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A short history of Namibia

The history of Namibia is a history of struggle — first against German colonialism and then against South African occupation.

In this short history of Namibia, we look at some of the most important moments in Namibia’s long struggle against foreign domination.

In the days before the Dutch, British and German settlers came, the land which we now call Namibia was home to many communities of people. The first people to live in this huge dry country were the San, known as the “Ovakuruvehi” — the ancient ones.

Later, long before the Europeans drew their lines on maps and said “this land is our land”, other African people came to settle in Namibia. The Hereros and Damaras, Ovambos and Namas, Kangwali and Mbunza, and many others lived side by side, mostly in peace with each other.

In the 18th century, other people began to arrive from the Cape — first the Orlams and the Rehobothers. By the end of the 1700s, the first whites traders had arrived, bringing with them guns which they traded for land and food.

During the 19th century, new settlers from Holland and Germany began to arrive in big numbers, taking for themselves land and precious water. There was not enough good land and water for everyone and this led to fighting between the people. As more settlers arrived, so did the missionaries. Soon, European governments, particularly the British and the Germans, were wanting to take all of Namibia as a colony.


In 1876, the British took Walvis Bay but it was the Germans who took the rest of Namibia. In 1883, Adolf Luderitz made an agreement with a chief that gave the land around Luderitz to the Germans. In 1885, the Germans brought soldiers to take full control of the whole country, except the land in the far north.

The strongest Namibian groups at that time were the Nama, led by Hendrik Witbooi and the Herero, led by Chief Maharero and later by his son, Samuel Maherero.

Herero and Nama groups resisted the German invasion, but by 1894 the Germans, with their guns and their military training, defeated the resistance and made Namibia a German colony.


The Germans continued to take more and more land from the people and give it to German settlers from Europe. By 1903, the Herero people had been robbed of more than half of their land and one year later, they rose up against the Germans. Samuel Maharero declared war and wrote a letter to the new German governor, Leutwein, telling him why:

“The war has been started by the Whites. You yourself know how many Hereros had been killed by White traders with guns, and in prisons… (And so) I became angry and said – now I must shoot the Whites even though I die”.

The Damara and the Nama soon joined the Herero in the struggle. The Ovambo people did not join the fighting because the Germans had not taken their land in the north, but they did give shelter to people fleeing from the south.

At the start of the war, Samuel Maherero ordered that no women, children or unarmed whites should be attacked. But the German General von Trotha did not care who he killed. He ordered that:

“Inside German territory every Herero tribesman, armed or unarmed, with or without cattle, will be shot… I believe that the Herero must be destroyed as a nation.”


On 11 August 1904, the Germans killed thousands of Herero men, women and children in a battle at Hamakari. Some escaped to Botswana through the Kalahari desert but many died on their way across the harsh, sun-baked sands. Others fled north where they were helped by Chief Nehale of the Ondonga community. Many more died after they were taken prisoner and used as slave labour on the railways.

By the end of 1905, more than 60 000 Hereros had been killed and half the Damaras and the Namas were also dead. Even so, the people fought on until 1907 when they were finally forced to give up.


After the people lost their land, they were forced — by a system of pass and vagrancy laws — to work for the Germans. Some were sent to white farms, where conditions were terrible and workers were paid starvation wages.

Others, mainly people from the north, had to go to the Tsumeb copper mine, which opened in 1906 and to the diamond mines around Luderitz on fixed-term contracts. By 1910, over 10 000 Ovambo contract workers were already coming south to work on the mines and railways. Working conditions were terrible and wages were very low. The men lived in compounds, almost like prisoners, cut off from their families.

The Germans made sure that Namibians could not easily escape these conditions of slavery. The people were not trained to do anything else. There was almost no education. The Lutheran missionaries taught only the Bible and some German — they were not allowed to teach reading and writing.

Herero chief Frederick Maherero said: “The Germans fought us and took away our land. They converted us to Christianity but did not want to give us any education or to help us to advance. The Germans were afraid of the Herero people. They did not want them to learn…. as we want today.”


In 1914, the First World War broke out in Europe and Britain asked South Africa to invade Namibia and take it from the Germans. This they did. In 1918 the Germans were defeated in Europe and the war ended.

Soon after, many countries came together to form the League of Nations with the aim of preventing another world war. They also had to decide what to do with Germany’s colonies like Tanganyika (Tanzania) and Namibia.

