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Contrary to all the propaganda, Namibia’s SWAPO was a moderate Pan-Africanist party with close links to imperialism – especially the United States. This peasant-based party had a leadership that was uninterested in a determined armed struggle or the internal mobilisation of the Namibian working class. Its legacy in independent Namibia is appalling.

A peculiar feature of contemporary Namibia is that – for the past 26 years - not a single member of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) has been awarded a medal of bravery for the battle of Cuito Cuanavale (December 1987-March 1988). This is especially unusual as SWAPO’s political legitimacy derives mainly from their claim to have liberated the country at this skirmish. In fact, zero SWAPO casualties were recorded at this historic incident. So it is vital to revisit the events around Cuito and to ascertain what exactly the role of SWAPO fighters was in that momentous occasion. There is generally a deafening silence inside Namibia about what was apparently the key clash for the political independence of the country.

Cuito Cuanavale

At the primary battle site at Cuito, thousands of ‘white’ South African Defence Force (SADF) soldiers were trapped, but there were no SWAPO combatants at that location. At the second (western) position, Cuban, Angolan and Namibian fighters marched towards the Angolan-Namibian border. The Cuban army did not strike the surrounded apartheid troops at the principal spot, but decided to consult with the Angolan president, who in turn contacted the White House.

Referring to the encounter, Fidel Castro [1] averred that ‘…while the South African troops were being slowly bled dry in Cuito Cuanavale, down in the south-west 40 000 Cuban soldiers, 30 000 Angolan troops and some 3 000 Namibian guerrilla fighters from SWAPO… advanced towards the Namibian border…’ The Cuban leader’s reference to ‘being slowly bled dry’ – rather than ‘being attacked’ – is instructive. Likewise, the most comprehensive description of the confrontation at Cuito – written by Cuban professor, Piero Gleijeses [2] - does not mention a single word about skirmishing by the SWAPO combatants, but only praises them for their courage as they marched every night through Angola’s Cunene Province on the western front towards the border of Namibia. This military force in south-western Angola consisted of mixed battalions and it was indeed the first time that SWAPO participated in such a large-scale operation with the Cubans. For the sake of posterity, it should be pointed out that these SWAPO fighters – despite that organisation’s armed propaganda - did not directly engage the SADF and failed to shoot one bullet at Cuito. 

Cuito was undeniably a defensive victory or, in Gramscian terms, a war of manoeuvre, of the Cuban people who were able to project power on the ground by moving such a large number of soldiers close to the Namibian border. The Cubans dominated the airspace, but were reluctant to cross the borderline as they were concerned that the SADF could use nuclear weapons against them – a very real issue which was indeed deliberated on within the apartheid military and which significantly divided the SADF generals.

Pretoria comprehended that it could not afford a significant loss of lives since a large number of their ‘white’ troops were encircled at the focal battle field at Cuito. Denis Herbstein and John Evenson [3] maintained that: ‘Caught by surprise, SADF units withdrew, leaving their 4 000 colleagues outflanked, bogged down by heavy rains, without the means to escape by helicopter from the proximity of Cuito’. The number of casualties of ‘white’ SADF soldiers could have been much higher if a deal was not made behind the scenes. In the end, a total of 31 ‘white’ SADF troopers died at Cuito, but the real cannon fodder for the SADF were the 3 000 UNITA soldiers who succumbed. On the anti-colonial side, 39 Cubans and 4 500 Angolan armed forces perished. But in the final analysis, the SADF was hounded out of Angola and the authority of the apartheid army was in tatters.

Anecdotal evidence [4] suggests that the US military was going to fly soldiers to northern Namibia when it became clear that the SADF was ensnared. Engines of US army planes were already switched on and soldiers had been provided with penicillin – so they knew that it was not a mere military exercise – when word came from the White House at the last minute that they should stay. It appears that some consensus was reached when Angolan president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, apparently telephoned the White House, probably to speak to Chester Crocker. In this sense, it is crucial to dispel the myth of a military stalemate that has been put forth by the erstwhile apartheid soldiers. The assessment by former Soviet soldiers [5] is spot-on when they declare that: ‘The failure of the South African offensive near Cuito Cuanavale and the appearance of units of the Cuban forces at the Namibian border forced the South African government to call off its military actions and to begin to negotiate’. Nonetheless, the chief objective of US diplomacy was to get the Cubans out of Angola and to partition that country – with the southern part becoming self-governing under a Jonas Savimbi government. Namibian political independence was hardly a priority.

