Namibia: South African occupation and the struggle for liberation (1966-1977)

Updated August 2009

When in 1966 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) declined to rule on the legal status of South West Africa, the UN General Assembly voted to terminate SA's mandate, then in 1967 it established the UN Council for South West Africa, and in 1968 renamed the territory Namibia (Longmire 1990, 209; Saunders 2008, 826). The UN Security Council set October 1969 as the deadline for South African withdrawal from Namibia, but South Africa ignored all the UN resolutions and instead strengthened its administrative grip (Longmire 1990, 209). The failure of the International Court of Justice to rule on the issue provoked the South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO) to launch an armed struggle to free the territory of South African rule and the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) was formed, which launched its first attack on an administrative centre in Ovamboland in August 1966 (Longmire 1990, 209; Saunders 2008, 826; Kiljunen K, 1981, 156, 157). The South African government responded with mass arrests and in 1967 Toivo ya Toivo and 36 other SWAPO leaders were sentenced to long periods of imprisonment under the Terrorism Act of 1967 (Kiljunen K, 1981, 157; UNESCO 1974, 146, 147). In 1971 the ICJ issued an ruling that South Africa was in illegal occupation of Namibia and that it should withdraw from the territory and in December 1973 the UN General Assembly recognised SWAPO as "the authentic representative of the people of Namibia" (Longmire 1990, 209; Saunders 2008, 826, 827).

The rapid development of international recognition of the legitimacy of SWAPO's struggle was the outcome of its rapid reconstitution of itself in exile, its roll out of diplomatic missions and the effectiveness of the diplomatic campaign it was able to launch that won it support of the UN, the OAU, sympathisers in the West and material support from the Soviet Union (Dale 1980, 68; UNESCO 1974, 147). In its early years the armed struggle was undertaken with difficulty. Its entry into Namibia was confined to the narrow pint where the Zambian border connects with the Caprivi Strip, it took time to train and build up forces it could deploy and the terrain was unsuitable for the conduct of guerrilla warfare; moreover the repression within Namibia made it difficult to recruit troops and to establish relationships with the indigenous population (UNESCO 1974, 147; Dale 1980, 66, 67). The South Africans for their part poured first policemen and then also troops onto the northern border areas and were able to destroy the PLAN's Omgulumbashe Base in Ovamboland and kill or capture troops and key personnel in clashes in the late 1960s, pushing PLAN out of Ovamboland (UNESCO 1974, 148). Thus incursions became confined to the Caprivi Strip and Kavangoland and remained low key (UNESCO 1974, 148).

SWAPO's modest successes and the clear support for independence from the international community stimulated resistance within Namibia, despite the repression that was unleashed. Called on to comment on the 1971 ICJ decision by South African officials, Lutheran church leaders surprised them by endorsing the finding and calling for South African withdrawal in an open letter widely distributed in the churches and later supported by the Anglican and Catholic bishops (Kjeseth 1989, 10; Ellis 1981, 137). An acrimonious war of words followed in which the South African administration's defence of the contract labour system provoked widespread anger, leading to a strike of contract workers in December 1971 (Ellis 1981, 137; Kjeseth 1989, 10; UNESCO 1974, 149). The strike spread quickly and became general, prolonged and violent (UNESCO 1974, 149; Melber 1983, 155, 156). The South African government responded with renewed repression, promulgating the 1972 Emergency Regulation R17 and, angered by support by the churches for the strike, deported church leaders and in May 1973 bombed and destroyed a church press (Ellis 1981, 138, 139; Kjeseth 1989, 10).

Some concessions were wrung: The South West African Labour Association that had held a monopoly on labour recruitment since 1943 was abolished and labour recruitment decentralised to the Homelands authorities, the minimum contract period was reduced to six months, contract breaking was decriminalised and wages were increased, but the migrant labour system remained intact, striking remained illegal, trade unions unrecognised and accommodation, food and working conditions for migrants remained brutal and dehumanising (Kiljunen, ML 1981, 101-104). The defeat of the strike proved to be a pyrrhic victory for the South African government, for it politicised and radicalised Namibians and galvanised civil society organisations across the world against the South African occupation (UNESCO 1974, 147, 148). A number of small parties, largely ethnically organised, emerged within Namibia to resist Apartheid internally (UNESCO 1974, 148).

