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  • Namibia—the First Postapartheid Democracy
  • Joshua Bernard Forrest (bio)

Namibia became a free nation in March 1990, after 75 years of South African colonial rule. It has been functioning as a multiparty democracy ever since. Its people had suffered the same racially and ethnically based legalized inequalities that existed in South Africa itself. During the course of their long years in exile abroad, however, Namibia's black nationalist politicians had generated an abiding commitment to national reconciliation, which came to be shared by the domestic white community as a result of internal political reforms that long preceded the abolition of apartheid in South Africa. Consequently, black and white political leaders in Namibia were able to establish a postapartheid political framework that has thus far proved conducive to the success of democratic institutions. Their experience holds important lessons for South Africa's newly elected interim government.

Namibia's contemporary multiparty democracy can best be appreciated in its historical context. South West Africa, as Namibia was previously called, had been initially colonized by Germany between 1884 and 1915. During this period, the Germans dispossessed indigenous Africans of their land in the central and southern areas of the country, which came to be known as the "police zone." This process was hastened by the wars of mass annihilation conducted by German troops against the Nama and Herero peoples from 1904 to 1907, which resulted in the deaths of between one-half and two-thirds of the members of these groups. The rural areas within the police zone were settled by German farmers, while Windhoek, the colonial capital, was built on the central plateau. The far-northern regions bordering Angola, densely populated by the Ovambo, [End Page 88] Kavango, and several smaller ethnic groups, were located outside the police zone and remained politically untouched by German colonialism.

At the beginning of the First World War, South African troops, prodded by Britain, seized control of the colony and imposed military rule for the duration of the war. In 1919, the League of Nations mandated control of the territory to Britain, which in turn conferred it upon the Union of South Africa, whose responsibility for the colony the League confirmed in 1920. Over the next several decades, Pretoria consolidated its rule by hardening the division between the white-dominated police zone and the largely black far-northern and far-eastern regions—known then as "native reserves." African chiefs in the reserves were coerced or bribed into sending large numbers of young men to work temporarily (under a system of pass laws) in mines, in towns, or on farms located within the police zone.

A South African-appointed administrator-general ruled South West Africa with extensive executive and policy-making powers and the assistance of an all-white, elected Legislative Assembly whose writ covered only the police zone. South Africa determined policy within the native reserves and remained exclusively responsible for South West Africa's legal system (in all regions) and for its police, military, transport, customs policies, and foreign affairs.

The National Party of South Africa, which came to power in 1948, appointed the Odendaal Commission in 1962 to devise a plan for the implementation in South West Africa of the same ethnically segregated "homeland" system of apartheid that was already being established within South Africa itself. The Odendaal plan that emerged essentially preserved the native reserve system already in place in the far-northern and far-eastern regions by declaring these regions "homelands," with tiny black reserves within the police zone being joined to form contiguous homelands.1 This plan, implemented in the late 1960s, was complemented by the establishment of black legislative or administrative councils in each of the ten homelands.

In 1977, South Africa convened a conference at Turnhalle, Windhoek, of political parties or organizations representing each of the 11 major ethnic groups (including whites), out of which it had hoped to establish a new government. The apartheid-like character of this effort (the ethnic leadership groups emerged, for the most part, out of the ethnic homelands) produced an international outcry, leading to Pretoria's abandonment of the plan. A consequence of the conference, however, was the emergence of the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 88-100
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-01
Open Access
No
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