The men in olive-brown uniforms crossed the border somewhere in the north-central part of Namibia and headed into Angola in a convoy of armored vehicles painted the same drab brown as their clothing.
Traversing the dusty, palm-fringed terrain of Angola's Mocamedes province, they moved into the desolate bush country with a grim determination.
And during one day and part of another, they pounded away at a black nationalist guerrilla encampment they had dubbed, with gruesome accuracy, "Smokeshell."
When the smoke had cleared, reported 200 members of the South-West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) and 16 brown-suited soldiers of the South African Army lay dead.
Last week's on a SWAPO base in southern Angola by South African troops marked a grim escalation in a somehwat obscure, but nonetheless brutal, war here in the southwestern corner of Africa.
In the balance is the future of nearly 1 million people who live in the dispute territory of Namibia (formerly known as South-West Africa) as well as control of untold millions of dollars worth of diamonds, uranium, and other valuable minerals.
Namibia is a moonscape of desolate mountains, towering sand dunes, and vast deserts teeming with wildlife.
It was into this inhospitable, yet hauntingly beautiful environment that German colonists ventured in 1884 and almost immediately began encroaching on farmlands of the indigenous black African people.
In the early 1900s, for example, a German effort to "exterminate" the Herero people -- one of Namibia's diverse tribes -- claimed the lives of some 65,000 people.
Germany's reign ended when South Africa invaded the territory in 1914, during World War I. And that set the stage for Namibia's modern-day travail.
South Africa was given a mandate over the territory by the League on Nations in 1920. That gave it effective control of an 823,000-square-mile expanse underlaid with vast amounts of uranium, copper, diamonds, gemstones, and other minerals. (In 1973, the last year for which figures are available, the total value of mineral exports was estimated at some $260 million.)
Over the next 58 years, South Africa tried to annex Namibia, imposed a system of apartheid (racial segregation) on it, and eventually challenged the right of the United Nations, as successor to the League of Nations, to reclaim jurisdiction over the territory and lead it to independence.
Protracted legal wrangling and negotiations, including two World Court cases, failed to shake South Africa's hold on Namibia. In the meantime, SWAPO was formed in 1966 as a vehicle for black African resistance to white-ruled South Africa's occupation.
SWAPO started out using peaceful means of protest, but its leadership was ruthlessly tormented, brutalized, and jailed by the South African government. In 1966, SWAPO turned to an armed struggle for independence.
The South African Parliament even passed the broadly drawn Terrorism Act, which places the burden of proof on the accused, to convict jail some 34 SWAPO members in 1968.
One of them, a lay preacher named Toivo Herman ja toivo, said at his trial that even though "I believe that violence is a sin against God and my fellow men ," South African intransigence gave SWAPO no other alternative.
In 1976, according to some former SWAPO members, the leadership of the organization, radicalized by 10 years of bush war, drifted ideologically closer to their Russian, Cuban, and East German arms suppliers. SWAPO eventually broadened its aims for Namibia to include not only independence, but also institution of "scientific socialism" -- which many take to mean a Marxist government -- in the new state.
South Africa abhors the thought of a Marxist regime on its western border, and is deeply suspicious of the United Nations. But faced with the threat of Namibian issue, South Africa agreed in April 1978 to allow UN-supervised elections for a constituent assembly that would fashion an independence constitution for the territory.
Varying interpretations over details of the plan have led to continual delays , however. the upshot: Namibia today remains the last patch of Africa that is not independent.
There are, of course, conflicting claims over just who is to blame.South Africa's critics say it is stalling, in hopes it can somehow prevent SWAPO from coming to power. South Africa, in turn, asks how the UN can supervise "free and fair" elections when it has already shown partiality toward SWAPO.
South Africa is well aware that it was the relatively powerless UN General Assembly that endorsed SWAPO's claims to the territory, and that it is the more potent UN Security Council that would actually supervise elections. But this is brushed off by pretoria as a mere legal distinction that does little to prove the neutrality of the Security Council or the UN personnel that would supervise the proposed seven-month transition to independence.
As the stalemate continues, so do the guerrilla clashes here on Namibia's northern border.
