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Socialismes en Afrique

Françoise Blum
Héloïse Kiriakou
Martin Mourre
et al.

Troisième partie : socialismes transnationaux : coopération et circulation

On SWAPO’s Socialism: Socialist Ideology and Practice during the Namibian Struggle for Independence, 1960 to 1989

Jakob Zollmann

Texte intégral

1From 1919, Namibia was ruled by South African administrators adamantly opposed to any socialist thought. Since independence in 1990, Namibia has generally been considered as one of the shining examples of a market-oriented, multi-party democracy in Africa. Hence the question is whether Namibia can be considered as being a part of a history of “socialism in Africa.”

2The dominant political party since 1990, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) of Namibia, was also the dominant popular movement (politically and militarily) in the struggle for independence from South Africa. Its left-leaning, anti-imperialist rhetoric and the sources of its weapons arsenal were quick to cause the South African authorities to blame SWAPO as a “communist terrorist” organization. And indeed, by the 1970s the outspoken political and military support from socialist states, first and foremost by the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and also a number of east European states, left little doubt about SWAPO’s Marxist political affiliation. And it was here, in Namibia and Angola, “where the Cold War confrontation in the region has been most intense” (O’Neill, Munslow 1990: 81). Only with the demise of world communism in the late 1980s did SWAPO’s position shift towards a multi-party system and a market-driven economy. The present article is therefore less about socialism in Namibia or Namibian socialism, but rather about SWAPO’s turning toward to the socialist camp as perceived inside the movement, and about the ideas for a future Namibia.

  • 1 “[Since 1951] the Socialist International is the worldwide organisation of social democratic, socia (...)
  • 2 Constitution of SWAPO Party Adopted by the First Congress of SWAPO Party in an Independent Namibia, (...)

3Today, SWAPO, Namibia’s dominant party—National Assembly election results in 2019: 65.45 percent—is a member party of the Socialist International,1 yet the party’s constitution of 1991 (as revised in 1998) does not make any reference to “socialism.” It merely mentions “social justice” as one of the party’s founding principles,2 whereas SWAPO publications of the 1970s and 1980s openly embraced Marxist-Leninist positions.

4During their fight since 1960 to end apartheid and to obtain the independence of Namibia, SWAPO party members soon looked for support from outside the country. Over the next three decades, more and more countries run by socialist parties in Africa, Asia, and Europe were willingly lending their support for SWAPO’s cause. In 1963, the first SWAPO office abroad was opened in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika, where Julius Nyerere was about to cement his one-party rule and tried to establish an African version of “socialism” (Bjerk 2011). In the late 1980s, SWAPO party, declared by the United Nations (UN) in 1973 the “sole and legitimate representative of the Namibian nation,” maintained about twenty “representative offices” as quasi-diplomatic residencies around the world that provided the organization with a broad support base among the international community. Support had to be mustered in the context of the Cold War, and SWAPO leaders soon realized that of the two camps, the Soviet, socialist camp showed greater understanding for SWAPO’s mission. It is in this regard that the question of how “socialist” SWAPO was becomes relevant; always bearing in mind that the Cold War was essentially a universalist ideological conflict between democratic capitalism and socialism/communism (Westad 2017).

  • 3 Lauren Dobell (2000), in SWAPO’s struggle for Namibia, 1960-1991. War by Other Means, argues that S (...)

