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Namibia’s Road to Independence

Friday 13 March, 2020

German South West Africa was a colony of the German Empire from 1884 until 1919. With a total area of 835,100 km², it was one and a half times the size of the mainland German Empire in Europe at the time. In 1915, during World War I, German South West Africa was invaded by the Western Allies in the form of South African and British forces.

After the war its administration was taken over by the Union of South Africa (part of the British Empire) and the territory was administered as South West Africa under a League of Nations mandate.  The mandate was ordered by the League of Nations and gave South Africa full power of administration and legislation over the territory, but it also required that South Africa promote the material and moral well-being and social progress of the South West African people.

When the United Nations was established to replace the League of Nations after the Second World War, the South African Prime Minister, General Smuts, argued for the incorporation of South West Africa into South Africa as one of its provinces. He argued that a majority of the territory’s people were content with South African rule, and so refused to surrender the earlier mandate, which was to be replaced by a new United Nations Trusteeship agreement.

In 1948 the Nationalist Party (NP) came into power in South Africa and began implementing its policy of racial segregation, or Apartheid, the Afrikaans term for ‘separateness’.  Apartheid intensified the already hostile rules that dictated the rights of ‘non-Whites’ that if disobeyed, resulted in severe penalties.

As South West Africa was under South African administration, these apartheid policies were also applied to the South West African people.  This meant that, among other rules, the ‘non-white’ citizens of South West Africa had no voting rights, interracial marriage and sexual relationships were illegal and punishable offences and Pass Laws meant that stern penalties were handed to ‘non-Whites’ entering areas designated for Whites-only.  In one of the most devastating aspects of apartheid, the government forcibly removed black South Africans from rural areas designated as “white” to the homelands, and sold their land at low prices to white farmers. From 1961 to 1994, more than 3.5 million people were forcibly removed from their homes and deposited in the Bantustans, where they were plunged into poverty and hopelessness.  It was one of the darkest times in African history.

The British Commonwealth condemned South Africa for its policies of apartheid and as a result, the Nationalist Party had South Africa withdraw from the Commonwealth following a referendum of white voters on October 5, 1960.  With a result of 52% in favour, South Africa became an independent republic on March 15, 1961.

In 1959, the colonial forces in Windhoek sought to relocate native residents further away from the white area of town. The native residents protested and the subsequent killing of eleven protesters spawned a major Namibian nationalist following and the formation of united black opposition to South African rule.

During the 1960s, as the European powers granted independence to their colonies and trust territories in Africa, pressure mounted on South Africa to do so in Namibia, which was then South West Africa.  In 1966, the International Court of Justice dismissed a complaint brought by Ethiopia and Liberia against South Africa’s continued presence in the territory and as a result the United Nations General Assembly revoked South Africa’s mandate.

Growing international pressure to legitimate its annexation of Namibia led to the establishment of South Africa’s ‘Commission of Enquiry into South West Africa Affairs’, better known as the Odendaal Commission, in 1962.  The goal was to introduce South African racist homeland politics in Namibia, while at the same time present the occupation as a progressive and scientific way to develop and support the people in Namibia.

Meanwhile, an independence movement was developing under the name of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO).  The organisation advocated immediate South West African independence from South Africa and became known as the sole liberation movement in the early 1960s because it had the support of the Ovambo, the largest ethnic group in South West Africa.

In 1966, the Mandate for South West Africa was terminated and South Africa was notified that it had no right to administer the Territory.  But South Africa refused to withdraw and as a result SWAPO began to launch military operations against the South African government’s military positions. On 26 August 1966 the first major clash of the conflict took place, when a unit of the South African Police, supported by the South African Air Force, exchanged fire with SWAPO forces. This date is generally regarded as the start of what became known in South Africa as the Border War that continued until the country’s independence in 1990.