Through all this the South African administration doggedly extended its control over Namibia and relentlessly implemented its policy of Apartheid. Centralisation of administration through the South West Africa Affairs Act of 1969 was carried out, extending control over all aspects of the security, the economy, government finance and infrastructure, amounting to a de facto incorporation of Namibia as a fifth province (Innes 1981, 69; UNESCO 1974, 143). Already from the mid-1960s the Bantu education system, practiced in South Africa since 1953, was increasingly implemented in Namibia as the government took control of missionary schools and the curricula were reorientated to preparing Africans for a life of servitude through inferior education and indoctrination into acquiescence with apartheid (Kiljunen, ML 1981, 106). Though education coverage was greatly expanded, with the number of schools for Africans increasing from 313 in 1960 to 592 in 1973, the number of teachers from 1310 to 3453 and the number of pupils from 43 624 to 138 890 in the same period, but the pupil to teacher ratio rose from 33.3 per pupil to 40.2 and teachers were under qualified and badly paid (Kiljunen, ML 1981, 107). By contrast the pupil to teacher ratio fell in White schools from 24.4 to 18,8 in this time period, education was compulsory for White children between seven and 16 years old and in 1974/5 R9 was spent on every White pupil for every R1 spent on an African pupil (Kiljunen, ML 1981, 107). Drop-out rates for Africans were high, in 1975 three-quarters of Africans completed four years or less and only 2% eight years of schooling (Kiljunen, ML 1981, 108).

In response to the emergence and development of Namibian nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, the South African government attempted to substitute a narrow ethnic based nationalism aimed at dividing and polarising Namibians through the development of the reserves into "homelands" for the 10 main ethnic groups that were to be nurtured to "independence, leaving the bulk of Namibia in the hands of its White minority (Dale 1980, 67). The Development of Self-government for Native Nations Act of 1968 provided the basis for the creation of the homelands and their legislative assemblies and a 1973 amendment to the Act allowed for the transfer of "self government" (Innes 1981, 69; UNESCO 1974, 144). A series of partially elected Legislative Assemblies were set up between 1968 and 1976, with varying degrees of self government power delegated to them during the course of the 1970s for the various groups, beginning with Ovamboland, with the exception of the Herero, San, Himba and Tswanas (Kiljunen, ML 1981, 97; UNESCO 1974, 144, 145). In 1973, as a sop to the UN, the South African government created an umbrella Advisory Council, comprised of representatives from the homelands, Whites and Cape Coloureds (UNESCO 1974, 145).

Opposition to the Advisory Council galvanised several internal opposition groups to join with SWAPO and form a National Convention at a rally at a Windhoek's Katura Township in March 1973 and protests in August at the visit of South African Prime Minister Hendrik Voster led to the deployment of tanks and the suppression of the demonstration to the death of one person (UNESCO 1974, 149). The South African government reacted in November by detaining over 100 people who had been involved in the demonstration and handing them over to tribal authorities for public floggings and arresting three SWAPO Youth League leaders who were tried and sentenced to eight years in prison (UNESCO 1974, 149). Further arrests of SWAPO leaders and activists followed in 1974 (UNESCO 1974, 149).

Following a Security Council resolution and a fact-finding mission by the UN Secretary General in 1972 a mediator was appointed to negotiate the independence of Namibia, who through a visit in October determined that the Namibian people wished for an independent unitary state (UNESCO 1974, 141). The South African government rejected this and proposed instead a federation that would ensure that White control of the central highlands and the mineral resources of the economy; as a consequence by December 1973 negotiations had broken down (UNESCO 1974, 141).

The overthrow of the Portuguese government in 1974 led swiftly to the independence of Angola and Mozambique in 1975 (Longmire 1990, 209). In the second half of 1975 South Africa invaded Angola from Namibia in support of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) against the government of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA); after repelling the South African forces with Cuban aid the MPLA was able to provide SWAPO with material support and bases along the long border with Namibia enabling SWAPO to massively expand its infiltration of PLAN combatants and its recruitment of troops from people fleeing repression in Namibia (Saunders 2008, 827; Ellis 1981, 140; Kiljunen K, 1981, 159 see Angola: First civil war (1975-1992) for details). South Africa responded by increasing its troop deployment in the north (Saunders 2008, 827; Longmire 1990, 210). As the infiltration escalated South Africa moved 50 000 people from their homes to create a free-fire zone on the Angolan border, but the situation deteriorated rapidly and by 1979 half of the territory was under martial law, affecting 80% of the population (Ellis 1981, 140; Kiljunen K, 1981, 159). Developments internationally and locally were rapidly taking matters out of South African hands. By early 1977 already it was clear that that the escalating costs of the war and intensified international pressure could not be resisted indefinitely and, having accepted in principle independence for Namibia, it attempted to recover the initiative by securing independence on its own terms with the aim of excluding SWAPO from government and creating in effect a client state on its north west border (Dale 1980, 68; Ellis 1981, 142).


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