5There seems to be a consensus among historians of contemporary Namibia and the Namibian struggle for independence that SWAPO’s ideological (self-) positioning or classification should not be taken “too seriously.” In this reading of the sources the question is rather: Is SWAPO’s turn towards the socialist camp a mere story of turning on a tap of money? To some extent, in 1958 Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972) had, shortly after Ghana’s independence, pointed out to the United States government that this possibility was open to African leaders: “Africa has no choice. We have to modernise. Either we shall do so with your interest and support—or we shall be compelled to turn elsewhere” (quoted in Hanhimäki, Westad 2004: 356). To illustrate this political pragmatism, historians Christopher Saunders and Sue Onslow, in their overview article on the “Cold War in Southern Africa,” deem it apposite to quote a “leading UN official” who “commented that if [SWAPO leader Sam] Nujoma [b. 1929] had met Marx in the street, he would not have recognized him.” Saunders and Onslow take this as a hint that “SWAPO remained pragmatic in its search for an end to the South African occupation” (Saunders, Onslow 2010: 27; Urquhart 1987: 198). Elena Torreguitar also explains at length that SWAPO’s “approach to politics was always sensible, pragmatic.” The “cornerstone” of SWAPO leaders’ politics was the fight for independence from South Africa. “There was never a long debate over ideology because it was not central to their objectives. The rationale that drove them into this struggle was independence, nothing more and nothing less. Everything else could be negotiated, and this approach made them flexible in terms of ideology, accepting all different ideological positions.” This, however, appears very much as an after-the-fact perspective that focuses on SWAPO’s ability throughout its “struggle” to “attract so many donors and so many sympathies in the international community” (Torreguitar 2009: 146; Dobell 2000).3 The alleged fact that there was “never a long debate over ideology” does not say much, as within SWAPO and its leadership there was no culture of “long debate” about whatsoever. Those who tried to spark off “debate” in the party often found themselves silenced (and at times in shackles). And as to the alleged “flexib[ility] in terms of ideology,” it may have been far less “flexible” at certain times. The 1980s saw SWAPO leaders steadfastly aligned with socialist regimes, who themselves did not believe in the liberal virtues of open “debate.” Retrospective explanations and (self-) rationalizations decades after the end of the struggle that emphasize SWAPO’s ideological “independence” are not necessarily convincing (Weis 2011: 362, 364 based on interviews in 2008). Lastly, the indisputable “many sympathies in the international community” may have more to do with the mechanisms of Cold War international politics and—most of all—with SWAPO’s enemy, the South African Apartheid regime. The facts on the ground and SWAPO’s epithets characterizing the South African government—“occupier,” “racist Apartheid regime”—provided ample material to win hearts and minds of sizeable groups in East and West. Also, Western governments expressed their opposition to Apartheid and did not think of Namibia as South Africa’s “fifth province” (Silvester 2015).

6It should be remembered that, right from the start in 1945, South Africa denied the shift of sovereignty over former “German Southwest Africa” from the demised League of Nations to the United Nations. It took two decades of international legal proceedings before, in October 1966, the UN General Assembly revoked South Africa’s mandate over present-day Namibia (Dugard 1968: 78–97; Akweenda 1997; Gordon 2004: 3–11). But the de facto political and administrative power over the territory continued to be exerted by South Africa, which was from then on considered by most governments as an illegal occupier. In parallel, in 1966 SWAPO started to resort to armed struggle, alongside of South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC). This was a double-pronged strategy combining international political canvassing and preparing military action.

  • 4 In fact, the SWANU party, which currently holds one seat in Namibia’s National Assembly, still embr (...)
  • 5 This is what one of the SWAPO founders, Herman Andimba Toivo ya Toivo said about his own political (...)

7In the early 1960s, Jariretundu Kozonguizi (1932–1995), the president of the South West Africa National Union (SWANU, a political party founded in 1959 and—in part—at odds with SWAPO, but equally adamant for Namibia’s independence from South Africa), declared about the future of politics in Namibia: “The choice is between the White Nationalists on the one hand and the African Nationalists and Socialists on the other […]. [There is] no room for Liberals, be they white, yellow or black” (Saunders 2010: 89).4 SWANU accused SWAPO of “making ‘a career out of petitioning’ [to the UN] and for a ‘reformist approach in the struggle for liberation” (Saunders 2008: 89). Such categorical judgements were not necessarily based on the political reality in southwest Africa of the time. Indeed, the founders and early members of SWANU and SWAPO (and its predecessor organization, Ovambo People Organisation [OPO]) were—through their sojourns in South Africa and most of all Cape Town—strongly influenced by the South African Communist Party.5 “Socialist” leanings and talk of “anti-imperialist solidarity” therefore seemed a logical choice for young women and men who were forced to work in the colonial economy as migrant laborers (Katjavivi 1988: 15) and were in search of betterment for their country. However, the meaning of “socialism” and its political goals for the future remained vague. In 1963, after having compared the two political organizations fighting for Namibia’s independence, SWANU and SWAPO, radical South African journalist Ruth First (1925–1982) concluded “that the differences between the two movements were more apparent than real” (Saunders 2008: 89). Still there were bitter political clashes between the two parties that also had repercussions on the international scene, such as at the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO), which became a “central forum for Sino-Soviet rivalry” over the leadership of the anticolonial struggle. When, in 1967, the Soviet Union got the upper hand over this “anti-imperialist” organization during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Kozonguizi’s pro-Chinese position led to SWANU’s expulsion. In turn, SWAPO was admitted to the now Soviet-controlled AAPSO and was embraced by the Organization of African Unity as the sole legitimate Namibian liberation movement (Dreyer 1994: 56–58).

