Unfinished Exorcism: The Legacy of Apartheid in Democratic Southern Africa

By Carton, Ben | Social Justice, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Unfinished Exorcism: The Legacy of Apartheid in Democratic Southern Africa


Carton, Ben, Social Justice


THE CLOSING MONTHS OF 1989 WERE MOMENTOUS FOR AFRICA. WITH THE SOVIET empire unraveling, Cold War rivalries subsided throughout the continent. Namibia, long occupied by South Africa as a buffer against the spread of international communism, gained independence after the first all-race national elections supervised by the United Nations (U.N.). In November 1989 a majority elected the Southwest African People's Organization (SWAPO), Namibia's resistance movement, to form the new democratic government. The vote concluded more than 70 years of rule by Pretoria.

The transformation in Namibia hinged on accelerating political change in the Soviet Union and South Africa. In the late 1980s, communism was on the retreat while antiapartheid protests surged. Pretoria sought to negotiate an end to racial segregation and the long crusade to silence its enemies. President F.W. De Klerk released his alleged communist nemesis, Nelson Mandela, from prison in February 1990. By 1994, multiparty talks between the ruling National Party and opposition movements had culminated in an election similar to Namibia's five years before, and a democratic government led by the African National Congress (ANC) and President Nelson Mandela. Instantly, apartheid seemed to recede into the past.

Today, many people in Namibia and South Africa fear that AIDS, a disease pandemic in the region, and crime, much of it blamed on high unemployment and African immigrants who supposedly break laws, are beyond government control. There is a popular outcry to reintroduce draconian measures. These include placing the HIV-positive population, roughly one in five sexually active people, in quarantine, deportation of African immigrants, and bringing back the death penalty, especially in South Africa. Such throwbacks reflect one tenacious legacy of the old order: a deep anxiety that the enemy most to be feared lurks "within" and must be banished. The emerging climate of intolerance bewilders those who only recently celebrated miraculously peaceful elections.

Did the euphoria following the liberation vote submerge unresolved problems? This article revisits the period immediately before Namibia' s historic ballot to explore the font of today's intolerance. In the final days of apartheid the specter of retribution may have offered scant opportunity for people to develop alternative strategies that could resolve major crises without resort to authoritarian methods.

The Last White Colony

Once a German colony, Namibia (or South West Africa, as it was called) became a mandate territory under the custodianship of South Africa after World War I, and thus subject to Pretoria's repressive racial legislation, particularly after the Afrikaner National Party came to power in 1948. The United Nations General Assembly terminated the League of Nation's mandate in 1967. but the apartheid regime disavowed this decision. During the 1960s, a fitful guerrilla campaign for national liberation began in Ovamboland in the northern quarter of Namibia This bush war pitted SWAPO fighters who espoused socialist aims against the security forces trained by South Africa. After Marxistrevolutionaries in Angola, known as the MPLA, seized power in 1975, Pretoria envisaged communist infiltrators breaching Namibia's borders and boosting SWAPO's cause. In alliance with UNITA, an African nationalist movement that opposed the MPLA, white South African Defense Forces invaded Angola. With the aid of the Soviets, Cuba sent soldie rs and materiel to bolster MPLA defenses while the United Stated backed UNITA. A regional conflict erupted into a Cold War hot spot. The U.N. sought to intervene and in 1978 devised Resolution 435, an independence plan for Namibia that established guidelines for a cease-fire, "free and fair" elections, and the framing of a new constitution.

The United States and South Africa resisted U.N. Resolution 435. From the early 1980s, President Reagan's policies of Soviet containment and "constructive engagement" -- the incremental reformation of apartheid -- promoted the South African military presence in Angola and Namibia as a bulwark against communism in Africa. …

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