NAMIBIA, an arid land short on people and resources, is under the international spotlight this week. Its elections, which started yesterday, will test the staying power of the southern Africa peace agreement that linked Cuban withdrawal from Angola to Namibian independence. They will also test the ability of a budget-pinched United Nations to oversee a difficult transition from colony to nationhood. The elections may also give an impulse to changes in neighboring South Africa, which has governed Namibia since the end of World War I. If Namibians demonstrate they can move without excesses of violence and radicalism from white minority rule to a majority government, South Africans intent on scrapping apartheid could be bolstered.
But the lessons for South Africa shouldn't be overstated. With only 1.2 million people, Namibia is an economic backwater. South Africa is a vigorous, complex society of well over 30 million, whose people are diverse in customs, political views, and economic status. The process of change there will have few parallels with Namibia.
That takes nothing away from the importance, or the difficulty, of the task being undertaken by Namibians. Every step of the way, the path toward independence has been beset by violence between longtime enemies. Violations of the agreements governing the elections have been flung about by both the South Africans and the South-West Africa People's Organization, which has fought Pretoria's rule for 23 years.
Just last week South Africa asserted SWAPO guerrillas were infiltrating Namibia from the north - a charge that proved groundless.
In this week's elections, voters will be choosing delegates to a assembly that will frame a new constitution. The main contestants at the polls are SWAPO and the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, a coalition of anti-SWAPO forces. SWAPO is expected to win handily, but it's not clear whether it will gain the two-thirds majority needed to effectively write the constitution itself. The election results are expected to be in a week from today.
Even if it gets the wide margin it seeks, SWAPO will have to cultivate skills of compromise if a newly independent Namibia is to get off to a sound start. SWAPO's leader, Sam Nujoma, has been talking reconciliation lately, and SWAPO officials affirm the importance of embracing the country's 75,000 whites in the work of nation building.
That theme will need to be expanded in the months ahead.