Volume 2 Number 10
Namibia '- a Pivot for Peace?
01 November 1989

Namibia, Africa's last colony, is on the threshold of `wonderful things... after suffering for so many years', South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said on a recent visit here. But the transition from colonial South West Africa to independent Namibia will not be easy.

By JEAN SUTHERLANDFlags in party political colours adorn taxis as they screech through the streets of Namibia's capital, Windhoek, and flutter from the rooftops of houses in the dusty streets of the black residential area, Katutura. They are just as visible in the inaccessible villages in the north.

In Windhoek discos, multiracial crowds jive to the politically-conscious beat of songs like South African exile Hugh Masekela's `Free Nelson Mandela'. Political colours are woven into every conceivable item of clothing, traditional and modern, from headwear to shoe laces.

Namibia, Africa's last colony, is on the threshold of `wonderful things... after suffering for so many years', South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said on a recent visit here. But the transition from colonial South West Africa to independent Namibia will not be easy.

A vast country of spectacular beauty with a great diversity of people, Namibia is emerging from a decades-long cycle of conflict, from the days of German colonialism to the fight against South African occupation, which is just ending.

Regarded as one of the world's most intractable diplomatic problems, the country is finally, after many false starts, preparing for internationally-recognized independence. Elections for the assembly which will write a constitution are set to take place on November 6 and, barring serious incident, Namibia will gain formal independence in April 1990.

Political spring
The United Nations peace plan swung into operation on April 1 this year and heralded a political spring among the majority of the nation's 1.3 million population. Since the arrival of the UN Transitional Assistance Group, here to oversee the independence process, Namibians have been afflicted by a scarcely contained euphoria.

Despite the excitement and expectancy, the realities will throw up more than their fair share of challenges.

Namibian politics has always been riddled with factions and fractious elements, spawning 45 political parties in recent years. For the elections, these have been compressed into ten fronts and alliances - still too many, people feel, for the country's tiny population.

More than 41,000 Namibians have returned home after decades in exile and face problems of readjustment and reabsorption into the country's socio-economic structure.

Among the most vexing issues will be coping with black expectations and white fears.

Namibia will have to shrug off the remnants of apartheid, a legacy of South Africa, and forge an economic policy that takes account of both the haves (mainly whites) and have-nots (mainly blacks). This will require both pragmatism and vision.

Already the run-up to elections has been marred by intimidation and, tragically, spasms of violence.

Within hours of the implementation of the UN plan, news broke of a bloody battle in the north. Two-week-long clashes between the South African-led security forces and Namibian guerrillas claimed 327 lives.

In August, one of the UN's regional offices was attacked with automatic rifles and handgrenades, killing a civilian security guard. In September, Namibians were stunned when Anton Lubowski, the top white official in the black nationalist movement, Swapo, was brutally killed in front of his Windhoek home by an unidentified gunman.

On the face of it white extremists were behind the last two incidents. But despite these blows, the peace plan has remained on track.

National reconciliation as policy is commonly talked about by Namibian politicians. Returning after nearly 30 years in exile, Swapo President Sam Nujoma, the man tipped as the future leader of Namibia, emphasized national unity and said that he and his colleagues were returning with `peace, love and reconciliation'. `I intend,' he said, `to work tirelessly with all the strength at my command to achieve these ideals.'

Undoubtedly there are different interpretations of what this means, even in terms of a future economic policy. A controversial issue for Swapo, which fought a 23-year war against South Africa, is the lingering question of its treatment of detainees. Freed dissidents have returned to Namibia with tales of Swapo torturing - and, it is alleged, in some cases killing – members it accused of spying for South Africa. One thing is sure, Namibians' capacity for reconciliation will be severely tested.

That this capacity exists was demonstrated at the memorial service for the37-year-old Lubowski - a man regarded as a volksverraaier (traitor to his people) by more conservative whites, but seen as a bridge-builder by many of all races.

Opening proceedings, Swapo Foreign Affairs Secretary Theo-Ben Gurirab called on people not to avenge the young lawyer's death. During the service an Afrikaner minister, Kobus Venter, made an impassioned plea for reconciliation, urging black Christians to forgive white Christians for the iniquities of the past: `We have already asked God, now we ask you.'

As pressing as the need for reconciliation is the necessity to establish a democracy based on human rights.

More than just the future of Namibia hangs on the type of independence the country's elected representatives opt for. Success or failure here will have an important bearing on the prospects for change in South Africa itself, and could have a stabilizing effect on South Africa's relations with its neighbours. It could promote peace in Angola, to Namibia's north; and also improve the chances of efforts currently under way to bring an end to the war in Mozambique.

It may be hoped that Namibia's history of turmoil and suffering will have instilled a desire for peace, cooperation, human rights and democracy and a will to bring them about. Expectations are high that Namibia will succeed and emerge as a pivot for peace in the southern African region.

Jean Sutherland edited the `Times of Namibia' until July, when she resigned over an issue of freedom of speech. She now writes and broadcasts freelance on Namibian affairs.

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