Most of the fighting is centered in the north-central part of the country, ancestral home of the Ovambo tribes, for two reasons.
One is that Ovamboland, with its low scrub vegetation and wiry trees, is one of the few areas in this arid territory with sufficient vegetation to provide cover for bush warfare. Another is that fully 46 percent of the Namibian population lives in the area -- a decisive voting bloc in an election.
It is no wonder then that South Africa has spent untold millions over the past 14 years to keep thousands of troops garrisoned in Ovamboland and at other bases along Namibia's 950-mile-long border. It is from the Ovambo people, too, that SWAPO draws the majority of the recruits for its guerrilla campaign.
Infiltrating from neighboring Angola and Zambia, SWAPO is clearly causing havoc in the northern reaches of the territory. Roads have been mined as far as 60 miles into the interior, and in some areas traffic is forced to travel in convoys.
Wearing olive-green Chinese "tiger suits" and carrying sundry East-bloc weapons, SWAPO guerrillas mingle with the Ovambo tribespeople, spreading their political doctrine -- and dealing ruthlessly with anyone they regards as a "sellout."
Johnny Makoka, a former SWAPO political commissar captured by the South Africans, says he went from village to village with the news that "SWAPO is going to come here and liberate the country," and that "after the country has been liberated, the people will get work, and they will get education."
Mr. Makoka says most people were receptive to that message.
The South African government dismisses SWAPO troops as "terrorists" who lack the support of the people. But a high-ranking South African military man says frankly, "We must have a political settlement here, because neither side can win a military victory."
But just when the United Nations plan for UN-supervised elections will come to fruition is anybody's guess. In the meantime, South Africa is pressing ahead with its own plans for a limited form of self-goverment for the territory. Its hope, apparently, is that the leaders of the internal government might gain credibility and provide an alternative to SWAPO when -- and if -- elections take place.
The showpiece of this internal government is the National Assembly, a legislative body with powers that are more apparent than real. It meets in the capital city of Windhoek, in a converted high school gymnasium (a "Turnhalle" in German).
The setting is that of a parliament-in-miniature, with representatives of various Namibian ethnic groups debating while eight interpreters in glass booths provide translations.
Undeniably, Namibia is an ethnic agglomeration, consisting of some 12 different groups. These range from nomadic desert Bushmen to white Afrikaners, as well as a number of black tribal groups that speak different languages.
But it is the stress on ethnicity that has brought much critcism to South Africa's administration of the territory. It formerly tried to institute a policy of tribal reserves (known as "homelands") here. Moreover, under South African tutelage, a number of blatantly discriminatory measures were introduced in Namibia, measures that are only now being repealed.
Even now, much legislative authority in the territory does not actually lie with the National Assembly, but with a series of ethnically based regional governments. Until late May, the white government administered the entire country's educational system. Today, it still retains the power to prevent racial integration of white schools and, by controlling the amount of low-income housing in white areas, block residential integration.
But the ultimate power in Namibia is held by the administrator-general, an official appointed by the South African government. The current administrator general, Dr. Gerrit Viljoen, reputedly is the head of the Broderbond, the secret society of Afrikaners in white-ruled [*] South Africa.
Despite this, Dr. Viljoen is known as a moderate in the ruling National Party , a pragmatist who recognizes that South Africa cannot hang on to the disputed territory indefinitely.
Nevertheless, he says that "if there is further delay" in UN-supervised elections, "there are certain areas where internal constitutional development could take place." And he frankly admits that he hopes to "enhance the image" of internal parties by giving them more power in the territory, in hopes they will develop into credible opponents of SWAPO.
By some counts, there are 39 separate political parties in Namibia, most of them based along tribal or ethnic lines. A number of these have grouped together to form the Democratic turnhalle alliance (DTA), which has a majority in the National Assembly.
The head of the DTA is a white man, a burly farmer named Dirk Mudge, who says that DTA is "opposed to domination, discrimination, and racial prejudice." The party is just as firmly opposed to Marxism, he says, adding, "We don't want a SWAPO government in this country. . . . We want to make it as difficult as possible for them to win an election."
