From the 1960s South Africa’s administration of South West Africa (SWA) – now Namibia – threatened to bring it into direct confrontation with the world community. The UN recognised Swapo as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the Namibian people’, and in 1974 the Security Council unanimously asked South Africa to transfer power as soon as possible.
A contact group of major Western powers was established to negotiate with South Africa about handing over power to the indigenous population. South Africa faced extensive sanctions if the matter were not resolved. The Vorster government now accepted the principle of self-determination in SWA, but it also argued that the internal parties (non-Swapo) had the right to spell out its future vision. In September 1975 representatives of all the major parties except Swapo met in the Turnhalle in Windhoek to deliberate on a constitution. In 1977 they agreed on a document that tried to combine ethnic and individual rights. Dirk Mudge, who broke away from the National Party and formed the non-racial Democratic Turnhalle Alliance, played the key role.
In February 1978 the Vorster government committed itself to independence for SWA before the end of 1978, and two months later accepted a plan drawn up by Western powers (United States, Canada, Britain, France and Germany) for a settlement that would be presented to the UN Assembly after all the parties, both internal and external, had agreed. South Africa would remain in control until April 1979, when an election would be held for a government to steer SWA to independence.
Minister of Defence P.W. Botha was a dissenting voice in the cabinet, but he got permission to attack a large Swapo base in Cassinga, Angola, 250 kilometres north of the SWA border. In the battle as many as 600 Swapo fighters and other followers died. After Botha became prime minister he and the military hawks could set the agenda. South Africa pulled out of the UN plan and announced that it would sponsor internal elections in SWA in December 1978. The obvious aim was that of building an internal counter to Swapo.
For the December election in SWA, 78% of the potential electorate and 85% of those registered voted. The Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), a multiracial moderate alliance, emerged as the victor. But, as in the case of the internal election held in Rhodesia in 1979, the international community refused to recognise the election. Swapo had not participated and SouthAfrica had given strong financial backing to the DTA, which had failed to attract any significant support among the Ovambos, the largest ethnic group.
The number of Cuban troops in the region had increased from 14 000 in 1977 to 25 000 by 1983; in addition there were 5 000 military personnel from the Soviet Union and other East Bloc countries. A US delegation led by Judge William Clark visited South Africa in 1981, offering a quid pro quo that South Africa quickly seized. In exchange for South Africa working towards an internationally recognised election in SWA, the conservative Reagan administration in Washington would commit itself to get the Cubans out of the region. The common idea was that South African and Cuban troops would withdraw simultaneouslyand there would be no partisan UN role. Only then would an election be held.
The Botha government continued to attempt to weaken Swapo so that it would disappear as a significant factor in a future election. In successive operations in the early 1980s South African troops established a buffer zone in the southern part of Angola and launched military attacks against Swapo bases. Across the border in Angola, large-scale aid flowed to Unita. With South African assistance it had become an efficient force, controlling large parts of the south and putting the Angolan army under pressure in the central region. Kept far out by a South Africa-controlled zone in the south of Angola, Swapo was unable to infiltrate guerrillas in any significant numbers. But there was no indication of a weakening of the will of either Cuba’s Fidel Castro or the Swapo leadership, or a wavering of Swapo support.
Through providing veterinary services, drilling boreholes, building clinics and other ‘hearts-and-minds’ operations, the South African troops tried to win the support of the population in Ovamboland. Some observers considered it ‘one of the most successful counter-insurgency campaigns in history’ undertaken by a military force. But this was undercut by Koevoet (‘Crowbar’), a special counter-insurgency unit operating as part of the police force, which developed a frightening reputation for cruelty and ruthlessness in capturing and killing Swapo guerrillas.