In 1921 the League of Nations gave South Africa a mandate to administer Namibia. South Africa was entrusted to govern Namibia and to lead the country to independence as soon as possible.

The mandate said that South Africa:

“Shall promote to the utmost the material and moral well-being, and the social progress of the inhabitants of the Territory… no forced labour is permitted except for essential public works and services, and then only for adequate remuneration.”

South Africa has ruled Namibia ever since that time. It has treated Namibia as if it was a part of South Africa, ignoring what the mandate said.

When South Africa first took control of Namibia, many Namibians thought that the South Africans would give them back their land. They were wrong. Generals Jan Smuts and Louis Botha soon took more land from the Namibians and gave it to Afrikaner settlers. In this way, and in almost every other way possible, the South Africans went against the League of Nations mandate. The South Africans broke the trust which the mandate had given them. They began to set up the same kind of racist government in Namibia as they had in South Africa.


The first step was to put Africans in reserves. In 1923 the South African government passed a law which gave Africans in Namibia only two million hectares of land out of a total of 57 million. This land was dry land that was no good for cattle or farming.

By 1937, all the people had been moved into the reserves. Like the homelands in South Africa, there were no jobs in the reserves. In order to survive, people were forced to go to the mines, the railways, the farms and the factories in the “white” areas. On top of this, South Africa did not pay for proper housing, education and health services for people in the reserves.

All workers had to report to special labour recruiting organisations. Vinnia Ndadi, who is today a member of SWAPO’s national executive, was one of those workers. He describes what happened at the labour recruiting organisation:

“I was very young — still seventeen in fact. I wanted to continue school, but had instead to think of work. One day I walked to the recruiting station at Ondangwa. They laughed and sent me back home saying I was too weak. I was sent back like this four times before they finally accepted me.

“After our physical examinations (they treated us like cattle), they graded the very strong and healthy ones “A boys”, those with good health but not very strong “B boys” and the youngest and weakest “C boys”. I was tagged with a number and my ‘C” classification.

“Finally, they gave you a job. “Johannes! You’re going to milk the cows on X farm. Samuel! You’ll work on the Tsumeb mines! And so on. You couldn’t refuse.”

Not only did workers have no choice about where they were going to work, they also did not know how many hours they would have to work, or even how much pay they would get!


South African colonial rule was so harsh that it did not take long before the people started resisting. The first resistance was when Chief Mandume of the Ukuanyama tribe refused to surrender to the South Africans.

“If the English want me,” he said, “I am here and they can come and fetch me. I will fight till my last bullet is spent.”

The South African army, helped by the Portuguese in Angola, attacked Mandume. They killed over a hundred of his people and chopped off the chief’s head. Satisfied, the South African administrator said: “The country is now entirely calm.” But the country was not calm. Other people were also resisting — like the Bondelswart community, the Ukuambi and the Rehobothers. Each time, their resistance was put down with guns and arrests.

One Boer soldier who was part of the attack on the Bondelswart wrote: “This is not pleasant work… the people are fighting for the same thing we fought the English for twenty years ago: freedom. That is all they want.”

Workers also fought back against South African exploitation. There were many strikes on the mines, in the factories, in the fisheries and on the farms — but there were no strong trade unions to unite the workers and the police stepped in every time to crush the strikers.

A big problem for the Namibian people was that they were not united as one nation. They fought the Boers separately and so they were defeated.


In the 1920’s, organisations against South African oppression started to grow. One of these was the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), whose slogan was “Africa for the Africans”. Through this organisation, which started in the United States, the message of black unity and independence was spread across the country. But the UNIA collapsed in the late 1920s because of police harassment and leadership problems.

Another important organisation was the Otjiserandu. This organisation was formed on the 26 August 1923 at the graveside of the Herero leader, Samuel Maharero. Its aim was to unite the Herero people, to honour those who had died in the war against the Germans and to keep alive the idea of freedom.

Soon more and more people from other communities joined the Otjiserandu, bringing together all the communities who had fought in the 1904-1907 war of resistance.

Organisations like UNIA and Otjiserandu began to unite the Namibian people, but they were not national organisations and they did not have a programme of action for the national liberation of Namibia. That would come much later.


The churches also played an important role in resisting South African oppression of Namibians. Christians who were angry at the way the Lutheran Church supported South Africa, formed independent churches, like the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME) which was formed in 1947.

