Namibia: a land of diamonds and Bushmen

American government officials are saying that early in the new year there could be serious talks to move one of the most fascinating places on earth toward independence or nationhood.

That place is Namibia, which is the name the United Nations has given to South-West Africa. As the last name suggests, Namibia is in the southwest corner of Africa just above South Africa, which is at the very southern tip of Africa.

Namibia is famous to anthropologists - experts who study the origins and customs of people - because it is one of the few remaining homes of the Hottentots and Bushmen, whose numbers are shrinking. Both these peoples are survivors from the Stone Age and therefore represent one of the oldest tribes on earth.

They were the original inhabitants of South Africa, which controls Namibia. They were there even before the Bantu - the black peoples of southern Africa - who moved southward and clashed with the white settlers from Europe who first settled in South Africa and who had begun trekking northward.

The customs of the Hottentots and the Bushmen, whose skins are wrinkled like parchment from generations of living outdoors in the hot sun, remain very primitive. The Bushmen, for instance, continue to cut the wood from the kokerboomm (quiver tree) to make the quivers for the poison arrows that they use to hunt animals.

Namibia has other claims to fame. The Etosha Game Reserve is the largest game reserve in the world. It is twice the size of Switzerland.

Yet the terrain around the game reserve is not typical of what Namibia looks like. Much of Namibia is desert. The word Namibia, in fact, comes from the Namib Desert, which occupies most of Namibia. But there is also the Kalahari Desert, the last stronghold of the Bushmen. It is partly in Namibia and partly in neighboring Botswana.

There is so much desert in Namibia that some people say it has the finest sand on earth.

What is important about that sand, though, is not what is above the sand but below it.

Namibia, for all its barren appearance, is rich in minerals. Namibia is one of the largest producers of diamonds in the world. The diamonds were formed thousands of years ago on a gravel bed that lies well below the surface. The world's largest bulldozers remove the massive sand dunes so the diamonds can be excavated.

Namibia is also one of the largest producers of uranium in the world. Uranium is used in the nuclear industry. The world's largest uranium mine, the Rossing Mine, is here.

Namibia can also boast the small town of Tsumeb. No fewer than 10 important metals are mined in this vicinity.

Diplomats say it is because of all these treasures that South Africa has been unwilling to give up this territory and let the 1 million inhabitants - mostly of blacks, about 100,000 whites, and a scattering of Bushmen and Hottentots - rule it as a sovereign state.

But this land is also valuable to South Africa as a buffer, or protection, against African countries from the north that are hostile to the South African government in Pretoria. One of these governments is Angola, north of Namibia. It has allowed African guerrillas from Namibia, called SWAPO (South-West African People's Organization), to set up bases there.

The South Africans don't like it and from time to time have attacked the bases in Angola. Angola, in turn, because it said it was too weak to stand up to these attacks, allows more than 20,000 Cubans to stay on its soil to help defend their territory.

Since the Cubans are good friends of the Soviets, whom the South Africans think want to take their country, the South Africans have become just as worried about the Cubans in Angola as they are about the Namibian guerrillas there.

The world community is involved in this struggle, since the United Nations said in 1966 that South Africa had no business being there and that their occupation of the land was therefore illegal.

South Africa got there in the first place because during World War I South-West Africa, as it was then called, was a colony of Germany. Since South Africa was on the side of Britain and the United States against Germany in that war, South African troops entered South-West Africa, defeated the Germans there, and were allowed under international law to look after the territory. That was in 1920.

The international community turned against South Africa largely because of South Africa's policy of apartheid, or segregation, which keeps black and white people apart. This was introduced as a law instead of a custom in 1948. This increased the pressure at the UN to make South Africa give up its control or mandate over the territory.

The United States and several other West European countries are now working on ways to encourage both the South Africans and the Cubans to pull back their forces. This would help a difficult process which would let South Africa give independence to Namibia without feeling that the people of that new independent state would turn against them by attacking them across the border.

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