But Mr. Judge complains that the DTA is hobbled by a lack of real governmental authority in the National Assembly, and by a truculent white ethnic government controlled by the right-wing AKTUR party (Action Front for the Retention of Turnhalle Principles).
AKTUR chairman Abraham H. Duplessis, a former Cabinet minister in the South African government, says frankly, "We don't believe in majority rule -- plain and simple majority rule."
"We are against the opening up of residential areas," he adds, as well as the compulsory integration of hotels, restaurants, and schools.
But the limited voluntary efforts to end discrimination here lack credibility in many circles. Although all public facilities in Namibia have been desegregated, a number of private establishments remain for "whites only."
During a recent debate in the National Assembly, for example, one black representative complained that an AKTUR party member prevented him from sitting on a bench at a service station while waiting for his car to be refueled. Such incidents, he said, contribute to the view among blacks that "nothing has changed" under the National Assembly, and ultimately add to the support for SWAPO.
But moves to give the internal parties more power only fuel suspicion that South Africa has a "unilateral declaration of independence [UDI]" in mind for Namibia -- the same kind of UDI that propelled neighboring Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) into a bitter, 14-year-long civil war.
Slowly, the South African government is taking steps that some analysts refer to as "creeping UDI." One is creation of a South-West African defense force, analogous to a national army. Another is creation of council with ministerial powers, drawn from the National Assembly, analogous to a parliamentary Cabinet. Mr. Mudge has emerged as head of the ministerial council.
South African government spokesmen deny they have any plans for independence for Namibia without UN recognition. But Dr. Viljoen repeatedly has stated that if South Africa were forced to choose between international recognition for an independent Namibia and internal stability in the territory, it would choose the latter.
Sam Nujoma, president of SWAPO, argues that South Africa is employing delaying tactics.
"Racist South Africa, with the backing of international imperialism, is able to defy world opinion," he says.
Calling on Western nations to support mandatory economic sanctions against South Africa, Mr. Nujoma adds, "We believe that only through such actions will South Africa be forced to a negotiated settlement. . . . Otherwise [we] will have no alternative but an intensification of the armed struggle."
"Sam Nujoma is like a tape recording," complains Andreas Shipanga, one of a number of politicians inside Namibia who oppose both South Africa's continued occupation of the territory and SWAPO's plans for it after independence.
Another is Reinhard Rukaro, a spokesman for the Namibia National Front (NNF), a coalition of left-leaning and centrist parties.
"The whole of South Africa's strategy over the past few years was to delay as long as possible," he says.
But he is equally critical of SWAPO, accusing the organization of conducting a "campaign of terror" in Namibia. Under a SWAPO government, he says, Namibia is "in for a dictatorship, a one-party state at best."
Echoing that view is Mr. Shipanga, leader of a group of former SWAPO members who call themselves "SWAPO-Democrats." Mr. Shipanga says SWAPO president Nujoma has fallen under the influence of Russian, Cuban, and East German advisers who have turned the organization into a Marxist mouthpiece.
"I will never go on record as saying Sam Nujoma is a communist," says Mr. Shipanga, "because he's got no capacity to understand 'Das Kapital.'"
SWAPO might lose an election if one were held soon, says Mr. Shipanga. But he accuses South Africa of employing "delaying tactics" that are only aiding the SWAPO cause.
"If things are left to drift, there is a possibility that SWAPO can win in the long run," he warns.
A number of independent observers suggest that SWAPO probably already enjoys majority support in the territory, and that its backing only increases as the war drags on.
And drag on its does, although lately at a spiralling level of violence.
It is difficult to piece together a complete picture of the military conflict in the area.
One complicating factor: guerrillas of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA (Union for the Total Independence of Angola) are active in southern Angola, apparently getting support from South Africa in their harassment of both SWAPO and Angolan government troops.
In addition, SWAPO allows few Western journalists to view the battle from its side of the lines.
And the South African government allows only prearranged visits to the war zone for journalists, in which it selects the military and civilian speakers in briefings.
Even then, the government is evasive. One recent group of foeign journalists was repeatedly assured by military commanders that SWAPO simply did not have any bases in the Angola border region -- less than a week before the South African Army launched its devastating attack on the Smokeshell base, said to have been spread over a 40-square-mile area.
