The People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN)

A Brief Overview

The People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) was an armed wing of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), the major liberation movement of Namibia. SWAPO was founded in 1960. It was founded with a mainly Marxist agenda anticipating the development of a socialist state. This would be achieved through the leadership of a revolutionary vanguard consisting of professional revolutionaries, who would lead the working class in the class struggle. SWAPO claimed support from all the Namibian local tribes. In an attempt to divide and conquer, the South African government, which ruled the country, claimed that SWAPO was dominated by the Ovambo tribe, which made up more than half the population in Namibia.

SWAPO started as a liberation movement which fought for independence from South Africa. Although Namibia’s terrain is dominated by desert, the country holds large deposits of valuable minerals such as uranium, lithium, tungsten, vanadium and diamonds. These minerals were part of the motivation for the South African government to bring Namibia under its control. After independence was gained in 1990, SWAPO became the country’s leading political party.

The Formation of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN)

Before the formation of PLAN as the armed wing of SWAPO, the people of Namibia lived under repressive laws put in place by the South African government, which led to resistance from the people. SWAPO led most of the resistance campaigns. As a result, the campaigns gained momentum. SWAPO used peaceful methods of demonstration; however, peaceful methods yielded no benefits and the South African government was able to ignore or suppress them. The South African government responded by restricting the party’s leadership and forced many into exile. Large numbers of SWAPO cadres were punished, some dismissed from schools and jobs, while others faced expulsion from urban areas to the country-side.

The Windhoek Massacre that took place in December, 1959, carried out by South Africa military force, was the major turning point. With all the repression and the Windhoek Massacre, SWAPO’s leadership came to realize that their approach to the oppressor had little impact, if any, and decided to fight violence with violence. This led to the establishment of an armed wing, known as the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). The armed wing was established in 1966 and an armed revolt immediately began. It succeeded SWAPO’s first army, the South West Africa Liberation Army (SWALA), which was renamed PLAN.

People’s liberation army of Namibia. Image source

SWAPO had developed structures to manage and control its armed wing, structurally, the Central Committee and the National Executive controlled the army. The president of the organisation was also the commander in-chief of PLAN. Under the president a duty chief commander was also the commander of the army and also responsible for all PLAN operations and activities. Below the commander was the secretary of Defense and Transport, who was in charge of logistical operations. He reported to and advised the National Executive. Military operations were organised by the commanders of different regions, who were responsible for making recommendations to the secretary of Defense and Transport.

The first commander of PLAN was Tobias Hanyeko, who was killed in 1967 in Kwando River in Caprivi by the South African Defence Force. He was replaced by Dimo Hamaambo, who held the position until independence was gained in 1990. His deputy was Salomon Hawala, who also served as chief of security. Hawala was later accused of the arrest and abduction of many members of PLAN and SWAPO.

Guerrilla warfare

PLAN had four major operational zones in Namibia: the Northern zone (Kavango and Ovambo), the central zone (Grootfontein district), the Northeastern zone (Caprivi Strip) and the Northwestern zone (Kaokoveld). These four zones were situated in the Northern part of the country for strategic reasons; firstly, the area had the largest number of Africans; secondly, it had more fertile vegetation, which made the land more suitable for guerrilla warfare compared to the south and central zones, which were more open. However, PLAN later moved to these other regions.

The first guerrilla units started operating within Namibia in 1965, but PLAN was not well equipped in terms of weapons and could not wage serious military campaigns – it resorted to mobilising support and minor acts of sabotage. In the same year, PLAN recruited more people across ethnic lines; many of its recruits were peasants, workers and students. When Angola gained its independence in 1975, it supplied PLAN with arms, and PLAN was able to wage a serious guerrilla warfare campaign.

Military assistance did not only come from Angola, it also came from the African Liberation Committee of the Organization of African Unity and from Nigeria. By 1997, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 volunteers received military training abroad. SWAPO established relations with other external organisation, and it had bilateral arrangements with many individual African countries. It further developed bilateral military relations with socialist countries such as Yugoslavia, North Korea, Cuba, China, the Soviet Union and Romania.

SWAPO grew stronger through waging the guerrilla war, and the South African government responded by attacking rebel bases in Namibia. The South African government went further to attack those who were based outside the borders of Namibia, including those in Zambia and Angola. As a result, the Zambian government became reluctant to support the rebels. The raids which took place in Angola caused significant damage to the rebels and it drove them back 200 miles.

PLAN received further funding and stepped up its efforts by establishing semi-liberated zones and striking further south. In 1975-1976 in Ovambo, PLAN mounted a major attack. In 1978-1979 they launched surprise attacks on the South African Defence Force.

The warfare escalated into a war between South Africa and Angola, which took place in 1981. An estimated 10,000 guerrillas lost their lives and SWAPO was reduced to carrying out terrorist attacks.

Throughout the guerrilla warfare period, PLAN never defeated the South African Defence Force on the battlefield. However, it put enough pressure on the South African government to force it to rethink its strategy of trying to defeat PLAN instead of negotiating with them. SWAPO succeeded in forcing the apartheid regime to start negotiating with the party’s leaders for independence. SWAPO did not rely on PLAN as their only tool of fighting. It used the international arena and the United Nations to pursue its goals.

When independence was finally achieved on 21 March 1990, some of the PLAN members were integrated into the Namibian Defence Force, the presidential guard and the police service units. In the 1990s, the government faced protest from veterans demanding that government incorporate more of them into the uniform service. In 2009, another protest took place which led to the creation of a ministry for veterans; they were given monthly stipends and lump-sum payouts.

• Britannica, SWAPO Party of Namibia, from Britannica [online], available at [accessed: 05 March 2015].
• Nengovhela NJ, 1999, the role played by People’s Liberation Army of Namibia [PLAN] during the Namibian struggle from 1978 to 1989, Rand Afrikaans University, available at [accessed: 06 March 2015].
• History of War, Namibia 1966-1990, from History of War [online], available at [accessed: 10 March 2015].
• Udogu IE, (2012), Liberating Namibia: the long Diplomatic struggle between the United Nations and South Africa, Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data.
• Melbre H, (2003) Re-examining Liberation in Namibia: Political culture since independence, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.
• Tonchi at al, (2012) Historical Dictionary of Namibia. United Kingdom: Scarecrow press Inc.
• Mwakikagile G, (2015) Namibia: Conquest to independence formation of a Nation. Dar es Salaam: New Africa press

Last updated : 18-Aug-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 29-Jun-2015

Support South African History Online

Donate and Make African History Matter

South African History Online is a non profit organisation. We depend on public support to build our website into the most comprehensive educational resource and encyclopaedia on African history.

Your support will help us to build and maintain partnerships with educational institutions in order to strengthen teaching, research and free access to our content.