Firstly, as Namibia commemorates its 30 years of independence, we must pause and salute those whose blood waters our freedom. Equally, we must pay tribute to the former United Nations (UN) Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who died on 4 March 2020 in Lima, Peru, at the age of 100. Mr Perez de Cuellar was the face of the UN when the door for Namibia’s independence was being opened.
I was an 18-year-old student in Kavango when United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) started arriving in Namibia, then South West Africa. The deployment of UNTAG was made possible by the adoption of Resolution 435 by the UN on 29 September 1978 and agreed to by apartheid South Africa on 22 December 1988. It was signed by Angola, Cuba and South Africa. I vividly recall the UNTAG peacekeepers driving with their white Land Cruisers and Land Rovers in the villages and towns to keep the peace. They were black and they were white – a strange feature.
As a young boy at the time, what mattered was that freedom was coming. It meant we shall never again see apartheid soldiers in our villages. We shall not see our parents being beaten and humiliated by these notorious soldiers of colonialism. And, therefore, we shall be free with being in control of everything. The whites will no longer be our rulers. So, the dreaming continued and a wish list of independence went on from village-to-village and town-to-town.
The most exciting thing at the time, as I recall, was the expectation that independence was inevitably coming. The country was pregnant with twins: excitement and apprehension.
Throughout the preceding two decades of the liberation struggle, Swapo leader Sam Nujoma was depicted by apartheid South Africa in demeaning of terms. He was said to be a beast that ate babies and grass. However, to the majority of blacks, Sam Nujoma represented a symbol of freedom and he embodied the expectation of the independence we so yearned for – and for which rivers of blood had been crossed.
UNTAG, therefore, represented that border wall of ensuring the crossover to freedom or remain stagnant into colonialism. On the other hand, there was apprehension – fear of the unknown. Will the independence, so yearned for, really come as anticipated, especially after apartheid South Africa violated the peace agreement with the ambush of de-mobilised Swapo’s PLAN soldiers on 1 April 1989? This dimmed our enthusiasm. At times, the atmosphere was tense but hopeful.
Most significantly, in my view, UNTAG ensured Namibia holds a relatively peaceful and historic first-ever democratic elections (7-11 November 1989) in Namibia. For residents of Kavango, the coming of former Robben Island prisoner Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo to Rundu, and later Sam Nujoma, to address campaign rallies was a spectacular highlight. In the final analysis, the historic elections were held. Every Namibian voted for the first time in free and democratic elections – I voted too. It was a liberating experience.
A government was formed and Sam Nujoma became the president. They adopted a constitution in Windhoek. It was a good constitution, according to them, but the people never voted its content. It was what certain Western powers wanted.
UNTAG maintained the peace, although many felt it would continue to remain in Namibia for a few years longer after elections. UNTAG, according to a report in the New York Times, was estimated to have cost over US$600 million; it ended its mission around 1991.
Looking back, the path has been contrasting with some successes but also challenges and perpetual turbulences along the way. A free and independent Namibia equally participated in many UN peacekeeping missions. The only notable skirmishes threatening national cohesion was recorded in 1999 when some Namibians in the then Caprivi region (now Zambezi region) launched a terrorist attack, attempting to secede that region from Namibia. It was repelled. The other was the spillover Angolan civil war between ruling MPLA (supported by Cuba and Soviet Union) with the rebel group UNITA (supported by USA and South Africa). UNITA was attacking Namibians along the northern border, especially in Kavango and Ohangwena regions. This, too, was repelled. The Namibian government and its people have remained united to ensure peace, security and stability remain in the country. This is what has happened in the past 30 years of independence.
This also means that Namibia at 30 is no longer a toddler or a teenager. It is an adult member of the international community. The children born at independence in 1990 and those born in 2000 are now adults too: many are university graduates; many are parents. Sadly, the apprehension is that this section of the population is hardest hit by the economic challenges currently ravaging Namibia. The political independence was won but the economic independence and freedom have victims within the Namibian households, especially in rural areas and informal settlements.
Notably, in the 2019 Presidential and National Assembly elections, there were many flickering lights of discontent, especially amongst the youth. This discontent has resulted in a substantial reduction of Swapo’s national popularity, including its presidential candidate. What will happen 30 years from now, nobody knows. However, it is good to plan towards it. It is good to anticipate what future generations will debate the legacy of the moment.
In my view, not all is lost; as long as there are children, ideas of hope can never die. These are the Swapo Party Pioneers; these are students and youth in general. Their wellbeing and welfare must be our priority. The investment that all Namibians have made to fight for independence, including friends like UNTAG, depend on this. This is the test of the past 30 years and the prognosis for the next 30 years. Our prayer must be a Namibia that continues to enjoy peace and equitable distribution of the economic wealth of the country. God Bless Namibia!