During the 1960s most of Africa’s countries had gained independence except for Namibia. Geographically, Namibia is made up of savannah, dry scrub land, as well as the Kalahari and the Namib Deserts. The country is rich in minerals such as uranium, vanadium, lithium, tungsten, as well as diamonds. It was these mineral resources that encouraged and motivated South Africa to try and hold on to Namibia throughout the many years of revolution, 1966 – 1990. The South African government also believed that by holding onto Namibia, the guerrilla war in Angola would be kept further away from South Africa. South African apartheid laws were extended to Namibia and prevented black Namibians from having any political rights, as well as restricted social and economic freedoms. The aim of South Africa’s rule over Namibia was to exploit the mineral resources by white South Africa.
In 1964, South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) was formed. SWAPO was mainly a Black African Nationalist movement led by Sam Nujoma. The agenda of the SWAPO was around the belief that class struggle for independence, political and social freedom was needed to create historical change in Namibia. SWAPO claimed support from all the local tribes. However, the South African government in an attempt to divide and conquer claimed that it was dominated by the Ovambo tribe who make up just over half the population of Namibia. Ovambos are agricultural people who live primarily in the North of Namibia. In 1967, South Africa arrested and tried 37 Namibians for supporting terrorism including Andimba Herman Toivo ja Toivo, one of the founders of SWAPO who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on Robben Island, off Cape Town’s coast.
In 1966, SWAPO established the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), and an armed insurrection started. During the 1960s, Angola was a Portuguese Colony and that meant that any supply lines to friendly black nations were too long for the Namibia armies to get enough weapons and aids to start a serious military campaign. However, the Namibian armies resorted to gathering support and small acts of terrorism and sabotage started.
In 1975, Angola became independent and with better supply lines SWAPO was able to launch a serious guerrilla warfare campaign. In 1978, SWAPO had around 18,000 combatants and could launch 800 raids into Namibia. The South Africans responded by attacking the rebel bases across the border including a retaliatory strike into Zambia which forced the Zambians to be more unwilling to support SWAPO. South Africa’s raid into Angola drove the rebels back 200 miles and did significant damage. The war intensified and South African and Angolan forces fought their first battle in 1981. Two Angolan brigades including their Russian advisors were destroyed. Approximately 10,000 guerrillas were killed with a loss of around 800 South Africans. SWAPO then resorted to guerilla tactics.
By 1988, the number of SWAPO combatants had decreased to around 8700 of which no more than 800 were near the border. SWAPO faced 12,000 South Africans of the South West African Territorial Force; 80% of these forces were blacks. In 1987 one black troop refused to fight but the revolt was soon put down. South African counter insurgency tactics were effective. They also used the British idea of fortified villages which cut off the villagers from any contact with the rebels. Without local support, food and intelligence the insurgency was hard pressed to make any impact. However, the fortified villages created 75,000 refugees who fled to Angola.
In 1987, the war in Angola increased rapidly after South Africa gave support to the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The South Africans sent troops to help in the siege and the battle developed into an arms duel between the South African and Cuban artillery. The Cuban troops got involved directly in the fighting for the first time and rushed reinforcements into the battle. The siege was abandoned in 1988 and the Cubans then sent extra 10,000 troops to support the communist government in Angola, moving large units to the border with Namibia for the first time during their involvement. The Cuba-South Africa war in Angola suddenly increased. This turned the tide of the war for SWAPO as South African forces were unwilling to provoke the Cubans by crossing the border to destroy rebel bases. With safe havens near the border available, SWAPO guerrillas were able to attack South African bases in Namibia and resume their guerrilla warfare operations.
In the 1980s, the political pressure was increasing on the South Africans. For example, the United Nation (UN) formed a “contact group” of influential Western powers which included the United Kingdom (UK) and United States of America (USA) to put pressure on South Africa to grant Namibia independence. The USA linked independence for Namibia with the issue of Cuban troops leaving Angola. However, the Angolan government feared it would survive a Cuban withdrawal and the South Africans had little intention of giving Namibia its independence. The Russians who had been supporting the Angolan government decided that it was time to withdraw its support.
Meanwhile South Africa was becoming more isolated internationally and the cost of military intervention was increasing. The South African government realised that if they got out now they could set some terms for Namibia’s independence and protect South African business interests. On 8 August 1988, a cease fire was agreed and announced in Geneva, Switzerland. The UN sent a peacekeeping force to monitor the agreement and to help conduct and manage fair elections. In 1989, elections were held and SWAPO won with 57% of the votes with 41 seats in the National Assembly, the opposition party, Democratic Tumhalle Alliance (DTA) won 29% with 21 seats. Sam Nujoma was elected the president of the country. Namibia had its first multi party system.
On 21 March 1990, Namibia became independent with guests such as the then South African president, F W de Klerk and USA and Russian foreign ministers. During the Namibian struggle for independence, South Africa showed counterinsurgency tactics adopting both the British tactics of fortified villages to cut off the insurgents’ oxygen and striking against rebel bases in safe havens instead of trying to police a huge and isolated border. SWAPO showed the classic collective tactics of being able to shift between full scale guerrilla warfare as the situation changed and in the end its determination proved greater than the South African political will. The conflict in Namibia also illustrated the involvement of super powers in Third World wars to fight the Cold War by alternative and how South Africa attempted to protect business interests through war. It took 24 years of revolt and warfare for Namibia to gain its independence from South Africa. During the years of revolt and warfare, 1966 – 1990, between 20 000 and 25 000 people died. In 1994, the first elections following the country’s independence were held. SWAPO won 53 out of 72 seats in the National Assembly. The opposition party, Democratic Tumhalle Alliance (DTA) of Namibia won 15 seats.
• Lindeke, W. (1995). Democratization in Namibia: soft state, hard choice, in Studies in comparative international development, Spring, Vol 30, issue 1, pp3-29.
• Melber, H. (2014). Understanding Namibia: the trials of independence. C Hurst and CO publishers.
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