Nevertheless, the defensive victory against the SADF at Cuito should be seen in the wider context as one of many other factors that contributed to the attainment of political autonomy for Namibia and ultimately to the fall of apartheid. The leading consideration was undeniably the economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa. The powerful international anti-apartheid movement in the US was successful in putting pressure on several governments to limit foreign investment in the country.

Secondly, the mass uprising of the South African working class from 1984-86 showed the total loss of credibility of not only apartheid, but also of capitalism - and the possibility of an anti-capitalist revolt. Combined with the low morale of the SADF following Cuito, the Pretoria ruling elite could see the writing on the wall and recognized that they had to negotiate their way out of the crisis. But, of course, the apartheid rulers intended to bargain in a disorganizing manner in order to eventually give up as little as possible at the negotiating table with the Cubans, the Angolans and sooner or later the African National Congress (ANC) and SWAPO.

SWAPO’s minor role in the turn of events is shown by it not even being at the bargaining table after Cuito, by agreeing to the maintaining of private property, by allowing the colonisers to keep their ill-gotten riches, by permitting the multinationals to retain the mineral wealth and by consenting to neo-liberal economic policies that would worsen the socio-economic conditions of the majority of the Namibian people. Adding insult to injury, Walvisbay – the only port – was not initially part of the agreement.  And SWAPO (and ANC) camps had to be moved from Angola, while UNITA did not even disarm.

SWAPO leadership

It could be that all of this is unsurprising as the SWAPO leadership appeared to have had a back channel of communication with the apartheid regime over the years. Many incidents point in this direction. I quote at length two credible former SWAPO fighters, Jackson Mwalundange and Samson Ndeikwila [6]:

“…SWAPO guerrillas of different generations should be correct when they suspect that their party leaders sold them out. For example, five months prior to [the] Ongulumbashe raid, two of their top leaders [Sam Nujoma and Hifikipunye Pohamba] had been accorded a VIP reception by the SAP [South African Police] in Windhoek. The enemy military intelligence is said to have advised the police not to arrest them as they would serve them better when they were with their fighters in exile. Later, documents known to have been with one of the visitors [Nujoma] and containing detailed guerrilla plans were found with a pro-South African tribal chief, Uushona Shiimi. This alarmed the guerrillas at Ongulumbashe, but before they could shift the camp they were attacked and SWAPO leaders inside Namibia were rounded up soon thereafter. Subsequent guerrilla missions from Tanzania into Namibia were craftily foiled by the enemy and guerrillas were captured. Guerrillas in Kongwa camp in Tanzania questioned the behaviour of some of their party leaders. This had led to their imprisonment. Much later, guerrillas became suspicious of the enemy raids on camps such as Oshatotwa, Munyengani (foiled), Oshitumba, Moscow, Vietnam, and Cassinga. The question is still begging an answer as to why the guerrillas were sent into the country on 1 April1989.”

In 1975, Theo-Ben Gurirab is recorded to have arrived in Lusaka from New York with an offer from US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that the US would convince apartheid South Africa to let SWAPO take over Namibia provided SWAPO got rid of the radicals in its ranks. Zambia was said to have already been in agreement and was ready to assist. During April/May 1976, perceived radical SWAPO office bearers, including the youth leadership … were arrested by the Zambian army. All Plan [People's Liberation Army of Namibia] fighters in Zambia were disarmed and leaders detained. Simultaneously, Oshatotwa camp was raided and destroyed by South Africans, with the Zambian army watching.

On the 20th of March, 1966, SWAPO leaders - Nujoma and Pohamba (and Solomon Mifima) – who were supposed to be in exile – flew on a commercial flight back to Windhoek. The men – who would in due course become Namibia’s first two presidents – received red carpet treatment from the South African colonial police and were transported to Pretoria where they met police minister, John Vorster, and the SADF general, Magnus Malan, who was then responsible for South West Africa/Namibia. Instead of ending up on Robben Island, Nujoma was back in London three days later. How come they were not sent to Robben Island like Nelson Mandela and eventually Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo, but returned unharmed into exile?