8The South African “Suppression of Communism Act” of 1950 (applicable “also in the Territory of South-West Africa,” Article 18) provided an exceedingly broad definition of the meaning of “communism” and “communist.” Indeed, it was “ironical [that] this act gave the minister of justice almost unlimited totalitarian authority, just as in communist states” (Beck 2000: 129). And in applying these statutory provisions, the courts were not so much looking for avowed followers of “the doctrine of Marxian socialism as expounded by Lenin or Trotsky, the Third Communist International (the Comintern) or the Communist Information Bureau (the Cominform) or any related form of that doctrine” (Article 1(1) (ii)). They rather searched for elements that could be construed as aiming “at the encouragement of feelings of hostility between the European and non-European races of the Union.” Such inter-racial hostility was obviously supposed to be fostered by any political argument against Apartheid, and hence equated with the “promotion of disturbance or disorder” (Article 1(1) (ii) (d) and (b)).6

  • 7 National Archives and Records Administration (Washington D.C.), hereinafter: NARA RG 59 Pol 29 (Arr (...)

9It was in this latter sense that since the early-1960s SWAPO and some other opposition groups from South West Africa were considered by the South African authorities as being “communist” or “socialist.” For instance, in late 1966 the “SWANU leader Gerson Veii [1939–2015] has been arrested in Windhoek. As in case of three SWAPO leaders taken into custody December 1, [1966] [among them Herman Andimba Toivo ya Toivo], arrest was made under Suppression of Communism Act as amended,” as the United States Embassy in Pretoria reported to Washington.7

  • 8 On Jacob Kuhangua see the leaflet of 1961 (?) seeking donations to support his education in the US, (...)

10Up to the mid-1960s however, there was still room for dispute about the political orientation of SWAPO, a party that more and more dominated Namibia’s political scene of African nationalists arguing for independence. There were cadres like SWAPO Secretary General Jacob Kuhangua (1933–1965) who had studied in the United States and who had apparently some sympathy for the political systems of western democracy.8 These (outspoken) voices came increasingly under pressure:

Jacob Kuhangua and Louis Nelengani, another SWAPO Vice-President, were known to have always been at loggerheads as a result of the Cold War political indoctrination. Kuhangua […] was said to always speak negatively about the Soviet Union and the communist system. Nelengani received guerilla military training in the Soviet Union and was said to hate the USA, the capitalist system and everything associated with the West. Namibians in Tanzania found themselves to be divided between the supporters of Kuhangua and Nelengani. (Ndeikwila 2014: 23)

  • 9 NARA RG 59 Central Foreign Policy Files 1964-1966, Pol 30 (Defectors and Expellees) SW AFR [Box 267 (...)

11In 1965, Kuhangua was stabbed by his political adversaries within SWAPO. Also, other members of SWAPO noted with discomfort a stronger influence of socialist teachings in party affairs. The American embassy in Cairo, after a conversation with SWAPO representative in Egypt, Andreas Shipanga (1931–2012), reported that “[i]deologically, Shipanga asserted an impatience with doctrinaires, e.g., Marxists who refuse or fail to see the variety in life and changing conditions.”9 First contacts between SWAPO cadres and socialist governments occurred around 1960, at a time when even the Pan-African journal Présence africaine (Paris) asked Y a-t-il un néo-colonialisme soviétique ? (Naville 1961). Sam Nujoma visited East Germany the first time in 1962 (van der Heyden 2013: 166) and he, similar to other African leaders striving for the independence of their countries, sought active support from and cooperation with other liberation movements in Africa (Moledo 2019). The growing influence of socialist ideology within SWAPO can also be recognized from the training for SWAPO fighters at Kongwa camp, Tanzania. Around 1966, lessons included not only physical exercises and military tactics, but, for those with an appropriate educational background, also “serious readings of texts by men who I [Samson Ndeikwila (b. 1946)] believed were revolutionary thinkers such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Ahmed Sékou Touré, Modibo Keita and others. […] In fact, Mao Tse-tung’s red bookle  […] became my constant companion, always at hand in the chest pocket of my military uniform” (Ndeikwila 2014: 30). As to the self-representation of SWAPO towards its own members, it resembled ever more the Soviet socialist outlook of a Leninist-vanguard party that was “always right” as it had the forces of history behind it (Wilde 1998: 56). Focus on leaders, on party discipline, and a noted anti-intellectualism became marked characteristics of SWAPO in exile. Phil Ya Nangoloh (b. 1954), a refugee from northern Namibia who in 1974 joined SWAPO in a military camp in Zambia, was told shortly after his arrival by commander Jonas Haiduwa that SWAPO does not recognize or respect any intellectuality: “Those who came with degrees must forget it. SWAPO is an organization of the workers and masses.” And furthermore: “Everyone belongs to SWAPO, and only SWAPO has the right to decide for each and everyone” (Ya Nangoloh 2005). When he arrived in 1974 at SWAPO’s Senanga Centre in Zambia, Keshii Nathanael (b. 1949), a leader of SWAPO Youth League in Namibia and well-versed in participatory politics, was given similar explanations about the inner party workings by Peter Mueshihange (1930–1998), SWAPO’s secretary for foreign affairs and Namibia’s first minister of defense (1990–1995): He

warn[ed] that SWAPO was a movement of illiterate people […]. “White belts,” he said again and again, were not for us, adding that he would take whatever measure were required to crush the “white belts” in the movement. A white belt, we later learned, was a term used in Eastern Europe for “intellectuals.” Mueshihange also warned that those who thought that they were popular at home had to forget their popularity. For abroad, he reiterated, there was only one leader [Sam Nujoma] and he was the law. He demanded that we say after him, “One Namibia! One Nation! One SWAPO! One leader!” (Nathanael 2002: 65)

