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SWAPO's Guerrillas Are Exchanging Their Fatigues for Suits and Bullets for Ballots

September 02, 1989|SCOTT KRAFT | Times Staff Writer

SWAPO complains that South Africa's registrars have been lax in their registration efforts in the rural north, the birthplace of SWAPO, where 60% of Namibia's 1.3 million population lives. So far, 250,000 voters have registered in the northern province of Ovambo, and SWAPO says thousands have been overlooked.

16-Hour Journeyu to Polls

SWAPO also thinks South Africa is trying to rig the election by encouraging South Africans to travel to Namibia to vote. So far, more than 3,000 white South Africans have registered, some making 16-hour journeys in chartered buses. Under the registration rules, anyone who lived in Namibia for four years or had a parent born in Namibia is eligible.

But in recent weeks SWAPO has come under increasing criticism for its wartime activities. Some of the 203 Namibian prisoners, most of them black, whom SWAPO released, have told of being tortured and incarcerated in dungeons in Angola and Zambia, and they say hundreds died in detention.

SWAPO was slow to respond to the allegations, which worry some Namibians who fear that the elections will install a brutal SWAPO government.

"They were beaten up. . . . I guess that's torture," Hamutenya said. "We did not authorize torture. But if it was done, people must recognize the conditions. When you've just buried 50 of your comrades and discover that someone betrayed you . . . it's lucky these people were not lynched."

Among those detained by SWAPO over the years were leading figures in the organization, reportedly including Sam Nujoma's wife, who was later released.

"Some, we are convinced, were hard-core agents," Gurirab said. "Some, we have come to conclude, were innocent, and some could have gone either way." He added that SWAPO "very much regrets" instances of torture and "if we find those responsible we will hold them accountable."

SWAPO waged its 23-year war from exile headquarters in Luanda, the capital of Angola, Namibia's northern neighbor, fighting a South African force of 50,000 stationed in northern Namibia with about 10,000 troops.

Since SWAPO's founding in 1957, the rebels' stated goal has been to establish a classless, non-exploitative society in Namibia based on socialism.

"SWAPO does not conceal its belief in the moral superiority of socialism over capitalism," SWAPO says in its election manifesto. It says, for example, that the territory's land is unfairly distributed--60% is owned by whites, who account for 6% of the population.

But, seeing the failure of Marxist economies across Africa, SWAPO has adopted a more practical stance in the past year. It has promised not to nationalize the mining industry, which is responsible for most of Namibia's income, but the organization says it wants to renegotiate agreements with private mining companies.

'Room for Whites to Stay'

SWAPO also has pledged to encourage white farmers to stay, although it says people owning many large farms may be forced to sell most of them to the government.

"There's room for whites to stay, and we want them to stay," Hamutenya said. "They will be making a mistake if they panic and run away. But we will have to cut some of their privileges. That cannot go on."

For now, though, the SWAPO leadership and some of the 41,000 refugees who have returned are rediscovering the land of their birth.

"Everything looks so different," Hamutenya said. "The rapid desertification of the north . . . everything was so much greener before. I remembered tall buildings in Windhoek, but compared to New York they are just cornerstones."

Gurirab's three children, ages 11 to 16, have never seen Namibia and, Gurirab admits, they aren't looking forward to living here.

When Gurirab asked them what they thought about leaving their American schools and moving to Namibia, "they said they didn't care to come here," Gurirab recalled. "What will happen to their friends? That was their big worry."

Scott Kraft, The Times' correspondent in South Africa, was recently on assignment in Namibia.

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