This event has been presented by SWAPO as an attempt by Nujoma to assert his political standing among activists, but how would one justify the fact that in 1966 – in the midst of the retreat of the liberation movements and other leaders imprisoned on Robben Island – that the SWAPO leaders travelled openly back to Namibia unless they were certain that they would not be arrested and jailed? The SWAPO deputy president, Mishake Muyongo, refused to go to Windhoek at the last moment, but Pohamba volunteered to go. A militant Nujoma or Pohamba would have ended up on Robben Island like many others, but they were deemed moderates. Commenting on this incident, Malan disclosed that: ‘…intelligence sources were of the opinion that Nujoma would be more valuable to us if he remained with his own forces than if he were to be in our hands.’ [7] How come Nujoma was so cherished by the colonial regime? Maybe this clarifies why there was not a single attempt to assassinate Nujoma over a period of over 30 years. If anything, Malan, while minister of defence of the apartheid establishment, provided Nujoma with a bullet-proof vehicle just prior to the attainment of political independence in 1990. Documents from Nujoma’s briefcase were crucial to the case against Toivo Ya Toivo – who was the more credible and more uncompromising figure head of SWAPO - and 36 other SWAPO members. With regards to the occurrences at Omgulu-gwoMbashe on August 26, 1966 – which is annually celebrated in post-colonial Namibia as the day when SWAPO supposedly started the armed struggle and for which lavish statues and museums were constructed - Mwalundange and Ndeikwila [8] suggested that:

“History must be told as it is, not as we want it to be. In 1966, at Ongulumbashe, Swapo guerrillas did not launch an armed struggle. Launching would involve planning and executing an offensive operation. Instead, they were attacked unexpectedly and summarily subdued by a South African Police (SAP) contingent directed by Major Swanepoel, flying in one of the eight helicopters.”

Despite all the mythology, SWAPO’s armed struggle was patently unimpressive and the political independence of the country did not materialize because of that. There was simply no noteworthy armed struggle. The real situation was that SWAPO’s armed propaganda – like it did in other national liberation movements - generally produced a cadre with a low level of political consciousness and an overbearing mindset.

General strike

It was the Namibian youth and the working class that took decisive action. There existed pervasive disgruntlement in the country due to the Odendaal Plan (1966) that was going to initiate a homelands policy, the dehumanising migrant labour system, the slave wages, etc.

When, in June 1971, the International Court of Justice declared South African occupation as illegal, extensive protests ensued - including at colleges and schools. From this emerged the major turning point in the Namibian struggle for national liberation, i.e. the general strike of 1971-72, which brought the economy to a standstill. The strike - led by Johannes Nangutuuala - lasted about 5 weeks from 13 December 1971 to 20 January 1972. It involved more than 13 000 to 20 000 migrant workers – a quarter of all migrant workers - principally from Walvisbay and Windhoek, who were striking for higher wages and against the migrant labour system and pass laws. Around 11 mines and 23 workplaces were impacted throughout the country. In March, 1972, 500 factory workers downed tools in Walvisbay.

There was also a schools’ boycott in northern Namibia in 1973 against the Bantustan policy. In this instance, the influence of the Black Consciousness (BC) movement on the Namibian struggle should be acknowledged. What is not generally known, for example, is that a Namibian, Mokganedi Thlabanello, was the vice-president of the students’ representative council at the University of the North (now Limpopo) in the early 1970s during the time that Onkgopotse Abraham Tiro was president. Keshii Pelao Nathanael [9], who would in due course be elected as the founding president of the SWAPO Youth League inside the country in 1974, reminisced about meeting earlier with Tiro:

“Abraham Tiro had turned up in Odibo one day with the information that he had come to learn how we had organised the general strike that had paralysed Namibia in 1971-2. He told us of the importance the Black people of South Africa had attached to the strike – something about which we had been ignorant until then. To hear Abraham Tiro talk – informed, well-balanced, without raising his voice – was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life up to that point… Before departing Tiro invited us to send a delegation to a Black Consciousness conference in Johannesburg – to form links between the South African and Namibian youth movements.”

Unsurprisingly, the statement released on 27th March, 1974, following the conference of the Youth League, is couched in the language of BC. Significant personalities in the internal struggle in Namibia were all unquestionably inspired by the BC project. In this sense, that movement made a remarkable contribution to the national liberation of Namibia and challenges the notion of SWAPO as having been the sole and authentic political organisation in this regard. It is likewise pertinent to point out that the Namibian industrial action had a major effect - through its extensive exposure in the mass media - on the South African working class that also began a mass strike in Durban in 1973.

