Material aid and the 1989 Constituent Assembly elections in Namibia

This week this blog received its first readers from Namibia. Welcome!  As luck would have it, the theme of the article I had planned for this week relates to Namibia too.  The main focus of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy was always the call for the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners detained by the apartheid regime.  The majority of the group’s work focused on South Africa, but they always campaigned against South Africa’s occupation of Namibia and its war on the frontline states too.

Namibia gained independence on 21 March 1990, following the phased withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia and of Cuban troops from southern Angola.  Ahead of independence, the country’s first elections based on one-person one-vote took place in November 1989.

City Group rally for Namibia on Non-Stop Picket with SWANU speaker (Source: City Group)

City Group offered solidarity to all liberation movements in South Africa and Namibia that opposed apartheid.  In the Namibian context, this meant offering solidarity to both SWAPO (the South West Africa People’s Organization) and SWANU (the South West Africa National Union).  However, City Group’s relationship with the exiled leadership of SWAPO had been strained since 1985, while it maintained a strong, mutually supportive, relationship with SWANU members exiled in Britain.

In early May 1989, in preparation for the forthcoming Constituent Assembly elections in Namibia, City Group sent (for the time and its size) a substantial donation of £1000 to SWANU via its Chief Representative in the UK, F T Koujo, who personally forwarded it to the Namibia National Front in Windhoek.  SWANU contested the 1989 elections as part of the Namibia National Front alliance (which had originally formed in 1977) with other small parties.  Safe receipt of the donation in Namibia was acknowledged in June 1989 in a letter from Ottilie G Abrahams, Secretary General of the Namibia National Front.  The letter stressed the importance of the donation:

The grant was most welcome as the Front was almost totally dependent on this money.  The funds were used for paying the rents of the offices, the telephones as well as the transport involved for the holding of meetings.  …   The first returnees [from exile] were expected today and from the newspapers we gather that some parties are drowning in money – SWAPO bought two buildings, one for the price of R1m and the other for R5.5m.  The DTA [Democratic Turnhalle Alliance] never holds meetings without trucks loaded with bully beef and bread and we are getting the feeling that the businessmen do not love our economic policy too much, hence they are not falling over their feet to help us with money.

SWAPO could draw on donations from international governmental, church and civil society supporters garnered through the international anti-apartheid movement.  The Democratic Turnhalle Alliance was heavily financed by South African military intelligence through a front organisation, the Namib Foundation, which also funded some of the smaller opposition parties (see Terry Bell’s 2003 book Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid and Truth for further evidence of this).  For SWANU as a radical socialist party, modest donations of the kind supplied by City Group were crucial. 

The South African regime viewed the elections to the Namibian Constituent Assembly as a dry run for the inevitable transition to majority rule in South Africa.  Their prime concern was to ensure that SWAPO did not win a landslide majority in the elections that would allow them to vote through the constitution of their choice unchallenged. They did this through both financial and logistic support for the DTA and other small parties, and through continued covert military operations, including assassinations, against SWAPO personnel.  These tactics certainly impacted on the size of SWAPO’s majority and falsely inflated the support for South African sponsored parties.  Unsurprisingly, in the process, the radical left lost out. The NNF gained one seat in the 1989 Constituent Assembly, but SWANU has not been represented in the Namibian parliament since then.  In this instance, City Group’s solidarity and financial support made a material difference in enabling SWANU to contest the election, even if it could not compete with the volume of financial support flowing to the other political parties in Namibia.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Material aid and the 1989 Constituent Assembly elections in Namibia

  1. Pingback: Under a ‘false flag’: City Group and the troubling case of the SWAPO detainees | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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