The German Lutheran Church had taught Namibians that they should be obedient to the government. And if they suffered hard lives in this world, they would have a better life in heaven. But the new independent churches worried about the conditions of life in Namibia. They preached against the injustice of the exploitation of Namibians by South Africa.

Today the AME is still a powerful voice in Namibia. Three of its leaders are also leaders of SWAPO. The Rev B. G. Karuaera and the Rev E. S. Tjirimuje are both members of the Executive Committee of SWAPO and the Rev H. Witbooi is SWAPO’s Vice-President.


The Germans and the South Africans provided little education for the people of Namibia. By 1940, there were only two state schools in Namibia. And until 1960 there were no state schools at all in the northern region, where over half of the population live.

The Nationalists came to power in South Africa in 1948. Five years later, they passed the Bantu Education Act. Hendrik Verwoerd, then the Minister of Native Affairs, made it clear that the white minority did not want blacks to have a proper education. He said:

“There is no place … for (the African) in the European community above the levels of certain forms of labour”.

Verwoerd’s kind of education was training for servants. It was this Bantu Education system that the South Africans imposed on Namibia.

The Anglican and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches, as well as the SWA Teachers’ Association all protested against Bantu Education. They tried to start their own schools but were refused permission. As a result, today Namibians still have fewer educational opportunities than almost any other country in Africa.


At the end of World War Two in 1945, the League of Nations became the United Nations. The UN decided that all of the colonies which had been under German rule (the Cameroons, Togoland, Tanganyika, Ruanda-Urundi and South West Africa) should become independent.

But South Africa wanted to make Namibia part of South Africa. They “consulted” with puppet chiefs and headmen and told the UN that 208 850 blacks were in favour of Namibia becoming a part of South Africa and only 33 520 were against the idea.

Genuine leaders in Namibia, led by Chief Hosea Komombumbi Kutako asked for a UN Commission to visit Namibia to see for themselves, but South Africa refused to allow this. They also refused passports to leaders who wanted to go and address the UN.

In December 1946, the UN voted against Namibia becoming a part of South Africa. They said that Namibians were not yet ready to take such an important decision. And they left it at that.

It was clear at this time that the international community was not ready to give full support to the Namibian people in their struggle for independence. The people of the country realised that the future of the struggle for independence lay in their own hands.


Many young Namibians were forced to come to South Africa to study because they couldn’t get a decent education in Namibia. The events of the 1950s — such as the Defiance Campaign, the bus boycotts and the protests against Bantu Education and the Pass Laws — had a big influence on these students. In particular, they were influenced by the work of the African National Congress and its allies in the Congress Alliance, as well as the banned South African Communist Party.

The SWA Student Body (SWASB) was formed to represent Namibian students in South Africa during this time. They had close links with the ANC and with people in Namibia.

When these students returned to Namibia they formed the SWA Progressive Association, led by Uatja W. Kaukuetu. They gained much support from pupils and students in Namibia and some of their members formed the first black newspaper, South West News.


In 1958 another organisation was formed by Namibians living in South Africa. This organisation was the Ovamboland People’s Congress (OPC) and was formed by a group of Namibians in a barber’s shop in Cape Town. Many of them were contract workers working on the mines and railways in South Africa.

Andimba Ja Toivo led this group which included Peter Mueshihange, Solomon Mifima, Andreas Shipanga, Jackson Kashikuka, Jacob Kuhangua and Maxton Joseph Mutongolume.

The organisation’s members also included students, like Emil Appolus, Jariretundu Kozonguizi and Ottilie Schimming Abrahams. Their original aim was to fight for better living and working conditions for their members in Cape Town.

The OPC had close links with the ANC and the Congress Alliance and joined the struggle against their common oppressor – the apartheid regime. They demanded a free and independent Namibia.

The OPC sent petitions to the United Nations, the Pope and the Queen of England. The Queen sent their petition back saying they should give it to the Governor in Cape Town!

The South Africans did not tolerate for long these “cheeky bantus” from the north. At the end of 1958, Ja Toivo was deported back to Namibia from Cape Town because of his political activities. He left saying:

“I came here to study and to gain more experience in political activity. I have made many good friends, particularly among members of the African National Congress. It is now time to return and to carry on the struggle in my own country.”


