruction of crops was exacerbated by the severe drought of the early 1980s. Civilians who were suspected of aiding PLAN were routinely detained and tortured under sweeping laws, or under no law at all. The Koevoet (“crowbar”) unit, a special police counter-insurgency unit, composed almost entirely of Ovambo special policemen under the command of white officers, gained particular notoriety for brutal behaviour. The South African authorities made a few attempts to restrain or punish offenders; these had little effect.

Implementation of the UN plan

From 1984 international pressure on South Africa began to intensify, especially from the USA. However South African procrastination was aided by the question of “linkage” whereby a withdrawal of South African troops in Namibia was to be paralleled by a withdrawal of Cuban troops in Angola. By the beginning of 1985 the US policy of “constructive engagement” was facing increasing frustration and new pressures from inside South Africa such as the townships’ revolt, the total lack of credibility of the so-called interim government in Namibia, while US Congressional votes to begin sanctions against South Africa finally began to produce results. But it was not until November 1988, after extensive US-sponsored negotiations between South Africa, Angola and the Cubans, that an accord was signed on proposals for Namibian independence and the implementation of UN resolution 435. SWAPO itself was not involved with negotiations and this was later to have fatal consequences in the events of April 1989. It took several months for the agreement to be ratified and the details to be established.

Eventually a timetable for the implementation of 435 was established beginning in April 1989 with the UN Representative taking over administration, the declaration of a ceasefire with both SWAPO and South African forces confined to base, with the later establishment of de-militarized zones and withdrawal and dis-bandment of South African troops in May; at the same time Namibian refugees would begin to return under UN supervision. In July the official election campaign would begin with elections to be held on November 1 and one week later the final withdrawal of South African troops. Namibia would become fully independent in April 1990 after the new Constituent Assembly completed its constitution.

However at the beginning the plan went disastrously wrong when several hundred SWAPO guerrillas crossed from Angola into Ovamboland, in contravention to the agreement which stated that they must be inside Angola and north of the 16th parallel. The South African forces therefore demanded that they be allowed to hunt the guerrillas and this was agreed by the UN representative. In the following week several hundred SWAPO fighters, and reportedly also civilians, were killed, at least some apparently in cold blood. SWAPO was forced to withdraw its fighters. However two errors had become clear; firstly the decision to exclude SWAPO from negotiations and secondly the UN decision in January to cut the numbers of UN monitoring troops from 7,500 to 4,500, especially as at the beginning of the projected ceasefire even these troops were not in place. Over the next few months it became obvious also that in many ways the South African forces were violating the spirit of the agreement; they initially insisted on their right to interrogate wounded guerrillas; they set up military camps beside UN assembly points ; the notorious Koevoet forces were not disbanded but reintegrated into the police force; and there were numerous complaints of intimidation, assault and misconduct. Under the circumstances the return of refugees was postponed slightly and was also marred by allegations by former refugees of detention and torture in SWAPO camps (allegations which SWAPO has partially admitted). By September the bulk of the refugees had returned to Namibia as had the SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma. However political violence within Namibia had increased in the run-up to the elections and there were fears that state-sponsored violence would be replaced by shadowy vigilante squads. There seemed little doubt that SWAPO would win the elections, but it was problematic whether they would achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to agree a constitution.

Whatever the outcome of the elections and the composition and course of the first independent government, there are major problems ahead for Namibia. The colonial apartheid legacy has aided divisions between its diverse peoples, some of whom resent the dominance of the Ovambo (although there are also many divisions within the Ovambo which might neutralize this). There are also divisions between the returning exiles and the emerging leadership within the country. More serious however is the continuing economic dominance of South Africa. Namibia is rich in resources, with mining, fishing and agriculture. But unequal land distribution has meant that much fertile land is concentrated in white hands (for example in Ovamboland white farmers have over 200 times as much useful land per capita as blacks), while many thousands of Africans live in terrible conditions as contract labourers at Katutura and other black townships. Wages are highly unequal; most Africans are unskilled labourers and marginal peasant farmers. South Africa has indicated that it will retain its hold over the enclave of Walvis Bay. The country has for many years been traumatized by war, poverty and widespread violations of human rights. All of these problems will have to be challenged by the new government.

(See also San of the Kalahari)