12Given these facts on the “revolutionary” ground, it is revealing what the United States Embassy in Lusaka had to report about an extended conversation in 1970 with Sam Nujoma and SWAPO’s administrative secretary Moses Garoëb (1942–1997) about SWAPO’s alignment and its relation to the West:

  • 10 NARA RG 59 Pol SW AFR [Box 2605], 1970–1973 Telegram US Embassy Lusaka to DoS, 2 February 1970 [No. (...)

Mr. Nujoma repeated arguments that have been expressed before about SWAPO’s belief that America, as the leader of the Western powers and the state primarily responsible for the founding of the United Nations, had a special role to play in South West Africa (Namibia). He urged that America take new, for the most part undefined, initiatives at the UN to force South Africa to withdraw from Namibia […]. Mr. Garoeb argued that while America’s good intentions were well known, her failure to give material support to the independence struggles in Southern Africa would be remembered after independence and would result in a legacy of bitterness that would damage future US relations with the post-independence majority Governments. He also stressed that the time had come when the US must align itself with the liberation movements or with the white minority regimes since, in his view, it was no longer possible to maintain relations with both.
The discussion turned to a consideration of the resolutions adopted at the recent SWAPO Conference held in Tansania […], 1970. In reply to an Embassy observation that a number of these resolutions condemned the United States and its allies for actions in areas far removed from Namibia and indeed from Africa, Mr. Nujoma began by replying that SWAPO, as the legitimate representative of the peoples of Namibia, felt the need to express its views on all international questions. He stressed that SWAPO was non-aligned and that it expressed independent views on these questions, but that any criticism of US policy was not to be interpreted as criticism of the American people whom the Namibians consider to be sympathetic friends. He ended, however, by coming close to volunteering what the Embassy already suspected: that these resolutions were influenced by the Soviet Union which demands SWAPO’s support on international issues as a prerequisite for the material aid it gives the movement.10

13Thus, even at a time when SWAPO was already seen as firmly based in the socialist camp and expressed itself openly to be in line with Soviet policies, SWAPO leaders—pointing to SWAPO’s “non-aligned” status—continued to seek support from the United States and other Western countries. The party’s socialist rhetoric was presented towards Western governments as a mere tool necessary to receive material support from the Soviet Union and its allies. Such acknowledgment of realpolitik—it can be assumed—was an invitation to Western governments to provide more support themselves in order for SWAPO leaders to downgrade their socialist “leaning.” Evidently, such self-rationalizations of their political affiliation by SWAPO leaders did neither say anything about their personal convictions nor about their plans for the future of Namibia. SWAPO politicians merely made two main arguments that presented them as not ideologically motivated but as appealing to the self-interest of those involved: 1) SWAPO searched for support and received it from the Soviet Union and its allies by consenting to the Soviet’s “demands [for] SWAPO’s support on international issues.” This was pretty much a “tit for tat” arrangement; 2) if the United States and its allies would want to avoid a tarnished image (in the future) among the African postcolonial nations due to their lack of support, then they were always welcome to provide (more) support to SWAPO and the other African liberation movements.

  • 11 NARA RG 59 Pol SW AFR [Box 2605], 1970–1973, Telegram US Embassy Kinshasa to DoS, 4 June 1970.

14Even though, in 1970, SWAPO leaders emphasized to their United States’ interlocutors that they “always enjoyed good relations with US missions in Africa and they particularly wanted to express their appreciation for the recent action of the US government in discouraging investments in South West Africa,”11 over the next decade SWAPO would continue and deepen its commitment to the Soviet bloc. SWAPO leaders knew that “[d]eveloping countries with a socialist orientation and national freedom movements were a priority” not only for Soviet foreign aid, but also for other socialist governments investing heavily in the dissemination of socialism throughout the world, such as East Germany (van der Heyden 2013: 19). Politicians in East Berlin in particular “believed that solidarity with liberation struggles was potentially beneficial to the GDR’s image and international standing.” And indeed, in “southern Africa, the GDR’s reputation as a reliable partner grew steadily throughout the 1970s.” (Kern 2019: 16) After all, history, as Marxist ideology had always predicted, finally seemed to be on the side of the “revolutionary world process”: “The coming to power of a wave of revolutionary Third World regimes in the 1970s [most of all after the fall of the Portuguese empire in 1975] encouraged those who believed Western imperialism to be on the defensive. At this time, the perspective of […] the ‘revolutionary democratic’ school was in the ascendancy, seeing the Third World on an inexorable march towards socialism” (O’Neill, Munslow 1990: 86). This “advance” found its expression in SWAPO’s cooperation in civil and military affairs with the Soviet Union and its allies, most of whom, like the East German government, considered military support as “part of the scope of development cooperation” (van der Heyden 2013: 12). The high command of the “Warsaw Pact commissioned the GDR with the task of increasing military support in Africa” (Kern 2019: 77).