On 19 April 1959 the Ovamboland People’s Organisation (OPO) was formed in Windhoek. It was a follow up to the OPC. A young railway worker, Sam Nujoma, was elected President and other members included Louis Nelengani, (Vice-President), Lucas Nepela and Jacob Kuhangua.

Most of the members of OPO were contract workers who came from Ovambo, in the north. But right from the beginning, the organisation opened its doors to all Namibians. The OPO said that it was fighting not only for the Ovambos, but for all the people in Namibia.

Together with the Herero Chiefs Council, OPO formed SWANU – the South West African National Union. OPO’s President, Sam Nujoma, was elected to the executive of this new organisation. The idea was to unite all Namibia’s people in one organisation. But there were soon differences of opinion within SWANU and so OPO decided to go it alone.


Fresh from their experience of anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa, the young leadership in Namibia began similar campaigns in Namibia in 1958-59. They campaigned against the removal of people from their homes to new townships and dusty homelands.

The biggest campaign was against the removal of people from the Old Location in Windhoek to a new township which became known as Katutura — “we have no dwelling place”.

On 4 December 1959, hundreds of Namibian women marched on the administration building to protest, and the next day a boycott of busses and beerhalls was organised. A few days later, demonstrators were arrested outside a beerhall. On 10 December 1959, a large crowd — many of them women— gathered in front of the administration office to protest.

Police arrived and fired on the crowd. They killed 13 people and 54 people were injured. One of those killed was Anna Kakurukaze Mungunda. She was shot after setting fire to the car belonging to the white administrator of the Old Location.

The UN condemned the shootings, but the South African government, as usual, blamed “troublemakers” for the massacre. A wave of repression followed. SWANU and OPO leaders were ordered out of Windhoek. Many people were arrested, homes were raided and documents seized.

Shortly after the shootings, OPO President, Sam Nujoma was detained. On his release a week later he went into exile, along with many other nationalist leaders. OPO set up headquarters in the ANC offices in Dar Es Salaam.


Before the OPO leadership went into exile, they had received letters from OPO leader Mburumba Kerina in New York asking them to consider changing OPO’s name. Kerina wrote to Ja Toivo, saying:

“I have been urging Mr Nujoma to change the name of the Ovamboland People’s Organisation into the South West African National Congress. This will give the organisation a national character…”

Soon after Nujoma and other leaders went into exile, OPO decided to take Kerina’s advice. On 19 April 1960, OPO changed its name to SWAPO – the South West Africa People’s Organisation.

Nujoma tried to heal the differences between SWANU and SWAPO but his efforts failed.

Inside Namibia SWAPO began a massive recruitment campaign and thousands of Namibians from all over the country flocked to join. At the same time they launched a campaign to win support from the international community.

In June 1960, SWAPO’s name was first heard at the UN when Chief Kutako and Chief Samuel Witbooi petitioned the UN. In November 1960, other SWAPO leaders, including Sam Nujoma (President), Mburumba Kerina (Chairman), Ismael Fortune (Secretary General) and Jacob Kuhuuangua (Assistant Secretary General) spoke at the UN. They told the world about their vision of a free and democratic Namibia.


SWAPO’s aims were to establish a free, democratic government and to unite all people in Namibia. They aimed at the complete independence of Namibia and the removal of all oppressive laws. They demanded that all adults should have the vote and the economy, education and social foundations should be rebuilt to meet the needs of the people. They were committed to working towards the total freedom of the African continent. SWAPO’s aims remain the same to this day.

SWAPO won wide support from many of the member nations of the UN and from the other African liberation movements. Oliver Tambo, then the Deputy President-General of the ANC and Eduardo Mondlane, President of FRELIMO, also petitioned the UN on behalf of Namibians.

In 1946 there was one petition to the UN. In 1960 there were 120 petitions. The UN could no longer continue to ignore the plight of Namibians or believe the South African side of the story. SWAPO was here to stay!

SWAPO demanded a special UN committee to take power away from the South African government and to lead Namibia to a democratic African government. It demanded a period of change under UN supervision and “independence not later than 1963”.


The people of Namibia did not get the independence they were asking for. They got bantustans instead.

With opposition to South African rule growing inside and outside the country, the South Africans looked for ways to keep control of Namibia.

