The recent large-scale South African incursions into Angola, aimed at eradicating guerrillas from neighboring Namibia (South-West Africa), underscore the increasingly bitter conflict over the political fate of the disputed mineral-rich territory.
But hearings here last week serve as a reminder that the conflict is largely a struggle for strategic natural resources. Control over natural resources is a major bone of contention between the industrialized nations and the developing third world.
Namibia, twice the size of California with a population of about 1 million, has a star-studded list of resources -- diamonds, copper, zinc, lead, tin, possibly oil, but most important, large uranium reserves.
"The right of self-determination is empty and hollow unless the larger question of economic self-determination is addressed," says Theo-Ben Gurirab, United Nations representative of the South-West Africa Peoples Organization (SWAPO), which is waging a guerrilla war in Namibia. "Above all ours is a struggle about natural resources."
Namibia is officially under the jurisdiction of the UN, and the South African presence has been judged illegal by the International Court of Justice at the Hague, the world's highest court. Last week's hearings held by the UN Council for Namibia focused on the controversial issue of exploiting the territory's uranium deposits at the Rossing mine, the world's largest open-pit uranium mine.
UN Decree No. 1, adopted by the General Assembly in 1974, bans the production , purchase, or export of Namibian resources without the permission of the council, which functions as the trustee of the territory until it gains independence. Western efforts to negotiate a settlement between South Africa and SWAPO are presently stalemated.
Despite the dispute over the territory, however, a number of Western governments and multinational corporation continue to exploit Namibia's resources under license from South Africa. The Rossing mine contains most of the territory's sizable reserves. It is operated by a consortium of Western and South African firms led by the British conglomerate Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ).
The mine supplies about 50 percent of Britain's uranium, recently reaching full production of 5,000 tons a year. Although neither the firm nor South Africa publish such statistics, experts estimated that Rossing's total reserves are in the range of 220,000 tons. The mine produces some 16 percent of the uranium consumed by the Western industrialized nations.
The exhaustive hearings examined the various aspects of the exploitation of Namibia's uranium: ownership and profits, taxes and revenues paid to South Africa, export routes, the relationship to South Africa's nuclear development program, and health and safety conditions of the 1,500 African workers at the mine.
Although RTZ has the larges share in the venture, 46.5 percent, French, West German, Dutch, and South African state-owned companies are all partners. RTZ officials were invited to participate in the hearings but refused, citing the British government's position of not abiding by the UN decree as their reason.
Britain was red-faced after a television documentary revealed the complicated route by which uranium was flown on French and South African jets to Paris and then taken overland to various European destinations. Since the expose, the route has been altered, and testimony here suggests that uranium has been flown over Nigerian and Algerian airspace, much to the chagrin of those countries' delegates who are strong opponents of South Africa.
A number of US firms are also involved in Namibian mining, primarily copper and other metals. They include Newmont Mining and American Metals Climax. Testimony also disclosed that the Texas-based Superior Oil Company is drilling for oil in northern Namibia. Several firms are prospecting for uranium. British economist Roger Murray says there are three or four sites that may be producing uranium within the next five years. That would perhaps double total reserves to over 400,000 tons, dwarfing South Africa. Dr. Ann Seidman of Clark University noted that "Namibia's uranium is vital to South Africa's nuclear development program." Dr. Seidman argued that particularly in the case of South Africa, "There is no such thing as peaceful nuclear development."
South Africa is considered at least a threshold nuclear power and is suspected of having secretly tested a nuclear device last September, which the Carter administration has been investigating.Nuclear cooperation is not presently included in the arms embargo against South Africa.
The purpose of the week-long exercise was to compile data to assess the damage to Namibia resulting from what the UN deems illegal use of its resources. This may partially serve as the basis for an independent Namibian government to make claims against a number of corporation and governments.
Although testimony centered around the illegal actions of Western corporations and governments, the Soviet Union was also accused of enriching uranium originating from Namibia for a West German firm. Mr. Guriarab, a key member of SWAPO's central committee, explained that the hearings should "serve as a warning to these multinational corporations." SWAPO's central committee recently decided to pursue claims for damages inflicted in violation of UN resolutions banning such activity.
Mr. Gurirab noted that SWAPO, backed by the OAU and the UN as the "sole legitimate representative of the Namibian people," will claim damages retroactively.
As a result of the hearings, moves by the UN General Assembly and Security Council are expected at the next session in September. The results may affect a key future energy resource for the West.