THE new nation of Namibia is trying hard to become a model democratic state on a continent where democracy is rare. Its leaders are determined to govern well, to curtail their natural antagonism to South Africa, Namibia's colonial ruler, and to tolerate political and press criticism. Namibia, a largely desert land twice the size of California with about 1.7 million people, is only 10 months old. But its leaders seem intent on breaking new democratic ground instead of settling old scores left over from 106 years of colonialism and a 24-year civil war.
The government emphasizes reconciliation and national unity. It has retained South African civil servants, formed a new appeal court headed by a white, German-speaking Namibian, and attempted to dampen expectations of radical economic and social change.
President Sam Nujoma and his SWAPO (South West Africa People's Organization) followers control only 57 of the 100 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. Later this year regional elections will indirectly select members of the country's upper house of parliament. The Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) and other opposition parties might win some of the regions and thus influence the composition of the upper house.
SWAPO must thus exercise a caution that belies its original Marxist fervor. Even so, the SWAPO government's actions and the pronouncements of its cabinet leaders focus on a modern, free-market future rather than the rhetoric of a revolutionary past.
The ruling party and cabinet ministers are primarily intent on accelerating economic development - on what President Nujoma calls the fight against poverty. Per capita incomes in the heavily populated northern section of the country, where 65 percent of the people live, are only about $1,000 a year.
The fight against poverty is slowly gathering strength. Next month Namibia will attempt to woo foreign investors at an international trade and industry meeting in Windhoek, the capital. Unlike several of its southern African allies, Namibia still accepts the sanctity of private property and understands that private foreign investment is the key to African development in the 1990s.
Namibia's assets include rich fishing grounds, at last protected by a 200-mile exclusive zone. (In a daring maneuver, Namibia recently used rented helicopters to swoop down on poaching Spanish trawlers, arresting captains and crews.) A British firm plans to grow sugar cane in the Caprivi Strip and President Nujoma hopes to encourage others to help Namibians grow new varieties of maize and sorghum in the comparatively well-watered north.
The backbone of Namibia's economy are its minerals. Consolidated Diamond Mines, a subsidiary of a Swiss offshoot of South Africa's De Beers, and thus of the giant Anglo-American Corporation, has long harvested the sands near the mouth of the Orange River for gem diamonds. It is about to exploit offshore waters, too, using new ship-mounted harvesting techniques.
The new country's other great asset is uranium, which is dug out of a mountainside by a subsidiary of Britain's RTZ. But an old copper mine at Tsumeb may be exhausted, and a tin mine at Uis recently closed.
Namibia's first gold mine, however, is producing well and a South African firm has apparently found a very rich copper/lead/zinc field in the forlorn northwestern Kaokaoveld. There are rumors, too, of further gold strikes.
Unhappily, the various mines are producing fewer tax revenues than they once did, and Namibia will have lean budgetary times during a period when the government is spending relatively large sums on new cabinet ministries and on expanding and localizing the civil service.
The development of the north will also prove costly. But SWAPO's ethnic roots are there, among the majority Ovambo, where the war took its greatest toll. Fortunately, the South African war effort provided Ovamboland with a modern road system and a comparatively extensive communications network. But the South Africans otherwise did little to uplift the north or to stimulate local small-scale farming or industry.
One of the keys to Namibian development will be national control over Walvis Bay, the country's major harbor. Unfortunately, South Africa still controls the port through 19th-century treaties and boundaries. But Nujoma and his government are quietly confident that the South African government will soon cede the enclave, especially if Namibia continues to steer a moderate and determined course.
The new government of Namibia is not without its local critics. Nujoma's overzealous and modestly trained guard shot and wounded an elderly white before Christmas who was trying to pass a slow official motorcade. The government has wisely agreed to bring the trigger-happy guards to trial.
It is still early in the life of Namibia's new government, based as it is on the foundations of a Soviet-supported guerrilla movement. Cabinet ministers and Nujoma all realize that their mandate is frail, that local whites (essential as they are for short-term economic growth) are wary, and that South Africa and other countries are skeptical of him and his party.
While Namibia is moving forward with determination, it's doing so chastely and slowly.