The population of Namibia is composed of at least twelve different ethnic groups. The largest groups are the Ovambo, representing eight tribes and slightly more than 45 percent of the population, followed by the Damara, approximately 9 percent of the population; the Herero, approximately 7 percent of the population; and the Kavango, approximately 7 percent of the population. The Ovambo live in northern Namibia, spilling across the Angolan border on either side of the Cuene River. As in much of postcolonial Africa, there was interethnic rivalry in Namibia, particularly between the Ovambo and the Herero.
The Conference of Berlin during 1884–1885 granted Germany the right to colonize what became known as South West Africa (Namibia). Following Germany's defeat in World War I, South Africa received South West Africa as a League of Nations mandate in 1920. In 1966, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly revoked the South Africa mandate, but South Africa refused to give up the territory. The International Court of Justice, in 1971, thus declared South Africa to be in illegal occupation of Namibia. Subsequently, the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) began a war of independence, which directly or indirectly drew in the competing superpowers. In 1978, UN Resolution 435 called for the independence of Namibia.
After the Soviet Union's 1979 intervention in Afghanistan marking the end of détente, the global geopolitical chess game between the Soviets and the Americans shifted to Africa. U.S. President Ronald Reagan's administration sought to roll back Soviet gains, particularly those made in the developing world, and in the words of Reagan's assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Chester Crocker, "Namibia served as the most active diplomatic interaction between Africans and Americans." Namibia was strategically squeezed between apartheid South Africa and Soviet-supported Marxist Angola, and its struggle for independence involved both Zaire and Zambia. Namibia's Cold War experience had two distinct eras: 1945–1966, when it was formally under South Africa's control, and 1966–1990, during which time it fought for independence.
The nations that held mandates under the League of Nations acceded to the same rights under the Trusteeship Council of the UN. This included, under Article 119 of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, the principles of nonannexation and self-determination. But General Jan Christiaan Smuts, head of the Union Government in South Africa, petitioned the UN for formal annexation of Namibia. The UN rejected this. Rather than accept UN demands to place Namibia under a trusteeship in preparation for independence, in 1946 South Africa announced its intention to formally incorporate Namibia. With the coming to power of the National Party in 1948, South Africa continued to ignore its trusteeship obligations and the UN demands. Then, in 1951, it annexed Namibia.
The apartheid government set up a 1962 commission of inquiry concerning self-determination in Namibia. The commission predictably prescribed the same separation of races in Namibia that was apartheid policy in South Africa: it divided the country into distinct areas for natives, Europeans, and so-called coloreds. Besides the overt racism, the problem (as with South Africa) was the distribution of land: the population of natives, whites, and coloreds was proportioned 18:3:1, while the division of land was proportioned 0.74, 6.74, 0.62 per native, white, and colored persons, respectively. Nonwhites had no say in the division of land.
South Africa was not meeting its obligations. Thus, the UN took steps to restore the rights of the people involved in the impasse. During 1946–1965 it passed seventy-three resolutions on South West Africa, calling on South Africa to discontinue its policy of apartheid and adhere to the mandate agreement.
Until 1960, the superpowers had few interests in southern Africa (the Soviet Union maintained consular relations with South Africa only until 1956). The year 1960 was dubbed "the year of Africa," and many newly independent African states joined the UN. Throughout the early to mid-1960s, the UN provided the rhetorically anticolonial Soviet Union with a ready-made solidarity with much of the developing world.
Involvement during the Cold War by the People's Republic of China (PRC) in Africa and in Namibia in particular should not be ignored. It was at least as much in competition with the USSR as with the United States. Because SWAPO received Soviet support, the PRC supported the South West Africa National Union (SWANU), SWAPO's main domestic rival.
SWAPO, the nationalist movement that led the fight against South African rule, was founded in 1957 by Ovambo intellectuals in Cape Town, South Africa. It was thus dominated by the northern Ovambo people with some Herero participation. However, the Herero broke away from the organization in 1959 and formed the SWANU in Windhoek. In 1962, SWAPO decided to employ terrorist tactics to gain independence and trained in camps located in the Soviet Union, China, Algeria, Ghana, and Tanzania. Sam Nujoma became SWANU's first president in 1966 and based his operations in Dar es Salaam, Lusaka, and Luanda.
SWAPO was divided into SWAPO-external and SWAPO-internal. The latter was never declared illegal by South Africa. SWAPO-external maintained offices in New York, London, Cairo, Algiers, and Dakar and used its external ties to become the dominant party.
