JOHANNESBURG — THE strategic coastal enclave of Walvis Bay, a 30-square-mile area sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib Desert, passed from South African to Namibia at midnight this morning, giving Namibia control of the only deep-water port on its coastline. The switchover completes the process of Nambia's independence from South Africa.
The Namibian independence agreement was the result of a complicated series of negotiations between South Africa, Angola, and Cuba sponsored by the former superpowers in the region - the United States and the former Soviet Union.
South Africa agreed to Namibian independence in return for the withdrawal of the Cuban troops assisting pro-government forces in Namibia and the withdrawal of bases of the African National Congress (ANC), the main group fighting white rule in South Africa, from Angolan soil. At the center of the agreement was a UN-supervised election in March 1990.
The South African flag was lowered for the last time at Walvis Bay at midnight this morning following a handing-over ceremony attended by several African heads of state, including Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Tanzania's President Ali Hassan Mwinyi, and Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings. South African President Frederik de Klerk and ANC President Nelson Mandela sent senior officials to represent them.
South Africa has claimed historical ownership of Walvis Bay, which was annexed by the British 115 years ago, since it was handed to South Africa in 1910 as an inheritance of South Africa's colonial past. When Namibia, a former German colony, won its independence in 1990, the Pretoria government agreed to negotiate a system of joint administration of the Walvis Bay port.
For Namibians, continued South African ownership of Walvis Bay was an uncomfortable reminder of Namibia's economic dependence on South Africa and its lack of a functional port. Last April, when South Africa's multiparty negotiations over a nonracial constitution began in earnest, ANC negotiators forced the ruling National Party government to relinquish control over the enclave sooner than it had intended.
A strategic air and sea base in several regional and global conflicts, Walvis Bay ceased to be of vital importance to South Africa once Cuban forces withdrew from the region.
South African air and naval facilities at Walvis Bay acted as a deterrent to the former Soviet Union and Cuba in the cold-war conflict in Angola, which drew in South African forces on the side of Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.
Military analysts say that the capacity of South African forces to cut off Cuban supply routes from Walvis Bay played a key role in their decision to back a negotiated settlement.
``The South African presence in Walvis Bay is of reduced military significance now,'' said South African Defense Minister Kobie Coetsee, acknowledging the role it had played in bringing South Africa's military forces closer to the Angolan war-zone.
Walvis Bay played a role in the defeat of German Forces in South West Africa (Namibia) in 1915. In World War II, the desert port played a key role in allied efforts to counter the German submarine threat and prevent the Germans form establishing a submarine base on the Namibian coastline.
``Walvis Bay's importance has mainly been its negative strategic value,'' says Prof. Deon Fourie of the University of South Africa's Strategic Studies department. ``It would ... have been a very useful place for the Soviet Navy during the cold war.''