15Also on an ideological level, SWAPO joined the “inexorable march towards socialism” with its new SWAPO party program of 1976, thus providing an example of how Cold War ideologies impacted political discourses in Africa. Published in August 1976 by the socialist Angolan government newspaper Diário de Luanda, this document and the (possible) discussions about its wording and implementation by different factions within the party, certainly deserve further in-depth research. This should include pressure and support from abroad in compiling the text. Here it must suffice to emphasize the unambiguously socialist layout of the program, which left little doubt about the political affiliation of this African liberation movement.

  • 12 Political Program of the [SWAPO] of Namibia, adopted by the meeting of the Central Committee, 28 Ju (...)

16Already clause 1 of the program declared in unmistakable Marxist-Leninist phraseology about the “present and future tasks of SWAPO”: “To unite all Namibian people, particularly the working class, the peasantry and progressive intellectuals into a vanguard party capable of safe-guarding national independence and of building a classless, non-exploitative society based on the ideals and principles of scientific socialism.” About the future of Namibia’s economy, SWAPO was equally frank: “the economic reconstruction in a free, democratic, and united Namibia will have, as its motive force, the establishment of a classless society.” Among others, SWAPO wanted to take measures against the “destructive spirit of individualism”; also “all major means of production and exchange [will be in the] ownership of the people.” Regarding the organization of agricultural production in independent Namibia, SWAPO envisioned “b) a comprehensive agrarian reform, aimed at giving land to the tiller; c) the establishment of peasants’ cooperatives or collectives; d) the establishment of state-owned ranching or crop farms.”12

17Once more, this SWAPO program gave substance to the “Soviet view prevailing in the seventies that trends in Africa favored the expansion of socialism at the expense of imperialism” (Dreyer 1994: 95; Bechtholdt 1980). And it is no coincidence that the new party program was published at a time of crisis within SWAPO. In 1976, the South African army had repeatedly carried out attacks on SWAPO camps in neighboring countries. In the same year, Andreas Shipanga and a younger cohort of party members challenged the authority of Sam Nujoma and his inner circle with the call for a general party congress that would have openly discussed party politics and may have (democratically) elected the party’s leaders (Torreguitar 2009: 160; Beukes 2014: 231). However, the so-called “Shipanga rebellion” was suppressed and its leaders jailed in Tanzania and Zambia (Shipanga 1989). The resulting witch-hunt for “traitors” and “spies” within SWAPO continued throughout the 1980s. And the Soviet Union and its allies provided adamant support for this repressive policy that anticipated a one-party rule in future independent Namibia, similar to the “brother parties” in socialist countries. The SWAPO pledge of 1976 to build in future Namibia “a classless, non-exploitative society based the ideals and principles of scientific socialism” also brought SWAPO closer to neighboring liberation movements. “[F]rom 1976, MPLA [Angola], ANC [South Africa] and SWAPO were allied on the political and ideological levels as well as in the field” (Dreyer 1994: 103). It was in this context that Norway’s Labor Party Prime Minister Odvar Nordli (1927–2018), an adamant supporter of the struggle against South Africa, warned in 1976 that “it was the West itself that had to see to it that the new states in Africa were not dominated by communist powers in other parts of the world” (Østbye 2000: 136).

  • 13 See the SED-mouthpiece East-Berlin daily Berliner Zeitung, 14 March 1984, no. 63, “SWAPO und Angola (...)
  • 14 Henning Melber, “Namibian elections: The sands are shifting—slowly,” Mail & Guardian, 26 November 2 (...)