They set up the Odendaal Commission to investigate new ways of governing the colony. In 1963 the commission recommended South African-style bantustans for Namibia. This meant that bantustans would elect their own leaders — ones the South Africans approved of — and would take care of their “own affairs”. This was the old trick of divide and rule.

Whites, of course, would keep overall political control as well as control of the best land and the economy. The Odendaal Commission has remained the basis of South African policy ever since.


The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was formed in May 1963 and set up a Committee for the Liberation of Africa based in Dar es Salaam.

In 1965 the OAU recognised SWAPO as the only representative of the Namibian people. SWAPO was now seen both inside and outside Namibia as the leading force in the liberation struggle.

At this time SWAPO was determined to find peaceful ways of ending the conflict in Namibia. Besides going to the UN and the OAU for support, they looked to the International Court of Justice in Holland for justice. Namibians hoped that the court would declare South Africa’s occupation of Namibia illegal and tell them to leave their country.


A group of African nations acting on behalf of the Namibian people, took the Namibian case to the International Court. But the judges were no friends of Namibia. They only heard South Africa’s side of the story. They didn’t speak to anyone from Namibia.

The case went on for years. Finally in 1966 the Court decided that it could not make a decision. Namibians were angered and shocked and SWAPO called it a failure of justice. It was clearly a victory for the South African government.

The UN now took matters into its own hands. On 27 October 1966, the UN declared that South Africa “has no other right to administer the Territory” and that from then on South West Africa would fall directly under the responsibility of the UN. The UN Council for South West Africa (now the UN Council for Namibia) was set up.


By the middle of the 1960s, people in many African countries took up armed struggle against colonial oppression – the MPLA were fighting in Angola, FRELIMO in Mozambique and ZANU and ZAPU in Zimbabwe.

When SWAPO heard the International Court’s decision, they decided that armed struggle was the only way to fight South African occupation. As Andimba Ja Toivo said:

“We felt betrayed and we believed that South Africa would never fulfil its trust. Some felt that we would secure our freedom only by fighting for it.” Ja Toivo’s comrades in exile echoed his thoughts: “We have no alternative but to rise in arms and bring about our own liberation.”


SWAPO had prepared itself for armed struggle. They had begun military training in 1962. Now, in 1966, they set up their first base inside Namibia, in Ovambo.

The South Africans got to know about the base and planned an attack. SWAPO fighters knew about the SADF plans and they decided to stay and fight. SADF troops attacked the base on 26 August 1966. The attack became known as the battle of Omgulumbashe, the first battle of the armed struggle. The South Africans said that they wiped out the camp. But SWAPO tells a different story. They say that two comrades were killed and the rest escaped or were captured.

SWAPO fought back with attacks on the occupying forces, on South African officials’ houses, and on the puppet chiefs in Ovambo.


The South Africans reacted by arresting 37 SWAPO leaders and fighters, among them Nathaniel Mahuilili (Acting President), John Ya Otto (Acting Secretary General) Andimba Ja Toivo (Regional Secretary for Ovamboland) and Jason Mutumbulua (Secretary for External Relations).

They were taken to Pretoria and charged with terrorism. At the end of the trial, Ja Toivo was elected to speak for the other accused. Like Nelson Mandela before him, Ja Toivo’s speech from the dock is now famous.

This is a part of what he said: “We are Namibians and not South Africans. We do not now, and will not in the future, recognise your right to govern us; to make laws for us in which we had no say; to treat our country as if it were your property and us as if you were our masters.

“We have always regarded South Africa as an intruder in our country… We claim independence for South West Africa. We do not expect that independence will end our troubles, but we do believe that our people are entitled – as are all peoples – to rule themselves.”

Twenty of the accused got life sentences, and the others were sentenced to up to 20 years. One was discharged and one, Ephraim Kaporo, died during the trial.

But the arrests did not stop SWAPO, inside or outside the country. They continued the armed struggle and they continued to win the support of friends in the international community.


In 1970, the International Court again heard the Namibian case. This time it made a good decision for the people of Namibia. The court ordered the immediate withdrawal of South Africa from Namibia.

In the streets of Namibian townships the people danced with joy. But not for long. The South Africans said: “We will continue to govern South West Africa as in the past”.

The South African government refused to believe that the majority of Namibians wanted independence. The people, now more than ever, totally rejected South African rule.


The International Court decision gave Namibians new hope and new strength. The first sign of this new strength came in the form of a huge strike by mine workers protesting against the system of contract work.