1966 to 1988 was a period of great hostility. During this period, in 1971, the International Court of Justice upheld UN authority over Namibia, determining that the South African presence in Namibia was illegal and that South Africa therefore was obliged to withdraw its administration from Namibia immediately. The Court also advised UN member states to refrain from implying legal recognition or assistance to the South African presence.  South Africa still did not withdraw.

In 1977, the Western Contact Group (WCG) was formed including Canada, France, West Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. They launched a joint diplomatic effort to bring an internationally acceptable transition to independence for Namibia. The WCG’s efforts led to the presentation in 1978 of Security Council Resolution 435 for settling the Namibian problem. The Settlement Proposal, as it became known, was worked out after lengthy consultations with South Africa, the front-line states (Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe), SWAPO, UN officials, and the Western Contact Group. It called for the holding of elections in Namibia under UN supervision and control, the cessation of all hostile acts by all parties, and restrictions on the activities of South African and Namibian military, paramilitary, and police.

South Africa agreed to cooperate in achieving the implementation of Resolution 435. Nonetheless, in December 1978, in defiance of the UN proposal, it unilaterally held elections, which were boycotted by SWAPO and a few other political parties. South Africa continued to administer Namibia through its installed multiracial coalitions and an appointed Administrator-General. Negotiations after 1978 focused on issues such as supervision of elections connected with the implementation of the settlement proposal.

In 1988, the South African government, under a UN brokered peace initiative, finally agreed to give up control of South West Africa.

In April 1989, the United Nations established the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in South West Africa, and to a limited extent in neighbouring countries, in order to supervise the return of refugees, the holding of a general election, the withdrawal of South African forces and South West Africa’s transition to independence. – White painted rectangular steel tactical sign of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia in 1989-90.

The United Nations (UN) established UNTAG in Namibia and Angola to ensure the early independence of Namibia through free and fair elections under the supervision and control of the United Nations. UNTAG was also to help the Special Representative of the Secretary-General to ensure that all hostile acts were ended, troops were confined to base (and, in the case of the South African troops, ultimately withdrawn from Namibia), all discriminatory laws were repealed, political prisoners were released, Namibian refugees were permitted to return, intimidation of any kind was prevented and law and order were impartially maintained.

The Australian Contingent of UNTAG consisted of 613 personnel, the majority of which were Army Engineers from 17 Construction Squadron. The contingent also included one RAAF officer, a five man Military Police Detachment and a three man Signals Detachment.

An advance party of 70 personnel left Australia for Namibia on 9 March 1989 arriving on 11 March. The main body of the Australian contingent arrived on April 14. A second contingent of troops flew out for Namibia on 5 September.

From 26 October to 20 November 1989, the Australian Electoral Commission provided an electoral organisation expert and 27 electoral supervisors.  The Australian Federal Police contributed a fingerprint expert in order to assist in the conduct of the general election held from 7 to 11 November.

The election chose the 72 delegates to the Constituent Assembly and saw a voter turn-out of 97 per cent. UNTAG monitored the balloting and the counting of votes.

On 14 November, the Representative for Namibia declared that the elections had been free and fair. The South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) obtained 41 Assembly seats. The Democratic Turnhalle Alliance obtained 21 seats, and five smaller parties shared the remaining 10.

By 22 November 1989, South Africa’s remaining troops had left Namibia. The Constituent Assembly met for the first time on 21 November to draft a new Constitution, which was unanimously approved on 9 February 1990.

On 16 February the Assembly elected SWAPO leader Samuel (Sam) Shafiihuma Nujoma as President of the Republic for a five-year term.  Nujoma was a founding member and the first president of the South West Africa People’s Organization in 1960. – White painted rectangular steel tactical sign of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia in 1989-90.

Namibia became independent on 21 March 1990.  On that day, in Winhoek, Nujoma was sworn in by Chief Justice Hans Berker.

The last of the Australian UNTAG contingent left for Australia on 9 April 1990.

On 23 April 1990, Namibia became the 160th Member of the United Nations.





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