Once the Portuguese revolution struck in May 1974, it was possible for Namibian youth to leave the country via Angola. About 4 000 youth left Namibia between May and December 1974. The youth – many of them radicalized by the general strike and the schools’ boycott - fled the country and joined SWAPO in exile. However, the conservative old guard was threatened by these young people.

Similarly, US imperialism was alarmed by the impact of the Portuguese revolution on the political situation in southern Africa. As a consequence, Kissinger met with the SWAPO leadership in 1975 to keep them within the Western sphere of the Cold War divide, but exhorted them to get rid of the radicals in the organisation. Kissinger would in the end actively support the sole and authentic status of SWAPO. So, despite all the propaganda, SWAPO was a moderate Pan-Africanist party with close links to imperialism – especially the United States. This peasant-based party had a leadership that was uninterested in a determined armed struggle or the internal mobilisation of the Namibian working class. [10] Today, this obscurantism is played out in SWAPO in the intense in-fighting among the political factions that are based on tribal loyalties.

During 1975-76, the leftist Namibian youth were discontented about the high-handed nature of the leadership and demanded that SWAPO should hold democratic elections. If the organisation did, Andreas Shipanga probably would then have been elected as president, and therefore the internal elections never took place. As a consequence, the SWAPO cabal engaged in widespread abuse, torture and eradicating of militant members. [11]

Nahas Angula [12], a leading intellectual in SWAPO, disclosed that: “I remember we had a major schism in 1975 when the SWAPO youth league, after arriving in Lusaka, demanded a new constitution and a congress… Some of the youth ended up in prison, some were put in camps separately in Zambia, they tried to leave the camp and some of them were shot and the rest, SWAPO pardoned them.” The old guard was not going to give up their power and privileges easily, but opted to exonerate some youth who insisted on a democratic organisation, while some were locked up and others executed. The radical youth were initially detained at the Mboroma camp in Zambia until May 1977. Ex-SWAPO member, Phillip Shuudifonya [13], pondered the removal of detainees from Mboroma to the Cassinga camp (Angola):

“So our comrades are now being taken out – there were 600 – and informed that they would be removed to Angola to be given uniforms to put on. The same day South African radio announced that SWAPO in Angola was going to get a reinforcement of 600 soldiers from Zambia. So when those 600 soldiers arrived in Cassinga in the evening, the next morning the South Africans bombed Cassinga”.

Of course, the 600 people were SWAPO captives who were ordered to put on military outfits before the journey.

The Cassinga massacre was used by the SWAPO leadership to garner international sympathy for the Namibian struggle, but their possible role in it has never been extensively examined. From 1983, after the progressive Peter Nanyemba died in a mysterious accident, the mass detention of militant SWAPO members increased. Using the feeble accusation of them being South African spies, the uncompromising and intellectual activists were tortured and assassinated in significant numbers - probably in the thousands - at Lubango by tribally-minded SWAPO securocrats who were in the Nujoma or Omusati faction.

1 April 1989

A further controversial episode transpired just prior to political independence. After a political settlement had been agreed on, Nujoma ordered PLAN fighters to cross the Angolan border into northern Namibia to occupy the abandoned SADF bases on the 1st of April, 1989. There is still an ongoing debate in Namibia about what the principal motive for that might have been. Maybe Nujoma was trying to hide the situation that SWAPO did not have a single military base inside the country for all the decades that it fought, and that their armed struggle was really a grim fiasco.

Mentioning that occurrence, Ndeikwila [14] asserted that ‘… to the surprise of everyone present, Nujoma gave order that platoons of PLAN combatants should be re-armed and enter Namibia immediately’. So the decision was taken by Nujoma without consulting with the rest of the SWAPO leadership. Needless to say, 300 PLAN combatants were unnecessarily killed in the ensuing skirmishes with the notorious police unit, Koevoet, and the SADF. Another former SWAPO activist, Hans Beukes [15], also expressed the view that the incident ‘…was clearly calculated to establish the myth that Namibia had been liberated ‘through the barrel of a gun’”.

This, however, is contradicted by a relatively unknown detail. According to Herbstein and Evenson, ‘…the level of fighting indicated that the South Africans knew where the guerrillas were and more or less laid a trap for them’. [15] It seems more likely that what transpired was the final act of purging SWAPO of the militants. Thus, the SWAPO ruling clique seemed to have consistently neutralized their left-leaning members over a period of more than three decades and were callous about remaining in control of the organisation through any means necessary. That SWAPO faction could not afford to let go of their positions in case their collaboration with the colonial regime became commonly known and were willing to sacrifice a whole generation of committed cadres. In fact, both Nathanael and Naftali Nghiyolwa were of the opinion that it is conceivable that more anti-colonial fighters were slain due to the SWAPO cabal rather than the colonizing army. This goes a long way in making sense of the weakness of the left-wing in present-day Namibia.