18In order to formalize the existing cooperation, in 1972, the East German Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) and SWAPO concluded an agreement that put the cooperation between both parties on an official level. Socialist allies in Europe and Africa buttressed SWAPO’s efforts to be continually recognized as the “sole and authentic” representative of all Namibians, in spite of the evident existence of groups inside Namibia opposed to SWAPO, but equally in favor of independence. In 1973, following pressure from socialist countries, the UN recognized SWAPO as the “sole and legitimate representative of the Namibian nation.” The Soviet and the East German governments, in UN meetings and beyond, argued repeatedly in favor of a continuation of this status of SWAPO. They vehemently opposed any attempts by whatever Namibian political organization to similar claims of legitimately representing Namibians, their interests and concerns. The SED was quite worried that West Germany, through the introduction of new Namibian groups and or by other means, “was actively trying to undermine the rise of socialism” in Southern Africa (Kern 2019: 77). In line with SWAPO policies that declared any challenge to its claim to exclusive leadership as “treason,” any notion of multi-party politics in Namibia was rejected by the East German government as South African instigated “tribalism” and as smokescreens for continued occupation.13 This rejection of liberal notions of the political process as the finding of compromises between different interests found expression also in the slogans “One Namibia, one nation” and “SWAPO is the nation and the nation is SWAPO.” This, in the words of political scientist Henning Melber, “false equation that the party is the government and the government is the state” would place a heavy burden on the future of the post-independent nation.14

  • 15 “Discussion between SWAPO and Dr. Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State, in New York,” 29 Septembe (...)
  • 16 According to Nujoma, Andreas Shipanga and some of his followers, however, accepted Genscher’s invit (...)
  • 17 Quoted from the Russian Wikipedia site on SWAPO, which is markedly different from the German or Eng (...)

19During a meeting with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (b. 1923) in 1976, who merely acknowledged SWAPO’s “leading” role in Namibia and urged them to participate in multi-party talks, Sam Nujoma and other SWAPO leaders expressed their unwillingness to accept the presence of other “groups” (“puppets”) during possible negotiations with South Africa. The outcome of such “talks” was uncompromisingly envisioned as “transferring power to the people of Namibia under the leadership of SWAPO.”15 Also, overtures of the West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (1927–2016) were flatly rejected. When, during a visit to Lusaka in 1976, Genscher invited SWAPO leaders to lunch they “refused on principle,” because West Germany, contrary to SWAPO’s and the GDR’s demands, maintained its consulate in Windhoek and continued to subsidize German (i.e., white) schools inside Namibia (Nujoma 2001: 246).16 First and foremost, this unswerving position was made possible by the emboldening consideration that SWAPO was now counted as belonging to the socialist camp, fighting for the establishment of a “scientific socialism” and the implementation of a “classless society.”17 As a result, since the mid-1970s, “Nambia’s independence struggle was one of the most frequent causes for friction between East and West Germany” (Kern 2019: 246).

  • 18 Gemeinsames Kommuniqué über den Besuch einer Delegation der Südwestafrikanischen Volksorganisation (...)

20In December 1977, a SWAPO delegation led by Sam Nujoma visited the GDR. At the end of the visit, SWAPO and the SED declared in a “joint communiqué” about their “cooperation […] which is based on anti-imperialist solidarity”: “Both parties agree that a consequent policy of the socialist states and the struggle of the national liberation movements and all progressive powers have contributed to a change in the world for the benefit of peace, security, national independence, democracy, and socialism.” The SED emphasized its uncompromising stance towards SWAPO and the independence of Namibia, and both parties underlined the importance of Russia’s “Great Socialist October Revolution.”18 Following this visit, in 1978, SWAPO was permitted to open its official representation (as a quasi-embassy) in East Berlin, headed for a long time by Obed Emvula, later by Shikwetepo Haindongo (1953–2014). In contrast, a SWAPO office in West Germany was opened only in 1982, when Foreign Minister Genscher accepted SWAPO’s claim to “sole representation”.

  • 19 In his article on newly found mass graves, the journalist Sergej Karamaev rightly points out that a (...)

21As a result, “the GDR became a key supplier of humanitarian as well as military aid to SWAPO, and several hundred Namibians came to the GDR to study, receive military training or undergo medical treatment.” Also, acknowledging SWAPO’s joining of the socialist camp, the Soviet Union and “the GDR remained silent about SWAPO’s use of not-so-diplomatic means. It denied or dismissed as South African propaganda any reports about human rights abuses in SWAPO refugee camps, such as the torturing of political prisoners and suspected sell-outs” (Weis 2011: 361).19

  • 20 Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1989-0818-034, Berlin, Günter Sieber begrüßt Sam Nujoma (SWAPO, Namibia), 18  (...)

