THE true test of victorious nationalism comes when it is time to govern, and transform slogans into action. In Namibia, where the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO) won a national election earlier this month, the rhetoric of revolution is being tried severely. SWAPO's 57.3 percent poll gave it a decisive but not overwhelming triumph in the contest for seats in a 72-member constituent assembly. SWAPO had predicted a 90 percent vote in its favor, and knowledgeable observers had forecast that it would get at least 70 percent of the votes.
A two-thirds majority in the assembly will be necessary for passage of articles in Namibia's constitution, which will be written by the newly elected delegates. SWAPO now must work with its main opposition, the white-led Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), and five smaller parties to obtain the legislative arrangements it prefers and to lead Namibia to independence.
The DTA and the smaller parties - the United Democratic Front (UDF), the right-wing white Action Christian National party, the Federal Convention, and the National Patriotic Front - all campaigned against SWAPO. They fear its long devotion to Marxism, and its threats to nationalize private property. Above all, the DTA and the others represent Namibia's many minorities.
SWAPO is the party of the majority Ovambo, the people of the densely populated, well-watered, northern fringe of Namibia. SWAPO took 95 percent of the votes in Ovamboland, and also polled very well among the neighboring Kavango. The Ovambo represent about 60 percent of Namibia's 1.4 million people, its main farmers, and its mine labor force. Sam Nujoma, SWAPO's longtime leader, is an Ovambo. While prominent members of the Herero, Damara, and Nama ethnic groups have long been associated with SWAPO's nationalism, SWAPO gained many fewer votes than expected among these groups.
SWAPO holds 41 of the 72 assembly seats, the DTA 21, the UDF 4, Action 3, and the other two 1 each. In order to achieve the kind of majority rule to which SWAPO aspires, Mr. Nujoma and his colleagues will have to seek successful compromise with Dirk Mudge, the Afrikaner farmer who leads the DTA, and with several ex-SWAPO politicians who run the smaller parties.
Those compromises will provide the basis for Namibia's first government, probably sometime after April, 1990. The DTA and the others in opposition will, in turn, seek ways to entrench minority vetos and other anti-Ovambo legislative devices.
Mr. Nujoma, who never finished high school and worked on the South African railways before leading SWAPO in exile, has promised not to impose SWAPO's will on others. His party probably prefers a one-party state, but Mr. Nujoma says that must be the ``wish of the people.'' He has also extended the hand of reconciliation to whites. They number only 75,000, but the surprising success of the DTA and of the Action party, as well as their leading economic role, gives them renewed hope.
Most important of all, Mr. Nujoma accepted the need for a bill of rights. If SWAPO and the other groups in the assembly can agree on a strong set of provisions along the lines of the amendments to the US Constitution, and give review powers to a strong judicial branch, then Namibia might move to and beyond independence with confidence.
SWAPO probably will want the new constitution to reflect its view that Namibia is potentially rich, and that the commanding heights of the economy should be controlled by the state. The other parties will not see it that way, and SWAPO's socialism may have to give way before a shrinking tax base, lowered mineral sales, and expenditures that outrun revenues.
South Africa has been subsidizing Namibia's budget, and SWAPO will find it uncomfortable to continue depending on its enemy and equally uncomfortable doing without. In an era when the Soviets are retreating from Africa, SWAPO may be compelled to make difficult choices. Doing so will be the test of Mr. Nujoma and his colleagues, and of the maturity of a nationalist force confronting the realities of constitution making and governing.