NELSON MANDELA wasn't the only black southern African leader to visit Washington recently. During the same week the president of newly independent Namibia, Sam Nujoma, also had a chat with President Bush and various influential members of Congress. Mr. Nujoma's purpose was to round up support for a country emerging from a century of colonial control. That history has left Namibia with extremes: large privately owned game reserves and landless peasants, massively exploited mineral resources and human resources wasted by lack of education.
But Namibia's case is far from hopeless. It has a well developed infrastructure of roads and rails (tied, albeit, to South Africa), a reliable income earner in its mines, the potential for thriving tourism, and a corps of young, educated Namibians returning from exile to help build the nation.
It also has a Constitution based on principles of representative government and an independent judiciary. Mose Tjitendero, speaker of the Namibian Parliament, was in the Boston area last week to attend a symposium at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He expressed optimism about his country's new machinery of government. The Parliament, he said, had put together a bill to adequately staff Namibia's sparse public service sector.
The need for better services is tremendous. Unemployment has zoomed as thousands of exiled Namibians return. Agriculture has been neglected, with land concentrated in the hands of a few. For many Africans, housing is abysmal.
The people are impatient to see change, says Mr. Tjitendero. But the government is committed to abide by its constitutional path - which mandates difficult tasks like land reform but requires compensation to present owners.
Namibia is a laboratory for social change under democratic rule. It will need all the help it can get. The US has so far committed a modest $10 million, and other countries have pledged millions as well. Private, nongovernmental organizations can do much in areas like agriculture, where training can help move individual Namibians, along with their country, toward genuine independence.