Saturday, March 21, 2015


Twenty-five years ago today, while Lithuania was struggling to become the first Soviet republic to secede from the U.S.S.R. - real independence for Lithuania and its Baltic brethren wouldn't come until September 1991 - the African nation of Namibia, after decades of being in a status of limbo, finally became an independent country.  But thanks to general indifference, Cold War politics, and a Western disregard for the Third World, it took much longer than it should have.
Namibia was originally the German colony of German South-West Africa, established in 1884 by Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of a unified Germany, as a counterweight to British influence in southern Africa.  Only the natural harbor at Walvis Bay was not part of the colony; the British had successfully annexed it and put it under the administration of the Cape Town colony, which in 1910 became part of the new country of South Africa.  (South Africa ceded Walvis Bay to Namibia in 1994.) German settlers were drawn to the Namib Desert region to seek their fortunes in mining copper and diamonds, but the black natives - who understandably didn't like being overrun and ruled by these Aryan outsiders - revolted against the whites unsuccessfully from 1904 to 1908.
The German defeat in World War I led to the dissolution of its colonial empire, with many of its African colonies being taken over by Great Britain and France but South-West Africa going to neighboring South Africa - which, as one of the Allies, had invaded and occupied the territory in 1915 - under a League of Nations mandate.   The South African government hoped to officially incorporate South-West Africa into the country, but never officially did so; between the wars, South-West Africa was nonetheless governed as if it were a province of South Africa, with its white minority represented in the whites-only South African Parliament and with its own elected all-white legislature.  Although whites barely registered as a racial group in the territory, they owned most of the land and resources.
When the League of Nations disbanded in 1946 and its mission was assumed by the new United Nations organization, South Africa was expected to surrender its invalidated League mandate over South-West Africa and allow the U.N. to govern it under a trusteeship agreement, requiring international monitors to oversee the territory's administration and prepare it for eventual independence.  This is what the United Nations would do after World War II with other colonies either inherited from League of Nations-managed mandates or surrendered by the Axis Powers.  South Africa was not ready to give up all those diamond and copper mines, and it told the United Nations in no uncertain terms what it could do with its trusteeship.  Two years later, the National Party took over South Africa and officially instituted apartheid in both the mother country and in South-West Africa.  Attempts to gain South-West African/Namibian independence in the fifties and early sixties went nowhere, even as other African colonies gained their freedom from their European colonial masters.  Then, in 1966, the United Nations General Assembly revoked South Africa's mandate over the territory,  and the International Court of Justice issued an "advisory opinion" in 1971 declaring South Africa's continued administration of Namibia to be illegal.
Black Namibian freedom fighters began a long war against their white South African oppressors, even as resistance to apartheid in the mother country continued. The United Nations Security Council responded in 1978 with the passage of U.N. Resolution 435, which planned for Namibia to become an independent nation, but South Africa refused to abide by it.  Unfortunately, Namibia soon became yet another pawn in the Cold War.  After U.S. President Jimmy Carter failed to produce a solution for eventual Namibian independence through direct confrontation with South Africa over apartheid and its racist occupation of Namibia, the Reagan administration, at the urging of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Chester Crocker - the guy who gave us the crock of a "constructive engagement" policy toward South Africa, essentially being support for a racist government - pursued a Namibia policy of extortion.  Crocker tied U.S. support for Namibian independence to withdrawal of Cuban troops from Namibia's neighbor Angola, where the Cubans were helping the Marxist government (which was also receiving support from the Soviet Union) fight the right-wing Angolan rebel fighters under Jonas Savimbi, who received support from the United States and South Africa.  Crocker insisted that this policy would assign responsibility for the anarchy in southwestern Africa to all parties involved and force them to work together to bring peace to the region.  But, as Richard Knight of the American Committee on Africa explained in 1984, that too was a crock:   
"Stressing the goal of regional stability, the American government has now adopted a policy which they see as an 'even-handed' approach to all countries in the region. Thus the Reagan administration seeks to blame all sides equally for the violence in the region, ignoring the fact that the violence stems from apartheid. In reality there is no even-handedness in the U.S.'s engagement in southern Africa: a policy which in the last three years has resulted in an increased South African ability to harass and dominate regionally."
Or as noted diplomat Steven Van Zandt wrote, that quiet diplomacy was nothing but a joke.
To his credit, Crocker, helped by a thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations in the late 1980s, did manage to get the Cubans and the Soviets to withdraw support for the socialist government of Angola and the South Africans to withdraw from Namibia in an accord that was signed in 1988, and it achieved stability and security in the region, which the United States had sought.  But Crocker's actions ruthlessly gave aid and comfort to the white power structure in Johannesburg and delayed Namibian independence for over a decade.
Since taking it place among the family of nations, Namibia has developed a relatively solid economy and a stable constitutional system of checks and balances in the framework of a multi-party democracy - though, as in present-day South Africa, the same party repeatedly dominates the elections - and its constitution also mandates the protection of the environment and encourages foreign investment.  Ironically, most of its economic ties are with South Africa, which became a multiracial democracy four years after Namibian independence. Namibia's new President, Hage Geingob, who takes office today, faces the challenges of improving education and continuing to alleviate poverty, as well as addressing the thorny issue of reparations from the Germans for the colonial wars of the early twentieth century.  Democratic freedom and economic prosperity in Namibia is a work in progress, of course, but the country has  made great strides in recent years, expanding accessibility to health facilities, increasing the literacy rate has increased from 76 percent in 2001 to 98 percent in 2011, and even bringing poverty down from about 70 percent in 2001 to 28 percent in 2011.  The long struggle for self-determination has allowed Namibians to move ahead and forge a sense of nationhood all their own.
Thanks to Wikipedia for being a primary source of information.          

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