Over 20 000 contract workers went on strike — almost half the total contract labour force from Ovambo. And they were supported by many factory workers in the towns and even by some farm workers.

The South Africans’ response was to break up meetings, arrest leaders and even kill some of the organisers. Others they sent back to the reserves.

In the industrial centres the bosses tried to get scab labour to replace the strikers. They even paid white teenagers ten times the wage of black workers to collect the street rubbish. Whites in the north feared for their lives and white farmers and their families were moved to safe places in the south.

A state of emergency was declared under Proclamation R17. Meetings were banned, the movement of people was strictly controlled, political organisations were banned and the police were able to detain anyone for as long as they liked. R17 remained until 1977 when it was replaced by new and even harsher security laws.

Striking workers held out for as long as they could, but eventually they were forced to return to work or starve.

But the strike was important — it showed the need for workers in Namibia to come together in trade unions. This they would do in the years to come. The strike was also an important lesson for workers in South Africa. The rebirth of the union movement in South Africa — that eventually led to the formation of COSATU in 1985 — began with the strike in Namibia.


After the strike, the UN decided to send representatives to South Africa to speak to the South Africans about Namibia’s right to self-rule. They sent a contact group from the Western nations.

But South Africa had other ideas. In March 1973 they established the Bantustan Council with government appointed puppets from the various Bantustans. SWAPO, SWANU and The Herero Chiefs Council, as well as the contact group, rejected the council out of hand.

But the South Africans went ahead with their Bantustan elections in Ovambo and Okavango in late 1973. The UN contact group failed to stop the South Africans from going ahead with their apartheid plans for Namibia.

The Namibian people replied by organising a boycott of the elections under the slogan “One Namibia, One Nation”and ignored the restrictions of Proclamation R17.

The SWAPO Youth League (SYL) was particularly active in organising and mobilising the people. Many leading SWAPO Youth League activists were arrested.

The results of the election were a great victory for the people — only 1 300 out of 50 000 people in the north voted, and most of these were employees of the South African state.


After the 1973 Ovamboland elections, protests continued throughout the country. Again, the Ovamboland homeland ‘leaders’ persecuted the SWAPO Youth League by fining members, taking away their right to find work outside Ovambo and flogging them in public. One woman described how she and a comrade, Rachel, were flogged:

“Rachel was made to lie over a chair in the hall, in full view of the men, women and children. Policemen held her by a limb, and she was flogged by a tribal policeman… I was flogged in the same way. After my flogging, I walked as if I was crippled… At no stage was a charge put to me.”

Between 1973-5 there were a number of trials of leading SYL activists. Many leaders were sent to Robben Island. Despite the brutal treatment while in detention, many of them stood up bravely in court to defend SWAPO and the National Liberation Struggle. Jacob Ngidinua (Vice President of SYL) who was accused of sabotage, said:

“We have sabotaged nothing. We are oppressed. The people in Namibia who do sabotage are the whites of South Africa. The court is here illegally and terrorises us in our own land. Only the UN may hear us. We do not recognise this court and we will be back.”


In April 1974, the MPLA won freedom from the Portuguese in Angola. When the Namibians heard about the victory, they were overjoyed, shouting: “Caetano yesterday, Vorster tomorrow!” With a friendly MPLA government in Angola, SWAPO could now set up permanent bases inside Angola.

South Africa began to make cross border attacks against its two enemies — the MPLA who were fighting the South African supported UNITA and — of course — SWAPO.

SWAPO fought with the MPLA against the SADF and UNITA. Together SWAPO and the MPLA formed a strong alliance which has lasted to this day.

SWAPO members began to cross into Angola like never before to join the armed struggle. From June 1974 onwards, thousands of people left Namibia — many of them teachers, nurses, clerks and students. Most of them were young and many were women. This had two effects: it weakened SWAPO inside Namibia but it strengthened SWAPO outside Namibia.


The South Africans were prepared to do anything to win the war.

They brought in thousands of troops. In 1974 there were 15 000 SA troops in the region. By 1980 this number had grown to 80 000 in big military bases at Grootfontein, Ondangwa, Rundu, Mpacha and in many other smaller bases. This went against the League of Nations mandate which said that SA could not set up military bases in Namibia.

