UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


National Liberation in Namibia

After World War II what is now Namibia was ruled with by South Africa with a mandate granted from the League of Nations, as Namibia (also refered to as South West Africa) was a former German colony. However while most other League of Nations madatories surrendered their mandate after World War II, South Africa refused to do so. In 1960 Ethiopia and Liberia brought the case before the International Court of Justice, charging South Africa with failing to uphold its part of the mandate, but the ICJ decided that Ethiopia and Liberia did not have the legal right or interest to bring the case forward.

The South West African People's Organization (SWAPO), which was founded in 1960, was infuriated by this decision and began small-scale geurrilla operations in Namibia, in part from bases abroad. Although the Windhoek authorities did not outlaw the premier African nationalist group — the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) — or any of its close rivals, such as the South West African National Union, they were able to contain what they regarded as a potential security threat by dealing with individual party members as such. The South African police were not lacking in zeal when it came to the maintenance of internal security, but a number of Africans did become political refugees and ?ed the territory for havens in Botswana, Zambia, and independent Angola. Some of those who fled, understandably, would provide recruits for the guerrilla forces.

The UN General Assembly intervened on the question in 1966 when it passed a resolution terminating the mandate and in 1968 the UN recognized the country as Namibia with the support of the ICJ. In a 1971 in a landmark advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice upheld UN authority over Namibia, determining that the South African presence in Namibia was illegal and that South Africa therefore was obligated to withdraw its administration from Namibia immediately. The Court also advised UN member states to refrain from implying legal recognition or assistance to the South African presence.

However South Africa refused to comply with the decision, claiming that the UN held no authority over South West Africa and South Africa began to take steps to tie Namibia closer to South Africa, namely by establishing ten Bantustans (African homelands) in Namibia. SWAPO responded by boycotting the Bantustan ellections in 1973. After Angola became independent in 1975, SWAPO established bases in the southern part of that country. Hostilities intensified over the years, particularly in the north.

The ensuing war has had two phases, both militarily unsuccessful for SWAPO.

  • Phase one began when a small group of SWAPO soldiers infiltrated into Ovambo area of north-central Namibia in August 1966. Despite their training and preparations, the members of this first group were quickly discovered and killed or captured by the South African police. From that time until 1975, SWAPO continued a sporadic infiltration of small guerrilla units from Zambia into the extreme northern parts of Namibia, mostly into the remote Caprivi Strip. Inexperience and the presence of Portuguese colonial forces in southern Angola kept SWAPO's operations limited to mainly a police problem for the South Africans.
  • The second phase began in 1976, when the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) ousted two other Angolan nationalist movements from the coalition government of newly independent Angola. With MPLA support, SWAPO moved its bases of operations from Zambia to locations in southern Angola. SWAPO's military wing, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), quickly increased the flow of political cadre and soldiers into Ovamboland. PLAN also began to launch annual "invasions" of 500-1,500 troops into northern Namibia. The South Africans countered by reinforcing the South African Defense Forces (SADF) already in the area and soundly defeating any significant PLAN force entering or approaching Namibia. Consequently, while PLAN has never threatened the SADF's control of Namibia, the liberation army's continued presence in Angloa has forced the South Africans to continue costly military operations.

In 1977, Western members of the UN Security Council, including Canada, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States (known as the Western Contact Group), launched a joint diplomatic effort to bring an internationally acceptable transition to independence for Namibia. Their efforts led to the presentation in April 1978 of Security Council Resolution 435 for settling the Namibian problem. The proposal, known as the UN Plan, was worked out after lengthy consultations with South Africa, the front-line states (Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe), SWAPO, UN officials, and the Western Contact Group. It called for the holding of elections in Namibia under UN supervision and control, the cessation of all hostile acts by all parties, and restrictions on the activities of South African and Namibian military, paramilitary, and police.

One of the biggest single incidents of gross violation which occurred during the mandate period was the assault by the SADF on a base of the South West African People?s Organisation (SWAPO) located at Kassinga [also Cassinga], Angola in 1978. More than 600 people were killed at Kassinga in one day. According to SWAPO, these were unarmed refugees. According to the South African government, Kassinga was a guerilla base and thus a legitimate military target.” As is the case with conflicts like the Bush War, both sides used significant propaganda strategies to convey the “truth.”

World pressure led to South Africa promising to give Namibia independence in 1978. South Africa agreed to cooperate in achieving the implementation of Resolution 435. But, fearful of Communist domination of the region, South Africa refused to implement its terms for another decade. Despite this promise South Africa adopted a new constitution in 1977 that did little to put Namibia on the road to independence. On the contrary, it seemed to further tie the region to South Africa by upholding apartheid policies, restricting SWAPO's political participation, and continuing South African control over Namibia's foreign affairs. This led SWAPO and other oposition groups to begin guerrilla warfare.

