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Namibia's 30 years of independence

Cai Nebe
March 20, 2020

The coronavirus is not the only thing which has dampened Namibia's independence celebrations. After 30 years of stability, the country must reckon with racial tensions, a stagnant economy and growing dissatisfaction.

Namibia wird unabhängig | 20.3.1990 |
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AFP

In 1989, Namibian human rights lawyer Bience Gawanas was being held in a refugee camp in southern Angola. Then one day she was told she could return home from exile.

"It was like a dream, that in my lifetime we are going back to Namibia. My eldest daughter was born in a refugee camp," Gawanas told DW. Her daughter, used to living in Angola's green environment, was dismayed upon arriving in Namibia.

"My daughter asked me: 'Is this really the country you fought for?'" Gawanas said.  

30 years on, Gawanas is now the Special Advisor on Africa at the United Nations and Namibia is one of Africa's wealthiest and most stable country.

"I fought for the independence of Namibia so that my children and their children do not experience what I experienced growing up under apartheid," Gawanas added.  

Bience Gawanas of Namibia
Lawyer Bience Gawanas fought for the liberation of Namibia while in exile. She currently serves as the UN Special Advisor on AfricaImage: picture-alliance/Xinhua/Hajarah Nalwadda

Namibia's painful history

Namibia underwent decades of dehumanizing colonialism and then from 1920 onwards, it was illegally occupied by South Africa. The same sweeping apartheid legislation took a stranglehold of Namibia triggering a war of independence in 1966.  

The South West African People's Organization (SWAPO) fighters launched armed incursions from Angola into Namibia. The South African Defense Force (SADF) launched their own raids into Angola to eliminate SWAPO operatives. South Africa justified their military presence in Namibia by claiming that they were fighting the Swartgevaar (Black threat). To woo Western support when Angola aligned with the communist Soviet Union in 1975, SADF boasted that they were fighting the Rooigevaar (Red threat). 

A Namibian man being questioned by South African soldier in 1989
The South African forces often interrogated villagers when searching for SWAPO liberation fighters. Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Paddock

By 1989, South Africa's grip on Namibia became untenable. The border war was draining the country's resources and the Red threat dissipated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

A new nation is born

UN Resolution 435 came into effect, forcing South African troops to withdraw. Shortly afterwards, UN-supervised elections took place. On March 21, 1990, in front of a beaming President-elect Sam Nujoma, the Namibian flag was raised for the first time.

NamibiaN President Sam Nujoma.
Namibia's first President Sam Nujoma was a founding member of SWAPOImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Dr. Abisai Shejavali, former Secretary General of the Council of Churches in Namibia, was there. "I was so happy, very delighted! And to help the Namibians who were in exile to come back home," Shejavali told DW.

While Namibia's transition from white minority to democratic rule went relatively smooth, there were open wounds that were never addressed. Allegations of human rights abuses by apartheid authorities, South Africa's occupying forces and within SWAPO's camps were simply swept under the carpet. Lawyer Gawanas, along with many others, were held in a detention camp in southern Angola.

Swapo detainees in Angola 1989
Many Namibian refugees were held in SWAPO camps in southern Angola during the struggle for independence. A number of them never returned home. Image: John Liebenberg

There was no truth and reconciliation process after Namibian independence. Gawanas said she deeply regrets the inaction: "That we did not have a Truth and Reconciliation process does not mean that racism does not exist anymore, that what happened in exile in the SWAPO refugee camps did not happen. I think those things are still simmering," Gawanas said.

Fashion against Forgetting

The Herero genocide

The Herero genocide between 1904 and 1907 by German colonial forces has never been fully dealt with. Whereas Berlin offered a formal apology, it has ruled out reparations. The German community in Namibia benefited from colonial land seizures and the subsequent apartheid regime.

German politican Daniel Günther lays a wreath to remember Herero victims of German colonialism in Namibia
While Germany has apologized for colonial era crimes agains the Herero people, it has ruled out reparations. Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Staatskanzlei Kiel/P. Kraft

"I think it's a matter of whether whites fully identify themselves as Namibians and if they can discard their prejudices," explains Wilfried Brock, a white Namibian with German ancestry. His family has lived in Namibia for generations.

"The white community has not done enough to integrate itself into the Namibian society," Brock told DW.

Whites still control a large share of the economy. But according to Brock, 30 years of independence have slowly altered the landscape by developing a growing black middle class. 

Dealing with youth unemployment

Even after three decades of self-rule, education opportunities and jobs are in short supply in Namibia. "I had to do my masters outside Namibia to get a quality education," media consultant Rakkel Andreas, who comes from the mining town of Arandis, told DW. Namibia's unemployment rate hovers just above 33%, and even with two Masters degrees, Andreas struggled to make ends meet.

"I sympathize with young people that choose to leave. Job procurement is not very transparent," she adds.

For political analyst Ndapwa Alweendo, who grew up through Namibia's honeymoon years of the 1990s, discontent is starting to bite SWAPO's monopoly. In the 2019 election, President Hage Geingob won just 56% of the vote, the lowest ever for a SWAPO candidate.  

Namibia President Hage Geingob with supporters.
Namibian president Hage Geingob won 56% of the vote, the lowest ever for a SWAPO candidate. Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Smith

"Older people in power say we are not grateful for the sacrifices that were made to liberate this country. Last year's election was a reflection not only of young people's dissatisfaction but of Namibians' dissatisfaction in general,"  Alweendo told DW.

Namibia's gender equality questioned

While Namibia gets praise for its gender equality policy because of equitable representation in parliament, Alweendo maintains this does not reflect true gender gains.  

"Gender based violence and partner violence continues to be a problem."  

Namibia has enjoyed peaceful transitions of power since 1990. The liberation party SWAPO has comfortably won each election. For Bience Gawanas, SWAPO's political domination has slowed Namibia's democratic growth. 

"We do not have a strong opposition that serves as a checks and balance, and the same goes for civil society orgnisations," Gawanas said.

Looking into the future, Dr. Shejavali hopes Namibia builds national unity. He sees the government's support for tribal leaders in his rural home in northern Namibia and other parts of the country as an obstacle. "That's keeping the people divided," Shejavili said.

For Bience Gawanas, though, looking back at her daughter's first impression of Namibia: "I said to her: 'You might think this country is dry, but under the earth we have all the riches.'"

At 30 years old, Namibia is still seeking to realize its potential and finally exploit those riches.

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