Democracy Takes Root in Namibia

Although facing economic challenges, the nation has a working parliamentary process

SIX months after independence, Namibia's new leaders are honoring their pledges to support multiparty democracy and free enterprise. But they are also finding that expectations aroused by freedom are tough to fulfill. ``The government is abiding by the Constitution and is clearly committed to multiparty democracy,'' says Dirk Mudge, a leading opponent of the ruling South West African People's Organization (SWAPO) government.

``But there is not much it can do to show tangible fruits of independence in the short term,'' says Mr. Mudge, chairman of the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA). The alliance, at 21 seats, is the biggest opposition group in the 72-seat National Assembly.

The government has honored its commitment to freedom of the press, acted to curb human-rights violations by former SWAPO guerrillas, and bolstered the parliamentary process by promoting multiparty consensus on sensitive issues.

But workers, former guerrillas, and radical youth are becoming frustrated that SWAPO has failed to meet promises of more land and jobs, as well as better water supplies, education, and health services.

``Other than the brightly colored flag, there is very little to distinguish the old South-West Africa from the new Namibia,'' concedes a Western diplomat.

President Sam Nujoma, whose stature as a symbol of national unity has grown during Namibia's first six months, has committed the country to a policy of reconciliation.

``Our government has adopted a policy of national reconciliation and unity and extended a hand of friendship to the whites,'' Mr. Nujoma told the Monitor. ``We have succeeded in implementing this policy. ... You can see people going about their normal business in the streets. ... Everyone is happy and the business community supports the policy of national reconciliation,'' he says.

The streets of Windhoek, the capital, are bustling and a trendy new shopping center was recently opened by Nujoma.

He has been actively courting the white business community. On the streets, there are few soldiers or armed policemen to be seen, and a relaxed atmosphere pervades the capital city.

``We are encouraging all levels of investment in a free market economy,'' says Nujoma. ``Our Constitution guarantees a multiparty system. But it has not been easy because of many years of racial hatred and mistrust.''

On Sept. 2, six white men were arrested after large quantities of arms were found in several Windhoek homes. But Nujoma says he does not suspect any organized attempt by the South African government to destabilize Namibia.

``Our government fully supports President [Frederik] De Klerk's reforms and we hope that negotiations between the African National Congress and the government will succeed,'' Nujoma says.

Before the national elections last November in which SWAPO won 56 percent of the vote, campaign rhetoric about the redistribution of land and the nationalization of industry created expectations among rank-and-file SWAPO supporters.

But subsequent deliberations in a multiparty Constituent Assembly led to the new Namibia adopting one of the most democratic constitutions in Africa. And while the government is committed to equality in health care and education, talk of state control of industry and land redistribution has all but evaporated.

There is also a growing consensus among senior SWAPO officials, businessmen, and diplomats that producing material benefits via the free market is going to be slow and unspectacular.

The exchange of informal diplomatic representatives with South Africa and the waiving of visa requirements with that country indicate the new government's pragmatic approach.

Business activity is down from last year's levels, but Namibia's 75,000 or so whites, who control much of the nation's economy, are generally relieved that the transition has gone smoothly and that socialist rhetoric has receded. Nujoma says the country's first priority is the creation of jobs through both private investment and the state sector to absorb the many returned exiles, displaced people, and former SWAPO guerrilla fighters.

``Although it may look to some people as though not much is being done to bring about socioeconomic change and to consolidate peace and security - the fact is that the implementation of the government's development plans will soon be visible,'' Nujoma says.

Given the withdrawal of South Africa's $120 million annual contribution to the budget, Namibia's limited prospects for foreign budgetary aid, and its inherited debts of some $280 million, short-term prospects for the Namibian economy do not look promising.

Without its own money supply, Namibian interest and inflation rates are governed by prevailing South African rates. Namibia has established its own central bank and recently began acquiring foreign reserves. But plans to establish its own currency are at least two years away.

A genuine sense of independence will be elusive until South Africa's control of the country's only deep-water port at Walvis Bay is resolved.

The return of some 40,000 Namibian exiles and the demobilization of some 30,000 former guerrillas and soldiers have pushed the unemployment rate close to 40 percent. This has led to an upsurge of crime.

Recent global events have also worked against Namibia. Namibia's pre-independence election coincided with sweeping changes in Eastern Europe that resulted in prospective West European donors shifting their priorities.

Current donor pledges to Namibia for 1990/91 fall short of Pretoria's suspended contribution to the national budget. ``The Namibian government could find itself in serious financial difficulties by the end of this year,'' says DTA chairman Mudge.

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