Namibia Under Sail

Africa's newest nation tries to fulfill democratic promise

By , Eric Bjornlund is consultant for the National Democratic Institute.

SAM NUJOMA, the first president of the new Republic of Namibia, came to the United States June 19 to meet with President Bush and to speak at a United Nations conference. Unfortunately for President Nujoma, he could not even begin to compete for public attention with the simultaneous visit of Nelson Mandela. But in the euphoria over Mr. Mandela's visit and the seemingly real potential for genuine change in South Africa, Namibia's progress should not be overlooked. Namibia continues to be important both in its own right and as a model for the transition to majority rule in South Africa. For better or worse, Namibia may also give us a glimpse into the future of participatory democracy throughout Africa. Last November Namibians chose their new leaders in free and fair elections. On March 21, after 23 years of war and 70 years of South African rule, ``Africa's last colony'' finally gained its independence. At a formal ceremony attended by dignitaries from around the world, South African President Frederik de Klerk presided over the lowering of the South African flag, and United Nations Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar swore in Mr. Nujoma as independent Namibia's first president. The event marked the end of a year-long transition to independence successfully supervised by the UN, a role that the UN might be called upon to repeat when South African blacks finally go to the polls for the first time. It also marked the beginning of black majority rule in Namibia under a constitution that may well be the most liberal on the continent.

Delegates elected to Namibia's constitutional convention representing seven different political parties most prominently Nujoma's South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), which led the armed struggle - unanimously approved the new constitution in February. That constitution sets up a government with three branches and a variety of Western-style democratic institutions, checks and balances. It includes a broad bill of rights, including express protections for private property, and prohibits the death penalty. It establishes a solid foundation for the development of a genuine multiparty democracy.

But in Africa, democracy remains the exception rather than the rule. Whether genuine democracy will actually take root in Namibia remains an open question.

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Now, less than three months after independence, even people who supported the liberation struggle and voted for SWAPO indicate ambivalence about the new government. Many of SWAPO's core constituencies complain that the government's policy of ``national reconciliation'' masks a failure of will to confront the seemingly intractable problems of land distribution, housing, unemployment, and economic dependency on South Africa that are the legacy of apartheid, colonialism, and war. Some Namibians, too, see signs of the arrogance of power in the allegedly lavish lifestyles of government ministers and the elaborate motorcade that accompanies President Nujoma as he races about Windhoek, the country's capital. Yet in a recent conversation in Windhoek, one senior SWAPO official spoke eloquently about the need for a democratic political culture to evolve, the need for all sides to accept the give-and-take that is necessary in a healthy democracy.

In fact, many of the early signs point to an encouraging tolerance for criticism and dissent. The press is vociferous and strident; its recent exposure of the visit to Namibia of an international ``hazardous waste merchant,'' for example, forced the government to eschew selling the right to dump hazardous waste. When the leader of a small opposition party, speaking at a recent sitting of the new National Assembly, harangued the government for an hour for its conduct of foreign policy, the entire SWAPO leadership sat patiently and listened.

The government has also shown a respect for participation and consensus that bodes well for the political process. Western-educated, black intellectuals (dare we call them ``technocrats''?), not socialist hard-liners, fill many important positions in the new government. And the government has called upon members of the white establishment for advice on everything from a new labor law to housing policy to the reintegration of the more than 40,000 returnees from exile. ``National reconciliation'' may hide a multitude of sins of omission, but bringing together the disparate elements of Namibian society simply has to be a central focus of the government. To a recent visitor to Namibia, little seems to have changed since the elections, other than the ubiquitous new green, red, and blue Namibian flag. But a new government structure has emerged. For the sake of the rest of Africa, as well as for Namibians themselves, we can only hope that a truly democratic political culture will emerge as well.

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