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Namibia: A Trust Betrayed


By Jonathan D. Ratner

AFTER MORE than three decades of debates, resolutions, and narrowly avoided confrontations, the international conflict over the political status of Namibia has finally reached a time of hard, no-nonsense decisions. Last week, an ailing John Vorster announced his resignation as South African Prime Minister and, as his final act in office, backed out on the tentative agreement Pretoria and Namibian nationalists made in July to allow United Nations military and civilian personnel to supervise the election of an independent Namibian government.

Instead, South Africa stated plans to grant independence on its own terms to the land it has occupied and governed in defiance of the U.N. since 1966. Those terms will inevitably severely restrict campaign freedoms and guide Namibia into a sham confederation of tribal groupings whose weakness will guarantee the continued economic and political dominance of the whites who make up 10 per cent of the territory's population. The Southwest Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), the Namibian freedom-fighting group that has led the struggle for independence for 12 years, has justly refused to participate in such an election, and has vowed to intensify its armed struggle against South Africa. And most Western observers believe SWAPO commands the support of at least a majority of Namibians.

One can hope, as press reports suggest the State Department still does, that Pretoria will decide of its own accord to abandon this reprehensible course. But given South Africa's past history of cynical contempt for world opinion and the current political turmoil within the Nationalist party caused by the resignation of Vorster, such a magnanimous change of heart appears unlikely. In Afrikanerdom, politicians consolidate support by demonstrating that they are the meanest, toughest-skinned leaders in town, not by coming out on the dove side of hot issues.

It thus becomes imperative for the West, particularly the United States, to learn from past mistakes, the replace its pious words in defense of Namibian independence with substantive steps designed to force South Africa to back down and permit U.N.-supervised elections. It should rush the U.N.-endorsed proposal for internationally supervised elections through the Security Council--preferably before the Nationalist party finishes selecting a new South African prime minister -- and present the South Africans with the demarche accompanied by an ultimatum: either accept U.N.-supervised elections in Namibia, or face across-the-board economic sanctions from the nations of the world. The time has come for the West to take bold action to challenge South African intransigence.

FOR MANY YEARS, the West demonstrated a commitment to independence -- a commitment that has never been fulfilled. Even during the early '70s, when the U.S. and its NATO allies were still supporting Portuguese colonialism in Africa, the West gave lip service to Namibian independence. The Namibian question, after all, was definitely one open to international adjudication; the League of Nations granted the South African government the right to administer the territory in 1919, declaring Namibia a "sacred trust of civilization" and requiring South Africa "to promote to the utmost the material and moral well being of and the social progress of the inhabitants of the territory." Instead, over a period of 60 years, South Africa has steadily moved to impose ever harsher apartheid regulations on Nambia's native population.

Today, Namibia is the apartheid state's apartheid state. It is administered by an official appointed from Pretoria, with the help of an all-white territorial assembly. Namibia, like South Africa, has its bantustans, its pass laws, its political detainees. If anything, the Namibian racial lines are drawn even more sharply; the living standard of blacks there is about half the poverty level of South African blacks. While a handful of white settlers and foreign nationals soak the territory for hundreds of millions in profits from the country's diamond, uranium and copper-rich land, most Africans continue to eke out a living through subsistence farming on the country's barren soil. A small number of blacks find employment in the market sector of the economy as unskilled mine workers. These workers are paid wages at about one half the poverty wage level offered black South African miners. And the last country-wide income survey, in 1967, showed the average white income 26 times the average black income.

Finally, in 1966, five decades of South Africa's constant tightening of its stranglehold over Namibia led the U.N., with Western support, to revoke South Africa's mandate to govern Namibia. But when a U.N. civilian group attempted to enter the territory to take over administration, South Africa quickly occupied the country with 10,000 troops and told the U.N. to stay out.

DURING THE SUMMER months, the American press was filled with premature praise for the role of Western diplomacy in bringing about the tentative accord between SWAPO and South Africa. Lost amidst all the kudos was a frank discussion of the West's ongoing undermining of U.N. efforts to force South Africa to leave the territory it illegally occupies.

