Namibia's whites wistful about relinquishing power

Gustaff Eerenstein has a round face, ready smile, and bright blue eyes. Sitting in the small back office of his bustling fish-and-chips stand in downtown Windhoek, he tries to imagine life in an independent, self-ruled Namibia (South-West Africa).

''If SWAPO (South-West Africa People's Organization) wins,'' he says, referring to the black nationalists waging guerrilla war on Namibia's northern border, ''I will still have my family, I will still have my house, I will still be happy.''

It is a considerable concession on his part. Like many whites here, Mr. Eerenstein does not like the idea of surrendering white control of this territory, which he is convinced could become the ''the Switzerland of Africa'' if left under the administration of South Africa.

Yet the talk here is of change. Western diplomats from five nations - Canada, the United States, Britain, West Germany, and France - have come to Windhoek carrying a plan for independence. Namibians realize that to much of the world they represent Africa's last vestige of colonialism.

Also, there are the simple demographic facts. Whites are 11 percent of Namibia's population, which means the social structure with its features of racial segregation ''is offensive to 90 percent of the population,'' notes one white local observer. And the birth rate among the black and mixed racial groups is considerably higher than among whites.

A marriage between a white woman and a black man recently made headlines. Perfectly legal after the abolition of the mixed marriages and immorality acts in Namibia in 1977, it nonetheless drew plenty of notice.

''Sure there has been change here,'' says Mr. Eerenstein. ''You go to the post office now and there are blacks working there. That would have been unheard of five years ago.''

But Andreas Shipanga, leader of one of the black political parties, retorts, ''Apartheid and racism are still strong where it matters.''

Schools are still basically segregated, as are health services. Blacks can live in white areas, but as Mr. Shipanga notes, ''Why live in a white area when you have to send your kids across town to school.''

As a result, Windhoek has black and Colored (mixed racial descent) townships close by. They provide labor for the white-run economy, with little economic life of their own.

The talk of independence here still strikes most whites as a theoretical discussion. They feel the odds are that the plans will fail.

A ''white solidarity'' meeting of right-wing political groups here, timed to make headlines as the Western diplomats arrived, attracted an extraordinarily large crowd. The key speaker insisted Namibia should reject self-government and become a permanent province of South Africa.

After the meeting, one man said: ''I am a loyal National Party (South Africa's ruling party) member, but in my heart I agree with a lot of what they were saying.'' He thinks black rule would spell economic disaster.

He was sure Prime Minister P.W. Botha was losing support among conservatives. Mr. Botha, he said, could not afford to relinquish control of Namibia and risk further disfavor among white Afrikaners.

Economic position varies greatly between whites and the 10 other ethnically defined population groups of Namibia. White per-capita incomes are 12 times that of ''nonwhites,'' says Charles Truebody of a private-sector foundation. The most fertile job area for blacks is subsistence farming.

Mr. Truebody, a member of the English community, thinks it is time for independence. ''Lets face it, South-West Africa is not ours to give. Africa belongs to the blacks,'' he says. He thinks the notion that SWAPO will install communism in Namibia is wide of the mark. He expects them, if they win an election, to be more pro-Western in economic terms than most expect. But the longer Namibia avoids independence, the more anti-Western any future black government is likely to become, he argues.

One thing seems clear: Should independence come, Namibia will probably remain dependent on South Africa economically.

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