The South Africans also began to recruit Namibians into the SADF. In August 1980 these Namibian troops were joined together to form SWATF — the South West Africa Territory Force. The people of Namibia suffered much brutality at the hands of the SADF/SWATF troops. A report, written by the Catholic Church in 1982, said:

“The Security Forces stop at nothing to force information out of people. They break into homes, beat up residents, shoot people, steal and kill cattle, and often pillage stores and tea rooms.

“When the tracks of SWAPO guerrillas are discovered by the Security Forces, the local people are in danger. People are blindfolded, taken from their homes and left beaten up and even dead by the roadside.

“Women are often raped. Soldiers will enter a home and while the black soldiers keep watch over the family, the white soldiers select the best-looking girls and take them into the veld to rape them… a dusk to dawn curfew is imposed in the operational area. Anybody moving after dark is shot. A person cannot even go to the help of a sick neighbour or woman in childbirth.”

The local people called these “security forces” “Omakakunya” meaning “the blood-suckers”. Worst of all was KOEVOET — an “anti-terrorist” unit set up by South Africa — who are well-known for their atrocities against the unarmed civilian population.


On 1 September 1975 South Africa set up the Turnhalle talks in Namibia. South Africa pretended that the talks were part of the process towards “self-determination” — really it was just part of the plan to divide Namibia up along tribal lines.

SWAPO condemned the talks, demanding “One Namibia, One Nation.” Two years later, the UN Security Council held discussions with Vorster’s government and with the front-line states. They told the South Africans that the Turnhalle plans were unacceptable to the international community. Instead they proposed

  1. elections based on one person, one vote

  2. UN supervision of the elections

  3. the return of Namibians in exile

  4. the withdrawal of SA troops in Namibia

The people were angry about South Africa’s plans for Namibia and more and more looked to SWAPO. In 1976 the Rehoboth Volksparty joined SWAPO and the Namibia African People’s Party did the same.

In October about 80% of the Nama people from Southern Namibia joined SWAPO. Their leader was Pastor H. Witbooi, grandson of the chief Hendrik Witbooi who led the Namas against the Germans in the war of 1904-07. And in April 1977 a large number of Herero people (17 000) opposed to Clemens Kapuuo, the homeland leader, also joined SWAPO.

Those who supported the Turnhalle talks joined together to form the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) in 1977. Despite SWAPO’s opposition and the UN plan, the South Africans went ahead with their elections the next year— making sure that people voted — even at gunpoint. The DTA won but it was not recognised by Namibians or by the rest of the world.


Meanwhile, external SWAPO was having problems of its own. Some members of the Youth League were dissatisfied with the conditions in the camps in Angola and also wanted a greater say in the decision making of the organisation. Andreas Shipanga and Solomon Mifima (then publicity secretary and secretary of labour) agreed with the dissidents.

There was a rebellion and the dissidents were detained in camps in Zambia, where, after some international campaigning, they were released. Shipanga later founded SWAPO-Democrats, an organisation which claims to be the true SWAPO but which has no popular support.

But the rebellion was serious enough for SWAPO to make changes in the organisation to prevent such a thing happening again. At the same time, SWAPO also made a firm committment to a classless society based on socialist principles. SWAPO declared that it would strive to:

“Unite all Namlbian 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.”


SWAPO began to put this declaration into practice in the camps in Angola and Zambia where most of the exiles lived. One of the first camps was at Nyango in Zambia. By 1978 it was home to over 7 000 Namibians, mostly women and children. There were schools, hospitals, fields of maize, cabbages, potatoes and workshops for carpentry and sewing. There were adult literacy classes and schools took people up to Form 3.

The camps were thriving communities where the seeds of a new socialist society were sown. But even here, Namibians were not safe from the attacks of South Africa.


On 4th May 1978, Kassinga camp, the main refugee camp in Angola, was attacked by the SADF from the ground and from the air. The results were terrible:

“After the planes had fired rockets and dropped explosive and fragmentation bombs, as well as paralysing gases, the paratroopers landed and during the six and a half hours that the attack lasted gave full vent to their basest instincts, massacring the terror-stricken population in cold blood.”

612 Namibian refugees died — 298 of them children — as well as 12 Angolan soldiers and 3 Angolan civilians. 690 people were wounded. That tragic day will forever live on in the hearts of the Namibian people.