Similarly, casualty figures need to be viewed with a critical eye. The South African government, for example, boasts of a "mill rate" -- a macabre term for the ratio of SWAPO deaths for each South African trooper lost -- of around 30 to 1. In fact, published figures since the beginning of 1980 suggest that the rate is closer to 10 to 1.
One thing is indisputable: Recent months have seen a clear escalation in hostilities. The South African government concedes that the conflict is spreading from Ovamboland into previously peaceful areas to the west and confirms that mine-laying incidents are on the increase.
To increase its military manpower, the South African government recently has formed a South-West African defense force -- drawn from inside the territory -- to augment the South African military units on the border. One military spokesman explains, with somewhat tortuous logic, that response to the new fighting force has been so gret among the local populace that asystem of compulsory military servie will be implemented shortly.
The nucleus of this new force is being trained at a former teachers' college near Okahandja. The eventual goal is to have seven battalions -- most ethnically bsed -- of 900 to 1,000 men each, to pit against the estimated 6,000 to 8,000 SWAPO cadres.
But the entire population of Namibia is estimated at only about 974,000 -- a figure probably too small to provide sufficient young men to replace the South African troops currently on the border.
Consequently, the South African Army might well remain in the territory indefinitely.
And how do the South African soldiers -- most of whom are conscripts -- feel about that?
One husky soldier says, "We don't mind at all. Because this is the front line. If the communists take over here, they'll be after our country next."
Just the same, the South African government is investigating claims that some Army officers were bribed to make sure some solders were not posted to units doing Namibian border duty.
South African Army commanders admit that they cannot hope to hold their own in the conflict without the support of the local populace, who can offer food and shelter to guerrillas, and alert them of troops movements. Consequently, the Army tries to curry favor with the Ovambo people by, for example, providing soldiers to staff local schools and clinics.
Nevertheless, the combat area is under a dusk-to-dawn curfew, and local residents have been moved out of a one-kilometer-wide strip along the Angolan border where South African soldiers have orders to "shoot to kill."
GEn. Jannie Geldenhuys, the South African Army commander in Namibia, says, "I feel we are doing very well" in the military conflict, but adds, "I am not going to comment on whether anyone is winning the hearts and minds of the Ovambo people, because I regard that as a job for the politicians."
Mr. Rukaro of the NNF has his own answer. "They have been trying to win the hearts and minds of the people since they have been there," he says. "Obviously , they have failed."
One telltale indicator: the lack of success of a government-backed housing project here in Oshakati. The government has built 350 homes -- at a cost of $ 32,000-$38,000 each -- and offered them for sale or rental at only $10.00 monthly. Thus far, only about 200 people have applied for the neat, well-constructed homes.
A white official suggests that word of the availability of the houses has not gotten around yet, even though he admits that the government has "gone out of our way" to publicize the housing development.
But there are other possible explanations. One is that the internal government is building unneeded houses -- and is out of step with local needs. For a government struggling to gain credibility, that is an indictment of its political prowess.
Another explanation is that SWAPO has spread the word that anyone moving into the houses will be viewed as a "sellout" -- and dealt with accordingly. And that is an indictment of the South African military effort.
Whatever the reasons, the houses at Oshakati stand empty -- and curiously out of place -- on the sandy stretches here in northern Namibia.Soldiers routinely pass near them as they begin nights of patrolling, laying ambushes, and scouting an evasive enemy.
How much longer will those figures in olive brown be fighting a war in Namibia? Moreover, who will eventually win the political struggle for the territory?
Dr. Viljoen, while admitting that "time, according to the textbooks, is on th e side of the insurgents," says that another nine months to a year of "effective action" by the internal government would enhance its chances of winning an eventual election.
But no one knows whether an election will be held even then.
"It seems like this process is going on ad infinitum. And in the meantime, our people are suffering," says DTA vice-chairman Dr. Benjamin Africa.
And Mr. Shipanga warns, "If there is no solution soon, this country is headed for disaster. We don't have [much of] a population to speak of, and every day, more lives are being lost."