The Western powers on the Security Council embarked on their roles as mediators only in 1976, after the establishment of a pro-SWAPO government in neighboring Angola facilitated the escalation of the armed conflict in Namibia and Third World opposition to continued South African rule hardened. Throughout the past 12 years, the U.S. and other Western powers have vetoed Security Council resolutions calling for economic sanctions against South Africa over the Namibian question. The U.S. and other Western powers have vetoed Security Council resolutions calling for economic sanctions against South Africa over the Namibian question. The U.S. and other Western powers have supported U.N. and World Court rulings prohibiting foreign investment in Namibia while it remains illegally occupied, but they have taken no steps to enforce these prohibitions against their own companies. And thus, with the U.S. leading the pack, the five Western powers who attempted to act as a go-between for SWAPO and South Africa continue to account for practically 100 per cent of the foreign investment in the land.

Namibia--an arid land of little more than one million people--has emerged as a major Western supplier of a variety of scarce resources such as copper, silver, lead and diamonds. U.S.-owned mining operations alone account for more than 40 percent of the foreign investment in the territory. In the past three years, the West had embarked on a campaign to exploit Namibia's uranium resources, which represent an estimated five per cent of the total world supply. Overall, the rate of exploitation of Namibia's mineral wealth has accelerated in recent years, leading many Namibian nationalists to charge that the multinationals, uncertain of what the political future holds for them, are mortgaging the economic stability of a free Namibia by attempting to exhaust reserves and run their mining equipment into the ground.

U.S. POLICY in Southern Africa has always been characterized by varying combinations of deceit, naivete, and open disregard for the cause of justice--all based on shortsighted conceptions of American strategic and economic interests. U.S. policy in Angola provides the most egregious example. The U.S. made a practical analysis that the Portuguese were in Africa to stay--that the national liberation movements lacked the military strength or political unity to defeat the Portuguese. It opted to support the Portuguese colonial presence in Africa until the coup in Portugal--in large part prompted by her failing military efforts in Africa--proved them wrong.

Needless to say, the new Portuguese government, bent on freeing its colonial possessions, did not fall over itself thanking the U.S. for its support. And, by isolating itself from the national liberation movements during the pre-independence period in Angola, the U.S. eliminated its chances of playing a constructive mediating role among the various political factions to help bring Angola toward independence through a negotiated, democratic transition. Instead, the U.S. attempted to regain a political foothold in Angola through covert support of the poorly organized, politically suspect FLNA and UNITA forces.

Four years later, the U.S. is still working to normalize relations with Angola. Since that time, the rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy has grown more pro-African, but there has been little real shift in the substance of the policy. The U.S. continues to formulate its policies by reacting -- opposing those forces the Soviets and Cubans support -- rather than considering the justice of a cause or even taking a hard, far-sighted look at where U.S. advantage lies.

Perhaps it is native to expect the U.S. to employ noble conceptions of justice and morality in the execution of foreign policy. But in the case of Namibia, the U.S. must recognize that in the long run, the pursuit of justice will have its more pragmatic advantages. In 1975, Rep. Charles Diggs (D-Mich.) told a Congressional hearing, "Independence in Namibia is now inevitable and the implications for long-term U.S. access to resources in Namibia...are clear. Certainly a majority-ruled, independent Namibia would be mindful of what action the United States is taking now to expedite progress toward independence in their country."

Diggs is right. Whether by the ballot or the bullet, a true independence will come to Namibia. South African intransigence can only be a holding action that will draw forth greatly increased military support for SWAPO from the front-line African states, the Cubans and the Soviets. SWAPO has already committed itself to a socialist path of development for Namibia, with national ownership of the resource-exploiting industries. But the organization at the same time demonstrated a pragmatic recognition that continued cooperation with the West may be in Namibia's interest for some time to come.

Undoubtedly, if the armed struggle intensifies, SWAPO ideology will rigidify, and the movement's dependence upon Soviet and Cuban support will increase. If this is allowed to happen, the U.S. and the rest of the West will once again find itself isolated from a newly-emergent African nation.

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