22Nevertheless, these imprisonments and torture did exist (Groth 1995), and SWAPO’s intended objectives of the prisoner camps was to silence dissent and create fear—among its followers and among other Namibians who may have joined forces equally eager for independence but opposed to SWAPO and its socialist plans for the future. When historians talk about the history of socialism in Africa and socialism in Namibia, they need to include in their analysis also those voices who expressed fear of socialism—or fear of politicians using socialism as an argumentative tool to brutalize their opponents. Such fears refer not only to the South African standard accusations against the Soviet Union and its plan for a future southern Africa, or the white middle-class concerns about property and individual rights. In the 1970s and 1980s, millions of Africans in Guinea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola, and elsewhere had first-hand experience of life under those regimes calling themselves “socialist” (Santamaria 1998: 748–771). For contemporary Namibians, the treatment of certain “classes” (in fact, often peoples or language groups [to avoid the anachronism “tribe”]) by the ruling socialist regimes gave a less than favorable picture of what the future might hold for those in disagreement with the “socialist party.” The same was true for members of (certain) churches. Also, the ruthless suppression of perceived “traitors” and everyone within SWAPO who dared to disagree with the socialist leadership, gave people reason to fear what might happen if such leadership would be in power of an entire state (Williams 2015: 155-162; Beukes 2014). It was no secret that SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma visited East Berlin in late August 1989, when the GDR regime was already under immense pressure from its own population to democratize.20 Samson Ndeikwila, who, as a young man had joined SWAPO and was trained as a PLAN fighter in Tanzania, had to endure imprisonment and ostracism by his peers for the mere fact of having asked “inappropriate questions” and demanded enhanced democracy within SWAPO. In the late 1980s, when he had already returned to Namibia, his “growing concern was that independent Namibia might fall under a dictatorship where democracy and human rights would not be respected.” Ndeikwila and other opposition members knew about the enforced disappearances of thousands under SWAPO’s care in Angola, Zambia, and Tanzania. And Ndeiwkila’s “hope” was that the powers guaranteeing the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 435 of 1978 on Namibia’s independence “would help our country to avoid the Angolan and Mozambican type of independence and to have a democratic constitution where the rule of law would be supreme” (Ndeikwila 2014). Indeed, US foreign policy, insisting on the linkage between Namibia’s independence from South Africa according to Resolution 435 and Cuba’s withdrawal from Angola, was eager to thereby “liberate and democratize ‘two African countries for the price of one’.” This in turn served “the most pressing American goal of undermining the communist presence in Africa.” (Gasbarri 2020: 43).

  • 21 For an overview of Namibia’s human rights situation refer to the annual reports of the human rights (...)

23Considering Namibia’s constitution of 1990 and the praise it has received from foreign legal scholars as being “excellent” and a text that could easily be taken for the constitution of a “country located in Western Europe” (Tomuschat 1990: 95), it appears that Ndeikwila’s hopes were fulfilled. However, despite its disputed classification as an upper middle-income country by the UN, the realities of constitutional life and politics in postcolonial Namibia under the one-party rule of post-socialist SWAPO look rather different (Melber 2014).21

24Also, SWAPO’s socialist allegiances survived the demise of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe on the basis of “affinity to a system” that had provided support and security, as indicated by the 2005-visit to Namibia of Margot Honecker (1927–2016), one of the disintegrated GDR’s most despised ministers and the widow of GDR-leader Erich Honecker. Irrespective of her steadfast defense of the GDR regime’s human rights violations, including those within the realm of her own ministry of basic education, Honecker was guest of honor of Namibia’s government at the inauguration ceremony of President Hifikepunye Pohamba (b. 1936). Former West-German foreign minister Genscher was invited but could not attend for health-reasons (Kunze, Rosenberger 2010: 40). Different from Genscher, Honecker was never personally involved in the politics that led to Namibia’s independence. Therefore, the invitation of the former GDR-minister was meant to acknowledge “her” East German state’s contribution to Namibia’s independence, and was also a reminiscence to her late husband’s Africa policies—no matter how illiberal and disdained the former SED-leader was in his own country. Currently, scholars begin to ask “how that fits together: That South African [and Namibian] freedom fighters have cooperated with a regime that itself oppressed people—and that built the wall [in Berlin]” (Harris 2015).


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1 “[Since 1951] the Socialist International is the worldwide organisation of social democratic, socialist and labour parties. It currently brings together 152 political parties and organisations from all continents.” [accessed on 10 March 2016].

2 Constitution of SWAPO Party Adopted by the First Congress of SWAPO Party in an Independent Namibia, 6–12 December 1991 and amended by SWAPO Party Extra Ordinary Congress, 27–28 August 1998, Windhoek, Republic of Namibia, [accessed on 10 March 2016].

3 Lauren Dobell (2000), in SWAPO’s struggle for Namibia, 1960-1991. War by Other Means, argues that SWAPO used the rhetoric of its military supporters (the Soviet Union and its allies) without translating this into a deeply rooted policy commitment.

4 In fact, the SWANU party, which currently holds one seat in Namibia’s National Assembly, still embraces its socialist convictions.

