Namibia: an African Success Story - So Far

NAMIBIA works. After two years of independence, Namibia remains a functioning, multiracial democracy with an active opposition, vigorous free press, and a national spirit of reconciliation.

Not every African country can boast such success. None can claim as liberal a constitution. Although South Africa's long rule of Namibia ended in 1990, even those whites who bitterly opposed majority rule, and fought it, say they are pleasantly surprised at the cautious, progressive state that Namibia has become.

The country is the size of two Californias, but with a population of only 1.5 million. Within that population there are numerous languages, and whites and Africans slip easily, sometimes in a single sentence, into English, Afrikaans, German, Herero, or Ovambo. Nearly 70 percent of the total population are Ovambo, who live in a narrow belt of northern territory. Only 75,000 of the total population are whites.

Not all the trains run on time. Businessmen say the home affairs ministry is quite slow to issue work permits, residence permits, and passports. The foreign affairs ministry is branded inefficient.

The lower court system has been in shambles with the high court regularly overturning the judgments of new magistrates. But the government has retrained its staff and is working hard to bolster its judicial reputation.

The labor scene is also unsettling. Despite 50 percent unemployment, there are many strikes for better pay. Some industries have retaliated by dismissing their work forces, and there has been serious industrial strife and violence.

But rural roads are being constructed, telephones are being repaired, and Air Namibia has launched flights to Europe.

Namibians credit Sam Nujoma, the former Marxist guerrilla leader turned responsible president, for encouraging, even demanding, evenhanded justice, ethnic neutrality, and good government. He has been joined in such example-setting by Prime Minister Hage Geingob and by many of his Cabinet ministers.

President Nujoma has slowed down his motorcades which used to rush at high speed through Windhoek, the capital. He has largely eschewed pomp, unlike a few of his ministers, and he stays in Africa more than they do.

But Nujoma recently aroused the ire of foreign embassies and many citizens by insisting on the purchase of a $25 million presidential jet from France. Less expensive alternatives were available. Demanding the jet seems out of character and observers hope it was the exceptional extravagance that proves a positive rule.

Buying the jet could not have come at a less auspicious time, symbolically and actually. Namibia's economy is weaker than ever. The worst drought in 30 years has destroyed the subsistence agriculture and the grazing of cattle and sheep on which most Namibians depend.

The fishing industry is reviving, but slowly, thanks to continued poaching by Spanish and other trawlers. Because of the doldrums of the atomic power industry, uranium oxide prices are at rock bottom. Namibia's large mine production facility has cut its output in half. Copper, lead, and zinc prices are low and no longer contribute much to Namibia's tax revenues or balance of payments position.

Only diamonds sparkle. Consolidated Diamond Mines, owned by the Anglo American Corporation of South Africa, is the largest private employer (6,000 employees) and the largest industrial contributor to the nation's tax base. Negotiations begin in August, however, between the company and the government about transferring part-ownership to Namibia.

Namibia's recently announced national budget relies to a large extent on foreign aid and borrowing. The resignation earlier this year of the country's first minister of finance was in part a reflection of his ministry's concern over too rapid growth in state expenditures. A major complaint is the bloated size of the civil service. About 55 percent of all Namibian employment is in the government sector.

Namibia is not without its continuing problems. There have been cases of corruption and rumors of more. Inflation is running at about 20 percent a year and crime is rife and escalating. But, overall, the report card shows good grades.

Considering the immense difficulty of creating a national melange of peoples accustomed to South Africa's domestic colonialism, Namibia has done exceptionally well. Considering, too, that independence coincided with economic downturns and now a dearth of rainfall, Namibia should receive much praise.

The white leader of the political opposition is enjoying being in opposition and keeping the government on its toes. A strong and not beleaguered opposition, debate within Nujoma's government, and the successful exchange of oppression and apartheid for genuine freedom - all count well.

Prosperity for all Namibians may come later, and only with difficulty. For now, Namibia ranks among the African success stories.

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