Behind the border battle

When "Comrade Danger", a Swapo commander in southern Angola, ordered his men into Namibia on the night of April 1, he told them to find members of Untag, hand over their weapons, and subject themselves to United Nations supervision in "assembly point". He gave no order to engage "enemy" forces – even if they came across them. This is the version of events given by 30-year-old Johannes Kutumba, one of the first two guerrillas of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (Plan) to be captured in the current fighting in Owambolanti.

Kutumba, a Plan reconnaissance platoon commander, was presented by security forces to a group of reporters in Oshakati. Swapo disputes the claim that its men crossed the Angola/Namibia "cutline", but confirms their intention: to set up base in their homeland. They were going home to savour the peace and, one assumes, the admiration of black Namibian civilians. For South African and South West African commanders in Owamboland that same night, the guerrillas who intent. It was "a deed of war", in the words of SADF colonel Japie Dreyer. The UN faced, according to Windhoek representative Cedric Thornberry, "a development that simply amaze~ everyone. I don't know of a ingle person who countenanced such a thing at all."

The UN therefore had to respond – almost immediately – to a crisis of epic proportions. The notorious units of Koevoet were already engaging unprecedented numbers of guerrillas in firefights across a 300km stretch of northern Namibia. Then the gates were opened to allow SADF troops out of their bases, and they joined the fight. The UN action clearly indicates that the world body believed, at the way not have foreseen the ferocity with which the troops would go about their business. The guerrillas, according to Kutumba and the second captured Plan fighter, 22-year-old Phillipus Mateus, were shocked to see Koevoe Casspirs bearing down on them. And "Pottie" Potgieter of Swapo's counterinsurgency unit, seeing events through the window of his armoured vehicle, says he was also taken by surprise. "We were patrolling when we spotted the tracks of between 40 and 50 men," he says, and followed them as a matter of routine.

When they caught up with the guerrillas, the Koevoet men claim they came under fire, and the hell that continues now, almost a week later, broke loose. It will never be known with certainty who fired the first shots in the engagement near Ruacana. It hard matters, as what followed was theological result of two heavily armed groups coming face-to-face. The South African response to the situation is perfectly predictable, in Pretoria's terms. With the unusual advantage of a substantial body of world opinion sympathetic to their outrage, the troopies got on with the bloody job. The clashes have brought the independence plan right to the brink of collapse.

But there is no one in Namibia- certainly not Untag– who can yet pronounce definitively on what was going through the Swapo leaders' minds when they made their move. Certainly, there were electoral advantages to be had by placing "freedom fighters" inside Namibia, if this was a calculated strategic risk. But the dangers of placing the independence process in jeopardy – a process which would almost certainly return Swapo to power by next year – were obvious. In this scenario, it is possible that Plan commanders overestimated the Untag presence in Owamboland, and underestimated Swapo.


It is also possible that Swapo tacticians decided, as it seems they have never signed a formal undertaking to stay above Angola's 16th parallel that the ambiguities of Swapo's position would result in deliberations and compromises – not carnage. But as the international reaction has shown, it was certainly a cast-iron perception that Swapo fighters should not be armed and in Namibia. In the event of Swapo not being proved to have broken a formal agreement, it seems inescapable that at the very least the organisation will be found guilty of acting in bad faith. Whatever the complex prognosis of the leaders, however, it is the unsuspecting fighters on the run in Owamboland who are paying the price. In the gruesome pile of captured, bloodstained "booty" which was shown off in Oshakati, was a small, dog-eared notebook. On its opening page, in a childish scrawl, was "The Song of Namibia", a praise-poem for the efforts of the liberation forces. There was an aide-memoire, also and written: "Remember to teach the, people to sing this."

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Shaun Johnson
Guest Author

Related stories

Shaun Johnson: Charm without the smarm

The Weekly Mail hired him to get the training project off the ground; he did much, much more than that, writes Irwin Manoim

Vote tests Swapo’s dominance

The elections come during a three-year recession, high unemployment, inequality and a fishing scandal

The enduring appeal of liberation movements

Liberation movements attracted more than half of the popular vote in their most recent parliamentary elections in many African countries

Namibian elections: The sands are shifting – slowly

Namibia’s political stability so far has been vested in the dominance of Swapo. Those opposing its control face an uphill battle

Who’s who in Namibia’s presidential elections?

Namibia votes in a general election on Wednesday. Here are the four frontrunners

Leaders abuse governance to control citizens

The parallel regimes of new and cherry-picked traditions present a hurdle to democratic success
Advertising

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Air pollution link in 15% of global Covid-19 deaths

Researchers have found that, because ambient fine particulate air pollution aggravates comorbidities, it could play a factor in coronavirus fatalities

Mboweni plans to freeze public sector wage increases for the...

The mid-term budget policy statement delivered by the finance minister proposes cutting all non-interest spending by R300-billion.

SAA to receive R10.5-billion government bailout after all

Several struggling state-owned entities received extra funds after the medium term budget policy speech

BMW X3 thrives in the M stable

The compact SUV is so at home with its new badge that’s it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday