Africa's `dirty little secret'. The grim reality behind the war in Namibia

Namibia: The Violent Heritage, by David Soggot. London: Rex Collins. 333 pp. 17.50. BRUTALLY colonized by Germany and ruled by South Africa since the end of World War I, Namibia - or South-West Africa as Pretoria calls it - is a territory twice the size of California with almost 1.5 million inhabitants. Wedged between Angola and South Africa, it has been the scene of a 20-year conflict bloodier than ``the troubles'' of Northern Ireland, a land of approximately the same population that has been fighting for roughly the same period of time.

Ulster's war has claimed 2,600 lives over the last two decades. Applied proportionally to the United States, that would be a death rate of 400,000, nearly the level of destruction of the US Civil War. The outgoing commanding officer of the South-West Africa Territorial Force, Maj. Gen. Georg Meiring, recently confirmed that the carnage in Namibia was six times larger. Security forces have killed 10,260 ``enemy forces'' or guerrillas of the South-West African People's Organization (SWAPO) fighting for independence from bases in Angola, in addition to the deaths of 1,379 civilians and 605 security personnel.

This little-known territory has been the center of diplomatic activity for years. It was the cornerstone of US Africa policy during the first term of the Reagan administration, when an attempt was made to link a negotiated settlement to the removal of Cuban troops from Angola. This idea was flawed from the start, but it collapsed formally when Washington decided to supply arms to South African-backed antigovernment rebels in Angola. The war in Namibia has spread inexorably to Angola, where it will be further fueled by the regional ambitions of South Africa and the global rivalries of the great powers.

Today, the ravages of the conflict are a sideshow in the array of southern African wars and rebellions. Bypassed by the news media in preference to the drama now being played out in apartheid's heartland, Namibia is like a dirty little secret that no one wants to hear about because it has been relegated to the back burner of diplomatic priorities and seems far from resolution. But David Soggot, a defense attorney who represented many of the main participants in the conflict, exposes the grim reality in a rigorously detailed account from the time of German occupation to the mid-1980s.

Mr. Soggot describes Namibia as a social laboratory of apartheid, a testing ground for military and counterinsurgency techniques and an experiment in social engineering with amended race laws aimed at piecemeal reforms - all in a society whose white population is uniquely affected by pro-Nazi Aryan pride and Afrikaner certainty.

Flesh and bones are put on a historical narrative that is rendered from the point of view of Namibian nationalists.

Of particular note is his treatment of the central role of the Lutheran, Anglican, and Roman Catholic churches, many of whose ministers and priests have been victims of imprisonment, torture, and exile. ``The Bible,'' he writes, ``became the Magna Carta for a new humanity.'' The churches have been the third element in the nationalists' strategic triad, along with SWAPO (the political arm) and PLAN (the military wing).

Soggot dissects the role of the courts in a repressive state. He meticulously records his small victories - and more often recounts his losses and setbacks. Individual experiences of defendants brought before the courts are scrupulously chronicled with lawyerly precision, including interrogational nightmares in which the authorities are alleged to have beat detainees unconscious, applied electric shocks to them, and to have suspended victims by their arms until they passed out. These - and other, more chilling cases - appear to have made many detainees only more determined to resist the authorities' efforts.

The book describes how the authorities try to win over dissidents or cause division within their ranks. This is done, Soggot says, not only by torture but with financial enticements, promises of power, the use of vigilantes, personal attacks on ``meddling'' priests, death squads, the encouragement of brutal tribal law, and the desecration of the dead. According to Soggot, the latter includes the practice of dragging the bodies of guerrillas through villages behind vehicles - a tactic that only serves to inspire in the civilian population a sense of solidarity with the dead.

This book provides invaluable data on Namibia. Beyond that, it offers insights into the psychology of interrogation and political trials. Soggot argues that the purpose of ruthlessness is not solely to elicit information but to deter the innocent.

``The entire process,'' he concludes, should ``be viewed as an inquisitional procedure designed through widespread and indiscriminate use, to produce re-education through fear'' without the knowledge and awareness of ordinary whites. Secrecy is essential to preserve the fa,cade of legality. ``What was at stake was not simply the image of a law-enforcing organism but the moral image of South African whites.''

Soggot does not give much cause for optimism that the brutality will soon end. After a white soldier deserted in 1976 and gave an account of army practices, Namibian church leaders prepared a mountain of accumulated data and testimony, corroborated by medical and legal examination, in order to challenge the authorities with irrefutable evidence of criminal torture in a Nuremberg-style hearing that could shake the somnolent white population out of its political stupor. In the end, the church leaders decided not to go forward, fearing an intense legal battle in which witnesses would be intimidated and punished.

On the political front, Soggot is no more hopeful. In his view, Namibia is ``Africa's hinge of fate,'' a proxy struggle for South Africa's survival. Hostage to larger and more powerful forces, Namibia remains hidden from the world's scrutiny.

Soggot's analysis is essential reading for those who want to complete the record and peer into the morass.

Pauline H. Baker is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

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