Namibia today

Nonetheless, this imperious and militarist culture lingers on inside SWAPO. During the 2004 SWAPO congress in Windhoek, say, the hall was surrounded by a unit of the Namibia Defence Force and Nujoma – who wanted to ensure that Pohamba was elected as the next SWAPO president  - threatened the participants not to vote for his rival, Hidipo Hamutenya, who at the end of the day resigned and formed another party. It took several hours to announce the results of the voting process at that congress.

Be that as it may, Namibia remains profoundly unequal. According to the 2015 Human Development Report, the country has the highest level of income disparity (68.3%) in the world. This persists as racial inequality has; for example, ‘white’ Namibians – who make up only 8% of the population - own 90% of the land. And there are many other appalling statistics that could never truly capture the scale of the suffering of Namibian people, i.e. 94% cannot afford a decent house, 51% earn no more than N$1 500 per month, less than 6% earn above N$ 10 501 per month, at least 33% live in informal settlements, about 42% of the population are malnourished, etc. Post-colonial Namibia has absolutely neglected to fundamentally advance the socio-economic conditions of most of the people of the country.

So, the Namibian struggle for social emancipation continues.

* Shaun Whittaker was a member of the Workers’ Organisation for Socialist Action (WOSA).


[1] Fidel Castro [with Ignacio Ramonet]. 2007. My Life. Penguin Books. p. 329.

[2] Gleijeses, Piero. (2013). Visions of Freedom – Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa 1976-1991. The University of North Carolina Press. pp. 428-429.

[3] Herbstein, Denis & John Evenson. (1989). The devils are among us – The war for Namibia. London: Zed Books. pp. 173, 181.

[4] Personal communication with an American soldier’s brother in July 1988, Santa Barbara, California.

[5] Shubin, Gennady et al. 2014. Cuito Cuanavale – Frontline accounts by Soviet soldiers. Auckland Park: Jacana. p. 12.

[6] Jackson Mwalundange and Samson Ndeikwila. 2013. Telling History As It Is. The Namibian, 23 August. p.  7.

[7] Hans Beukes. 2014. Long Road to Liberation – An exiled Namibian activist’s perspective. Johannesburg: Porcupine Press. pp. 317, 320.

[8] Keshii Pelao Nathanael. 2002. A Journey to Exile – The story of a Namibian freedom fighter. Sosiumi Press. pp. vii, 30, 184.

[9] Marion Wallace. 2011. A History of Namibia - From the beginning to 1990. Jacana.

Referring to Swapo’s alleged commitment to socialism, Wallace noted that ‘(t)here was no detailed economic argument, however, and critics are probably right to argue that the programme reflected the need to please SWAPO’s Eastern bloc sponsors rather more than a deep engagement with socialism. Nor, despite the call for mass mobilization, did a meaningful commitment to the empowerment of people at grassroots level emerge.’ p. 282.

[10] Saunders, Dave. 2003. Liberation and Democracy – A critical reading of Sam Nujoma’s ‘Autobiography’. In: Henning Melber (ed). Re-examining liberation in Namibia – Political culture since independence. NORDISKA AFRIKAINSTITUTET. pp. 87-98

‘… (w)e know that SWAPO had been highly authoritarian in its practices while based in Zambia and Angola in the 1970s and 1980s, and that critical voices within the movement were suppressed. Those who campaigned in 1975-76 within SWAPO for the holding of a representative congress were thrown into jail, and a decade later the leadership actively discouraged the grassroots mobilisation then taking place in Namibia.’ p. 88.

[11] Muraranganda, Elvis. 2015. Swapo conundrum gets veteran perspective. Namibian Sun, 22 July, pp. 1-2. 

[12] Samson Ndeikwila. 2014. The Agony of Truth – Autobiography of Samson Ndeikwila. Windhoek: Kuiseb Publishers. p. 126

[13] Naftali Nghiyolwa. 2015. Open up on Swapo Atrocities, The Namibian, 17 November, p. 7.

[14] Jarii Tjeja-Tjatindi. 2016. New mass housing will collapse, The Namibian, 22 Ju