Cycles of Oblivion


NAMIBIA IS ONE NAME for the area that stretches from South Africa to Angola across countless billions in unmined diamonds and uranium. On maps and in much Western press coverage, the territory is more often called by its official label--South-West Africa--than by the native derivative it will supposedly assume when and if it gains its independence. The longer Western viewers think of it as South-West Africa, the more they tend to blur its saga together with that of South Africa--the nation which has held power in Namibia since 1920 under a League of Nations mandate, and which still refuses to relinquish the territory despite repeated World Court and United Nations demands.

More than nomenclature has made Namibia's quest for independence from South Africa confusing. The first push came in 1951, when representatives of its Herero tribe sent a petition to the U.N. denying South African assertions that Namibia's natives wanted to become South Africa's fifth province. For the last decade, a Western alliance of the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, France and Canada have been pushing for some agreement under which the region's grab-bag of native peoples--including 11 ethnic groups and more than 40 political parties--could begin governing themselves.

The country's political composition makes that goal elusive at best. On the far left, the nationalist South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) makes periodic guerrilla raids from Angola into Ovamboland, the northern strip of Namibia where most Blacks still live. South Africa has spent the last decade trying to beat them back from the Ovamboland border. Meanwhile, the ruling regime has sought to pull together a party of native moderate leaders--tribal, white and Afrikaner--claiming that they, not SWAPO, represent the population. South Africa, for its part, has continually balked at the one-man-one-vote system which would leave whites and Afrikaners in the minority. This barrier, together with South Africa's insistence on keeping a buffer state between itself and Angola, has reduced negotiations for Namibian independence to fruitless, repetitive jockeyings.

In 1975, a nationwide constitutional convention called the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance came up with a constitution and a president, only to lose both to the violence of dissenting SWAPO terrorists. In 1981, the Reagan Administration seized on Namibian independence as its only chance to do something constructive. In that initiative the Western allied nations, generally known as "the five," went so far as to set an August 15 deadline for accords, but missed the deadline by making Namibian independence contingent on the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, a bow to South African tears. The same issue of Cuban troops has marked talks between U.S. and Soviet officials this week. Angola insists that South Africa also remove the troops it bases in Angola, just across the border from Ovamboland.

Western observers have tended to see, in these cycles of near accords and last-minute stipulations, parallels to almost any global situation they choose. South African strikes into Angola to forestall SWAPO have been likened to Israeli incursions into Beirut. Some see South Africa's approach in Namibia as a hint of future internal strategy.


THE LOOKER SEES what he brings to it, but my family numbers among a bare handful of observers who, eight years ago, briefly saw in Namibia another type of parallel--a Kennedy-esque Camelot dream that ended in ruin. Between 1975 and 1978, when the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance was trying to splice the various majority and minority rules into a constitution at a national convention, my father served as legal counsel to Clemens Kapuuo, president of the moderate delegation and chief of the Herero tribe which, back in 1951, had been responsible for the original U.N. petition.

An amethyst miner had made the initial contact with my father's firm, putting his friend, the chief, in touch with his New York attorneys. Over the next few years my father made five month-long trips to Namibia, working on drafts of the new constitution. Once, they had to stop the talks for a week because the organizers didn't want a white American in the room.

The idea of my father as a Thomas Jefferson thrilled us, though the only concrete detail we had on Namibia was a number--9500 miles from New York. Later, we gained enough political acumen to be fired with admiration and idealism over the client.

Clemens Kapuuo was then probably in his early forties. Soft-spoken and highly cultured, he stood nearly seven feet tall. His bodyguards were taller; the encourage filled our living room. He told stories of his 13 children and drank only orange juice. When he visited us in the States for the first time, he was en route to New York and Washington to try to persuade diplomats that, as moderates, the conventioneers represented Namibian opinion more accurately than SWAPO could. On that trip, Carter Administration officials refused to receive his party because SWAPO had been excluded from the constitutional conference. The American press excoriated him for allying with the conference, for working within the system rather than sticking to SWAPO.

And yet Kapuuo in person won us over completely. The visceral confidence that this was a good man, who once in power would stand a chance of knitting together a tattered country, caught us up in enthusiasm for Namibia's future. The constitution he and my father worked on held out similar hope. It chipped away at the problem of race representation by splitting the elected legislature into two cooperative branches--one "nationally representative" body elected by population, and one composed of an equal number of representatives from each of 11 ethnic groups, including Hereros, Ovambos, Afrikaners and so forth. Local authorities were left in original, mostly white, hands.

When the Turnhalle Alliance swept the elections under that constitution, Kapuuo as the president-elect, that hope seemed about to become a reality. We even talked about taking the long trip to Africa for his inauguration.

KAPUUO WAS ASSASSINATED in March of 1978, about a month before the inauguration. He was shot outside the front door of a store he kept outside the capital city of Windhoek, and questions of national representation becme moot as crowds of his tribesmen and others marched and lamented and staged a massive ritual funeral. Rioting broke out at the funeral and seven Ovambo tribesmen were killed, the climax of weeks of Herero-Ovambo strife. SWAPO leaders denied any involvement, just as they had three years before when Ovambo chief Philemon Elifas was shot to death in a similar incident.

In retrospect, the death seemed just as inevitably cyclical as the flux of international negotiations. Both times, South African officials had immediately suggested SWAPO as culprits; they noted the guerrilla group's opposition to any Turnhalle-type talks, in which Elifas had also agreed to participate shortly before his assassination. Even then, some Ovambo migrant workers opposed to the conference had been quoted in the New York Times as predicting "jubilantly" that "Clemens Kapuuo will be next."

After Kapuuo's death, a kinsman of his named Quame became Herero chief and attempted to step into Kapuuo's political shoes. He lacked Kapuuo's charisma, though, and lost the party's support. Under white leadership, the new constitution swiftly bogged down; the white "ethnic authority" found a way to appropriate for itself all white property taxes--about 90 percent of the country's total--an unforeseen loophole that neutralized the convention's gains.

Little has been heard since about the Turnh. He constitution, which the population was reported last summer to have "spurned." No surprise there--nothing but our unexpected closeup view had really set it off from any of the myriad other attempts to bring order out of the region's chaos. Since that closeup so abruptly ended, Namibian politics have seemed a bit remoter even to my family, and we no longer keep abreast day-to-day of who is assassinating whom and whose dreams have been the latest to die.