Namibia Eschews Intolerance

NAMIBIA prides itself on official reconciliation. Three years after independence, the one-time virtual colony of South Africa still provides lessons for its much more complex neighbor.

Overt friction between whites and blacks in Namibia is noticeably absent. Indeed, Afrikaners still staff the civil service, control substantial sectors of commerce, and dominate commercial farming. Whites also serve in the cabinet of the government of Namibia.

Early last month hundreds of white farmers - their ire raised by proposed increased taxes on cattle - disrupted traffic in downtown Windhoek, Namibia's capital. Then they marched on State House.

President Sam Nujoma, once the "devil incarnate" of South African depiction, calmly received the farmers' petition and thanked them for their concern.

Few African countries would have tolerated such white-led protests. Few black presidents would have reacted with equanimity. There were no outcries from members of the cabinet or the ruling Southwest African People's Organization (SWAPO) party. The farmers' protest underlined the workings of Mr. Nujoma's policy of reconciliation.

Despite SWAPO's Marxist rhetoric before independence, its determination to redress the grievances of 65 years of South African misrule, and the remaining social and economic inequalities between Namibian blacks and whites, the government has operated pragmatically.

Nujoma and Prime Minister Hage Gottfried Geingob appreciate Namibia's fragile economic position, dependent as it is on the production of a South African-controlled diamond mining operation, on fishing projects that will require outside investment, and on the maintenance of the white-dominated cattle and sheep industry.

The sanctity of private investment and civil service tenure are protected in Namibia's decidedly liberal constitution, and discrimination on the basis of color or creed is prohibited. Nujoma is clearly in command, but not all decisions are handed down by him. The cabinet debates policies vigorously, as does Namibia's parliament.

Namibia is not perfect. There is a growing sense of corruption, minor by the standards of Nigeria and white South Africa, but disturbing in a comparatively chaste and impoverished country like Namibia.

The auditor general recently reported that the government had paid the ruling party large sums for fictitious war material. The presidential guard over-invoiced for hotel rooms and meals. Nurses claimed pay for thousands of hours never worked. There are rumors of kickbacks to politicians.

Even so, alleged corruption, complaints about the government's failure to develop the populous north of the country rapidly, worries about lack of progress in the educational sphere, and a rise in crime rates are accusations that shade rather than dim Namibia's steady growth as an oasis of sensibly managed political and social adjustment in Africa.

It is too soon to decide whether Namibia, a land defined by fragile deserts and areas of striking national beauty, will restrain the pressures of people and animals on its ecology. Much-needed reforestation is in its infancy, and the big battles over the environment are not yet won, if even openly joined.

Namibia is a nation of only 1.5 million people. Fewer than 100,000 are white or of mixed parentage. South Africa's 40 million include 8 million whites, Asians, and Coloreds.

About 65 percent of Namibia's people are Ovambo, whereas no African group in South Africa is as dominant. Thus, Namibia is a beacon of sane light on South Africa's western flank, showing what can be achieved in a pluralistic and once bitterly-divided society.

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