In December 1978, in defiance of the UN proposal, it unilaterally held elections in Namibia that were boycotted by SWAPO and a few other political parties. South Africa continued to administer Namibia through its installed multiracial coalitions. Negotiations after 1978 focused on issues such as supervision of elections connected with the implementation of the UN Plan.

SWAPO’s guerrilla warfare, which was low-intensity and concentrated in those portions of the territory within easy striking distance fr0m forward bases in Angola or Zambia, continued unabated. The South African Defense and Police Forces were able to meet the SWAPO challenge, but could not defeat the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia, the military force fielded by SWAPO.

Intense discussions between the concerned parties continued during the 1978-88 period, with the UN Secretary General's Special Representative, Martti Ahtisaari, playing a key role. The 1982 Constitutional Principles, agreed upon by the front-line states, SWAPO, and the Western Contact Group created the framework for Namibia's democratic constitution.

But in June 1985 Cuban representatives in the United Nations Security Council threatened that Cuba will provide massive assistance to the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) to reignite the armed struggle in Namibia if the United States continued to insist on the withdrawal of an estimated 30,000 Cuban troops from Angola as part of a package deal leading to Namibia's independence. In May 1988, a US mediation team, headed by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester A. Crocker, brought negotiators from Angola, Cuba, and South Africa, and observers from the Soviet Union together in London. Intense diplomatic maneuvering characterized the next 7 months, as the parties worked out agreements to bring peace to the region and make implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 435 possible.

Finally, under US pressure and after a series of major cross-border campaigns by the South African military (ostensibly intended to destroy SWAPO bases) the South Africans conceded independence in return for a Cuban withdrawal from Angola. On December 13, Cuba, South Africa, and the People's Republic of Angola agreed to a total Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola.

The protocol also established a Joint Commission, consisting of the parties with the United States and the Soviet Union as observers, to oversee implementation of the accords. A bilateral agreement between Cuba and the People's Republic of Angola was signed in New York on December 22, 1988. On the same day a tripartite agreement, in which the parties recommended initiation of the UN Plan on April 1 and the Republic of South Africa agreed to withdraw its troops, was signed. Implementation of Resolution 435 officially began on April 1, 1989, when South African-appointed Administrator Gen. Louis Pienaar officially began administrating the territory's transition to independence. Special Representative Martti Ahtisaari arrived in Windhoek to begin performing his duties as head of the UN Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG).

The transition got off to a shaky start on April 1 because, in contravention to SWAPO President Sam Nujoma's written assurances to the UN Secretary General to abide by a cease-fire and repatriate only unarmed insurgents, about 2,000 armed members of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), SWAPO's military wing, crossed the border from Angola in an apparent attempt to establish a military presence in northern Namibia. The Special Representative authorized a limited contingent of South African troops to aid the South West African police in restoring order. A period of intense fighting followed, during which 375 PLAN fighters were killed. At Mt. Etjo, a game park outside Windhoek, in a special meeting of the Joint Commission on April 9, a plan was put in place to confine the South African forces to base and return PLAN elements to Angola. While the problem was solved, minor disturbances in the north continued throughout the transition period. In October, under order of the UN Security Council, Pretoria demobilized members of the disbanded counterinsurgency unit, Koevoet (Afrikaans for "crowbar"), who had been incorporated into the South West African police.

The 11-month transition period went relatively smoothly. Political prisoners were granted amnesty, discriminatory legislation was repealed, South Africa withdrew all its forces from Namibia, and some 42,000 refugees returned safely and voluntarily under the auspices of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Almost 98% of registered voters turned out to elect members of the Constituent Assembly. The elections were held in November 1989 and were certified as free and fair by the Special Representative, with SWAPO taking 57% of the vote, just short of the two-thirds necessary to have a free hand in drafting the constitution. The Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, the opposition party, received 29% of the vote. The Constituent Assembly held its first meeting on November 21 and its first act unanimously resolved to use the 1982 Constitutional Principles as the framework for Namibia's new constitution.

By February 9, 1990, the Constituent Assembly had drafted and adopted a constitution. March 21, independence day, was attended by Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who represented President George H.W. Bush. On that same day, he inaugurated the U.S. Embassy in Windhoek in recognition of the establishment of diplomatic relations.

On March 1, 1994, the coastal enclave of Walvis Bay and 12 offshore islands were transferred to Namibia by South Africa. This followed 3 years of bilateral negotiations between the two governments and the establishment of a transitional Joint Administrative Authority (JAA) in November 1992 to administer the 300-square mile territory. The peaceful resolution of this territorial dispute, which dated back to 1878, was praised by the United States and the international community, as it fulfilled the provisions of UN Security Council 432 (1978) which declared Walvis Bay to be an integral part of Namibia.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 09-09-2016 20:05:50 ZULU