5 This is what one of the SWAPO founders, Herman Andimba Toivo ya Toivo said about his own political “youth” in Cape Town, cf., the interview in the movie by Richard Paklepa Paths to Freedom, Windhoek, Namibia 2014; it is also noteworthy that according to the movie, OPO in 1958 petitioned the United States president and the queen of England, not the secretary general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; cf. also the interview with Andreas Shipanga about his biography, “After teaching, I ended up in Cape Town in 1958. There we got into the political struggle,” [accessed on 15 March 2016].

6 Suppression of Communism Act (No. 44 of 1950),,_1950 [accessed on 15 March 2016].

7 National Archives and Records Administration (Washington D.C.), hereinafter: NARA RG 59 Pol 29 (Arrests, Detentions) SW AFR [Box 2675], 1964–1966, Telegram US Embassy Pretoria to DoS, 10 December 1966.

8 On Jacob Kuhangua see the leaflet of 1961 (?) seeking donations to support his education in the US, accessible online, [accessed on 15 March 2016]; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Vol. XXI, Africa, No. 398, Memorandum of Conversation USG – SWAPO, Washington, 23 November 1962, p. 622–224: “Mr. Kuhangua said that SWAPO is thankful for what the US has done—support for all the UN resolutions, offers of scholarships, and a commitment to the International Court case.”

9 NARA RG 59 Central Foreign Policy Files 1964-1966, Pol 30 (Defectors and Expellees) SW AFR [Box 2675], US Embassy Cairo to DoS, 9 October 1965, No. A-305, Subject: Conversation with SWAPO representative [Andreas Z. Shipanga]. In the cover letter it was noted that the Embassy would “explore the possibility that some of the Southwest Africans here might be suitable candidates to consider for USG assistance furthering their education.”

10 NARA RG 59 Pol SW AFR [Box 2605], 1970–1973 Telegram US Embassy Lusaka to DoS, 2 February 1970 [No. A-33].

11 NARA RG 59 Pol SW AFR [Box 2605], 1970–1973, Telegram US Embassy Kinshasa to DoS, 4 June 1970.

12 Political Program of the [SWAPO] of Namibia, adopted by the meeting of the Central Committee, 28 July–1 August 1976, Lusaka, Zambia, Diário de Luanda, 24 August 1976, printed in Delft, Holland (German translation in Alfred Babing and Hans Dieter Bräuer, Namibia. Ein Report, Berlin, VdN, 1979: 352–359).

13 See the SED-mouthpiece East-Berlin daily Berliner Zeitung, 14 March 1984, no. 63, “SWAPO und Angola weisen Manöver Pretorias zurück,” speaking of “den in Windhoek installierten Marionettenparteien” (meaning DTA).

14 Henning Melber, “Namibian elections: The sands are shifting—slowly,” Mail & Guardian, 26 November 2019.

15 “Discussion between SWAPO and Dr. Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State, in New York,” 29 September 1976, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, SPARC02014590-001/2, [accessed on 15 March 2016].

16 According to Nujoma, Andreas Shipanga and some of his followers, however, accepted Genscher’s invitation, thus defying Nujoma’s leadership, and plotted with Genscher to “split” SWAPO (Kern 2019: 137-147).

17 Quoted from the Russian Wikipedia site on SWAPO, which is markedly different from the German or English site; see: Организация народов Юго-Западной Африки “Своей [SWAPO] идеологией он объявила „научный социализм“, а конечной целью „построение бесклассового общества“.”рганизация народов Юго-Западной Африки [accessed on 15 March 2016].

18 Gemeinsames Kommuniqué über den Besuch einer Delegation der Südwestafrikanischen Volksorganisation (SWAPO) von Namibia in der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik (Neues Deutschland, 12 December 1977), reprinted in Alfred Babing and Hans Dieter Bräuer, Namibia. Ein Report, Berlin (VdN) 1979: 349–352.

19 In his article on newly found mass graves, the journalist Sergej Karamaev rightly points out that also the Western press preferred not to report about SWAPO’s camps, but insisted on portraying SWAPO as an organization fighting justifiedly for its country’s independence (“Западная печать, вместе с социалистической, предпочитала именовать боевиков СВАПО ‘партизанами, борющимися за освобождение страны’.” Karamaev 2005); cf. also Van der Heyden, GDR International Development Policy: 169.

20 Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1989-0818-034, Berlin, Günter Sieber begrüßt Sam Nujoma (SWAPO, Namibia), 18 August 1989.

21 For an overview of Namibia’s human rights situation refer to the annual reports of the human rights NGO NAMRIGHTS, Windhoek, Namibia, [accessed on 8 March 2016]; on Namibia’s classification as an upper middle-income country see the statement by Namibian President Geingob [13 July 2015]:

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