In 1973 the UN General Assembly declared SWAPO the authentic representative of the people of South West Africa. Four years later, it endorsed SWAPO as the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people. The UN supplied financial assistance to SWAPO, reaching $230,500 per year in 1980. SWAPO received additional support from the UN World Food Program; the UN Trust Fund for Namibia; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); and the UN Development Program.
The Namibian independence struggle was in some ways typical of those that preceded it in sub-Saharan Africa. In most cases, the revolutionary group adopted a Marxist-Leninist program. There were multiple reasons for this. They rejected democratic capitalism as the ideology of the colonial powers, the Soviet Union's rapid state-sponsored industrialization was seen as a model of success, and to some extent socialism appealed to the more communal nature of traditional (pre-colonial) African politics. SWAPO's 1976 Political Programme adopted at Lusaka was based on the principles of scientific socialism. This included the usual socialist litany of public-sector control over finance, external finance, and the means of production. SWAPO would also support peasant cooperatives and state-owned ranching. In November 1988, as Namibian independence appeared imminent, SWAPO issued the so-called Economic Policy Document indicating that land, mineral and fishing rights, public utilities, and former South African companies would be part of the public sector.
SWAPO's independence struggle took on a regional dimension when Portugal suddenly withdrew from Angola in 1974. The Soviets and Cubans intervened in Angola in support of the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) regime there and subsequently developed close military ties with SWAPO as well as with Mozambique, Zambia, and the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. Angola's independence created new strategic opportunities for SWAPO. Before then, SWAPO used the Angolan territory dominated by the MPLA's major rival, the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), to support its insurgency. It now used MPLA-controlled territory. The MPLA also offered SWAPO a new headquarters and extensive basing facilities. Thus, the South Africans saw Angola as a forward defense area and allied with UNITA in the Namibian bush war that had begun in 1966.
The terrorist activity of the military wing of SWAPO, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), was limited to a few border areas. Approximately 85 percent of PLAN forces was comprised of Ovambo. PLAN cooperated with the military wing of the MPLA in Angola and thus was able to use Angolan territory from which to launch attacks. But the counterinsurgency operations of the South African Defense Force were able to contain the SWAPO insurgency, largely by pushing its bases deeper into Angola.
The most important effort at internal reform of South West Africa during South Africa's control was the Turnhalle Conference. It actually consisted of six sessions (September 1975–October 1976). In 1975, Pretoria announced that a formal constitutional conference would begin on 1 September. SWAPO and SWANU would not be allowed to participate. In May 1977, there was a referendum by white voters on the Turnhalle Constitution, which 95 percent of the voters approved. This did not, however, meet the demands of SWAPO or the international community. Because the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) failed to end discriminatory legislation and practices or even effectively to start economic and social development programs, the prevalent attitude among Namibian blacks was that only SWAPO, the guerrilla fighters, merited their political endorsement.
As early as July 1979, President António Agostinho Neto of Angola held secret talks with American negotiators. Among the issues discussed was the establishment of a demilitarized zone of 50 kilometers on each side of the Namibian-Angolan border and restrictions of SWAPO bases in Angola. Agreement was never reached, however, and the conflict escalated. The United States and its British, French, West German, and Canadian allies formed the Contact Group to negotiate Namibia's independence with South Africa and the so-called Frontline States (FLS), comprised of Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The FLS acted as patrons and advisors to SWAPO. The negotiations between the Contact Group and the FLS resulted in UN Security Resolution 435 in September 1978.
During Ronald Reagan's presidency (1981–1989) and eight years of negotiations led by Chester Crocker, the United States eventually brokered the 1988 peace accords that linked South Africa's withdrawal from Namibia and independence for that country to Cuba's exit from Angola. This occurred despite the fact that for many years Angola and its FLS partners (with the support of the Soviet Union and radical nonaligned states) had rejected linking Namibian independence to Cuba's withdrawal from Angola. The decline of Cold War tensions was symbolized by the Soviet Union's willingness to pressure its clients, Cuba and Angola, to accept a negotiated settlement. James J. Hentz
Larkin, Bruce. China and Africa: 1949–1970. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.; Seiler, John. "South Africa in Namibia: Persistence, Misperception, and Ultimate Failure." Journal of Modern African Studies 20(4) (December 1982): 689–712.
James J. Hentz