Despite the attack on Kassinga, SWAPO continued to negotiate with the UN Contact Group and South Africa continued to find ways of delaying the UN peace plan.

On 29 September 1978 the Security Council adopted Resolution 435 and demanded its immediate implementation. Resolution 435 said that:

  1. Fighting must stop immediately and all troops must return to their bases.

  2. All South African troops must withdraw from Namibia, except 1 500 who must remain in their base.

  3. SWATF must be scrapped.

  4. SWAPO forces are to return to their bases and then come home under UN supervision.

  5. The police will maintain law and order under UNTAG supervision.

  6. All political prisoners and detainees will be released and refugees brought home.

  7. All discriminatory laws will be scrapped before the election.

  8. An election will be held. All adults will be able to vote for a Constituent Assembly which will draw up a constitution for a free and independent Namibia.

  9. The constitution will be decided on by a two-thirds majority of the Assembly. The constitution will include a Bill of basic Human Rights and will provide for a free and independent judiciary and for periodic elections in which all adults can vote for the government of their choice.

  10. There will be full freedom of speech, assembly and the press during the election.


South Africa ignored Resolution 435 and continued to back the DTA and the so-called internal settlement. The war continued.

In 1981 the South Africans got a big helping hand — the hand of Ronald Reagan, President of the USA. He supported South Africa and refused to put any pressure on South Africa to accept the UN’s peace plan.

And he said that Cuban forces had to withdraw from Angola before South Africa could withdraw from Namibia. Reagan’s support for South Africa cost the lives of many SWAPO patriots and the continued misery of Namibians in the operational area.


In September 1987, the tide finally began to turn against South Africa. The South Africans launched another attack into Angola. But when they reached the town of Cuito Cuanavale, they were stopped by a small force of Angolan and Cuban troops.

For many months the SADF tried to take the town, but the Cubans sent more troops to the area. Together, the Angolans, the Cubans and SWAPO fighters finally defeated the South Africans. By April 1988, the SADF were withdrawing their forces from Angola.

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale — as well as the high cost of the war, the rising death toll of white South African soldiers and increased international pressure — made South Africa think twice about their occupation of Namibia. They were now ready to sit down at the negotiating table to discuss the future of Angola and Namibia. This was a major victory for SWAPO and for the Namibian people.

At the peace talks in Brazzaville last year, all sides agreed to the implementation of UN Resolution 435. The way was open for Namibians to decide their own future.


The UN started setting up UNTAG. This was to be a peace-keeping force whose main job was to monitor the elections in Namibia and make sure that they were free and fair. UNTAG’s members come from many different countries in the world and include military people as well as doctors, lawyers, ambulance drivers and so on. After some negotiations, the UN decreased the number of UNTAG members in Namibia from 7 500 to 4 650.

But on 1 April 1989 — the first day of the implementation of Resolution 435 — only 650 UNTAG members had arrived in Namibia and there were only two members in the whole of the north of the country. These were too few to stop the massacre of SWAPO guerrillas who had crossed the border to lay down their arms.

A total of 269 SWAPO guerrillas were killed on 1 April and in the days that followed. Many of them had been shot in the head point blank. The SADF has been accused of being responsible for the massacre. As a result of the killings, UNTAG has been criticised for not doing its job properly.

In May 1989, thousands of students in northern Namibia staged a protest. They demanded that more UNTAG members be called in to monitor the elections and to keep a close check on the SADF and SWATF — especially the ex-Koevoet members in SWATF who have been accused of intimidating SWAPO members.

Despite these setbacks, the election process is now firmly in place and, as we write, thousands of Namibians are getting ready to vote for the party of their choice.

Independent Namibia will still face many problems. Walvis Bay — Namibia’s only deep water port — remains in South Africa’s hands. And the Namibian economy is controlled by South African and multi-national corporations. But now, at last, Namibians can begin the work of building the new nation.

Aluta continual

NEW WORDS defeat — if you defeat someone, you win a victory over them recruit — if you recruit people for an organisation, you get them to join the organisation and work for it condemn — if you condemn something, you say it is bad and unacceptable repress — control people by force a conflict — an argument or fight flog — hit someone hard with a stick or a whip atrocities — cruel, shocking actions – like killings supervision — looking after and checking up on someone or something dissident — a person who criticizes their government or organisation implementation —the carrying out of a plan or law monitor — keep check of a situation and see that it is going well


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