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Independence Day Nears in Africa’s Last Colony

March 17, 1990

WINDHOEK, Namibia (AP) _ Less than a year after Namibia was ablaze with a war and wracked by seemingly insurmountable ethnic differences, the territory is ready for a peaceful transition to independence from South Africa this week.

The diverse people of this vast, arid land have set aside their weapons and begun working together to transform Africa’s last colony into one of the continent’s few democracies. Independence officially begins Wednesday.

″We confounded the doubters,″ said Sam Nujoma, the territory’s designated president, who led the South-West Africa People’s Organization during its 23- year guerrilla war against South African rule.

Black nationalist guerrillas and right-wing whites who once fought each other have been preaching reconciliation in what has been a remarkably smooth approach to independence for Namibia, formerly known as South-West Africa.

″We have accepted that South-West Africa as we knew it will be replaced by an independent Namibia,″ said Jan de Wet, leader of the right-wing National Party. ″We are glad to offer our skills and resources to this country if we are welcome.″

SWAPO often was depicted by whites as a ″Marxist-terrorist″ organization during the war. But since winning U.N.-supervised elections in November, the leftist organization has made numerous compromises in an attempt to accommodate the 11 distinct ethnic groups that make up Namibia’s 1.3 million people.

SWAPO’s support comes predominantly from the northern Ovambo tribe, but Nujoma also has named blacks who are not Ovambos to key positions to allay fears that SWAPO will be a tribal-based government. He also has appointed whites and businessmen from opposition parties to his Cabinet.

″The future government wants to ensure that ... policies and laws will be supported by the widest possible cross-section of the population,″ said Otto Herrigel, a German-descended Namibian who will serve as Nujoma’s finance secretary.

Opposition groups also have been in a conciliatory mood.

Seven parties won seats in the elections, and they have sharp ideological differences. But within weeks, the 72-member constitutional assembly unanimously agreed on a democratic constitution that guarantees fundamental rights and regular elections. It also limits the president to two five-year terms, rare on a continent where most leaders serve for life.

SWAPO, which was committed to socialism while in exile, now speaks more often of working with the white business community that controls the mining, farming and fishing industries.

Those industries, along with South African aid, have made Namibia one of the few African countries to achieve an annual per capita income of $1,000.

However, the wealth is in the hands of the 75,000 whites, who make up only 6 percent of the population.

Meeting black expectations without alienating whites will be one of the biggest challenges facing the government.

There have been no signs of a mass exodus by whites, who easily could go to white-ruled South Africa as thousands did when the United Nations announced Namibia’s independence plan in 1978.

The U.N. plan sat on the shelf for a decade as South Africa refused to relinquish control of the territory, which it captured from Germany during World War I.

But in December 1988, South Africa agreed to grant independence to Namibia under a regional peace treaty.

At the ceremony when the new Namibian constitution was adopted in November, several speakers said South Africa should take inspiration from Namibia’s harmonious independence process.

Many South Africans were relieved at the Western-style democratic constitution adopted by a constituent assembly in Namibia. But others said they would withhold judgment, since neighboring Zimbabwe also began its black majority rule with a democracy and British-inspired constitution. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe is now in the process of turning the government into a one-party state.

The long-delayed independence plan in Namibia almost collapsed the day it began - last April 1.

Hundreds of SWAPO guerrillas crossed into northern Namibia in violation of the U.N. plan, igniting three weeks of fighting. More than 300 guerrillas died, and 27 members of the South African-led security forces were killed.

Since peace was restored, there has been sporadic violence. In September, Anton Lubowski, SWAPO’s highest-ranking white member, was assassinated.

But there have been no wide-scale outbreaks of violence, and the more than 6,000 U.N. civilian and military personnel in Namibia are scheduled to leave in early April. That will end the $450 million U.N. operation, the most extensive ever conducted by the United Nations.

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