THEY came from all corners of this parched desert land to hear Sam Nujoma, who has embodied their struggle for independence for nearly three decades. Hours before the leader of Namibia's liberation movement arrived at the modern stadium, it was packed with a sea of eager black faces. Some 45,000 people were wearing the distinctive blue, red, and green colors of the group favored to win in the independence election to be held the week of Nov. 7-12.
Many carried bright umbrellas in the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) colors to shelter them from the blistering sun. Others held aloft posters or massive banners displaying their support for SWAPO and welcoming home their leader, described by his colleagues as ``the president-in-waiting of Namibia.''
It was the biggest political rally this sparsely populated territory had ever seen - a massive display of support for the guerrilla group that has never faltered in its resistance to South African rule.
``For the last 29 years of its existence,'' boomed Mr. Nujoma's voice from a state-of-the-art public address system. ``SWAPO has stood firm where others have wavered. It has stood fast and sacrificed for the liberation of Namibia where others have compromised.''
Nujoma then stopped to allow four interpreters to translate his message from English into four of Namibia's dozen or so languages. Most Namibians understand Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch-descended settlers who have dominated the administration of this territory for the past quarter of a century.
But SWAPO is sensitive to its close identity with the dominant Ovambo tribe, which accounts for just over half of the 1.2 million population. As a show of national unity, it follows the tedious ritual of translating its leaders' messages into several tribal languages as well as Afrikaans, still seen as the language of the oppressor.
For the first time since SWAPO leaders returned to Namibia several months ago, the leaders of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) - SWAPO's military wing - were paraded in public. PLAN commander, Dimo Aamambo, and SWAPO Defense Secretary Peter Mueshihange received a special welcome.
There was less enthusiasm for the brief introduction given to Solomon Hauala, PLAN's deputy commander, who has been branded the ``butcher of Lubango'' by several hundred former SWAPO detainees. They claim they were wrongfully detained and tortured in prison camps near Lubango in Angola and in Zambia.
But it was not a day for recriminations - rather one for celebration of the correctness of the struggle and the 23-year-old bush war waged by PLAN guerrillas against the powerful South African security forces.
``It was not too easy to take the decision to wage a war against so powerful an enemy as South Africa,'' said Nujoma, whose image was magnified on a huge video screen behind him.
``The signing of the cease-fire earlier this year was a clear vindication of the correctness, the legitimacy, and the effectiveness of the armed struggle.''
With armed struggle now behind SWAPO, Nujoma turned in his speech to national reconciliation and unity, and to the need for economic reconstruction to provide unemployed Namibians with jobs.
``We will work hard to heal the deep wounds the war has inflicted on our society,'' said Nujoma. ``SWAPO does not seek to rule Namibia alone. We will seek the popular support of others in formulating and implementing our policies.''
Nujoma steered a careful course between responding to expectations of black Namibians by promising redistribution of wealth, on the one hand, and placating nervous whites, by committing to upholding human rights and creating incentives for foreign investors.
``SWAPO is committed to a mixed economy and a policy of land reform,'' said Nujoma, tempering the fiery socialist rhetoric of the past. In an apparent bid to allay white fears, Nujoma promised that SWAPO would not impose a one-party political system on Namibians against their will.
He struck a conciliatory note when referring to developments in South Africa under the newly elected President Frederik de Klerk: ``We are glad to hear that Mr. de Klerk will work hard to bring change in South Africa. We hope he will work to scrap apartheid and to keep his promises so that security and prosperity for the whole region can be guaranteed.''
Ironically, by the time he reached the most important section of his speech half the audience had had to leave to catch trains to remote parts of the country.