Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Namibian Border War: an appraisal of the South African strategy (Part 6)

The Nambian Border War: an appraisal of the South African strategy (Part 5)

Taking a break from the never ending stories about crime and corruption in the New! Improved! South Africa! I had a look at some of the past political issues and found an interesting essay by Dr. Leopold Scholtz (Stellenbosch University) about the Namibian Border War. I'll be posting it in a series of 10 parts.

The turn-around: security strategy

On the security strategic level South Africa in the early seventies was really in an unwinnable situation. Internally as well as internationally it was regarded as an illegal colonial occupier of the territory. Officially, Namibia was administrated “in the spirit” of the old League of Nations mandate of 1919 (which was revoked by the International Court of Justice in 1971), but in practice it was simply run as a fifth province of the Republic. In fact, Pretoria was intent on applying the policy of grand apartheid, with self-governing and eventually independent homelands for the different black ethnic groups. Petty apartheid – segregation on grassroots level – was applied assiduously by an army of officials and policemen. This, as we have seen, provided the main cause of dissent, giving rise to Swapo’s insurgency.

However, Pretoria responded with a pragmatism that was, at the time, quite surprising. Instead of the usual semi-theological arguments of apartheid being a naturally-ordained way of ordering human relations, instead of a blanket refusal to give up the territory, the government reacted flexibly, albeit slowly. In 1973 Prime Minister John Vorster declared that the Namibian population would have to decide their own future, thereby implicitly accepting that the territory could become independent. Four years later, a conference was convened at the Windhoek Turnhalle to enable the Namibians to decide on the political structures to govern them, but Swapo viewed this as a sham and boycotted the process. Progressively, all apartheid laws were repealed – a rather adventurous process, seeing that it was still unthinkable back in the Republic to bring about more than just cosmetic changes to apartheid.

It is also important to note that, in contrast to South Africa itself (where the ANC and other liberation movements remained proscribed), in Namibia Swapo was permitted to act as a legitimate political party. An anonymous South African official explained to an American military visitor that this was to “keep it out in the open, and keep the faint-hearted from going to Angola”.

In the military field, the changes were reflected in an ever increasing number of blacks fighting for the South African administration, 32 Bn (consisting of ex-FNLA fighters) being the first unit allowing blacks to join the previously lily-white SADF. This was followed by 31 Bn (Bushmen), 101 Bn (Ovambos), 201 Bn (East Caprivi), 202 Bn (Okavango), 203 Bn (West Caprivi), and 911 Bn (ethnically mixed). Especially 32 and 101 Bn were much more than ordinary infantry battalions, growing into what really amounted to motorised infantry brigades. Many blacks also joined the Police COIN unit Koevoet. With the exception of 32 Bn (SADF) and Koevoet (SAP), these all became part of the South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF), an indigenous Namibian force under South African command which, during the eighties, supplied about 70 per cent of the military manpower in the territory, about 30,000 men. More than 90 per cent of these had black, yellow or brown skins.

This did not mean that the South African government was content on handing Namibia over to Swapo. The South Africans viewed the war against Swapo as being a struggle against communism, and this explained their whole posture. As Minister of Foreign Affairs Pik Botha explained to dr. Chester Crocker, US Assistant State Secretary for Africa, in a face-to-face meeting in 1981, the South African government “thought it was important to U.S. to stop Soviet gains...Swapo’s people are indoctrinated in Marxism every day... SAG’s [South African Government] bottom line is no Moscow flag in Windhoek.” His colleague for Defence, General Magnus Malan, was even more forthright. According to the US minutes, “Malan flatly declared that the SAG can’t accept prospects of a Swapo victory which brings Soviet/Cuban forces to Walvis Bay. This would result from any election which left Swapo in a dominant position. Therefore a Swapo victory would be unacceptable in the context of a Westminister-type political system. Namibia needs a federal system. SAG does not rule out an internationally acceptable settlement, but could not live with a Swapo victory that left Swapo unchecked power.” In other words, the abolition of apartheid – yes; an international settlement – yes; elections with universal suffrage – yes; but a Swapo victory – no! And so, on a security strategic level, the war became an attempt to win enough time to create the conditions in which Swapo would lose an election.

Indeed, Pretoria did not have to look far for indications of Swapo’s Marxist and dictatorial inclinations. In the aftermath of thousands of young, mostly idealistic Namibians flocking to Swapo’s banners in Zambia and Angola, grassroots pressure built up to make the leadership accountable to the rank and file. This was not appreciated by either Sam Nujoma or his top lieutenants. Njoma convinced President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia to order the Zambian Army to arrest the dissident leadership and keep them incommunicado in a prison in Lusaka. When the news leaked out and a writ of habeas corpus was issued by the court to produce the arrested, they were simply flown out to Dar es Salaam where several remained incarcerated for several years. Dissident thinking within Swapo was brutally suppressed. Inside Namibia, Swapo also took steps to ensure the neutralisation of possible dissidents. Many others were detained and cruelly tortured.

Under heavy pressure Swapo held a congress in July and August, 1976 in Nampundwe, Zambia, where it adopted a new party constitution. But instead of making the party more open, democratic and accountable as the dissidents had demanded, it transformed Swapo into an orthodox Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. In the constitution, Swapo pledged to combat all forms of ethnic orientation and racism and to “unite all Namibian people, particularly the working class, the peasantry and progressive intellectuals into a vanguard party capable of safeguarding national independence and of building a classless, non-exploitative society based on the ideals and principles of scientific socialism.”

Some observers, while conceding the “Stalinist register” or the “textbook example of Soviet-style phraseology”, seek to portray it as merely opportunistic to gain the support of young Namibians and of the Soviet-bloc weapons suppliers. But why Swapo cannot simply be taken at its word, is not clear. After all, most African liberation movements, including the MPLA, PAIGC, Frelimo and the ANC, were at this stage either avowed Marxist-Leninist organisations or dominated by communists. There seems to be no reason to assume that the Swapo leadership did not mean what they said. After all, only a few months later, Sam Nujoma let the cat out of the bag when he said quite openly in an interview with SABC-TV in answer to a question whether Swapo would not be “left out in the cold” if a non-Swapo government took power on independence: “The question of black majority rule is out. We are not fighting even for majority rule. We are fighting to seize power in Namibia, for the benefit of the Namibian people. We are revolutionaries. We are not counter-revolutionaries.”

Swapo’s own political propaganda from the time reinforces the point. “Comrade Lumumba”, reportedly the nom de guerre of “Plan’s chief political commissar”, wrote in 1986 in Swapo’s propaganda publication The Combatant that political education among the masses “should be of class character, be based on the irreconcilable hatred against class enemies, capitalist and imperialist...” It should “strengthen the class position of our combatants in the interests of the toiling and exploited, but fighting people of Namibia”. This is nothing if not orthodox Marxism-Leninism.

All of this meant that apartheid, race discrimination and colonial domination diminished as casus belli. What remained, was Swapo’s avowed aspiration to convert Namibia into a Marxist one-party state, thereby enabling Pretoria, ironically enough, to present the conflict in the rather more respectable cloak of communist dictatorship versus liberal multiparty democracy. And that, we may surmise, weakened Swapo and strengthened Pretoria to some extent.

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