JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The South African army ran a multimillion-dollar covert scheme, code-named Operation Agree, to prop up its political friends during 1989 elections in Namibia and smear the favored South-West Africa People's Organization, a former military agent said Friday.
The agent, Nico Basson, said he had directed much of the operation, which printed smear pamphlets, spread rumors of leadership rifts in SWAPO, and used front organizations to provide money, airplanes, four-wheel-drive vehicles, food and other support for SWAPO's opponents.
Basson said that the army also planted informers within both SWAPO and the 7,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force overseeing Namibia's transition to independence and free elections. Among the informers, he said, was a secretary to Martti Ahtisaari, the U.N. special representative for Namibia.
SWAPO won the election with 57% of the vote but fell short of the two-thirds majority it needed to write a new constitution without consulting other parties. Basson said the army considered Operation Agree a success.
Anti-apartheid leaders contend that Basson's allegations indicate how far Pretoria is prepared to go to prevent the African National Congress, its primary black opposition, from winning the first election after power-sharing talks inside South Africa.
The South African Defense Force, in a statement, acknowledged having a contract with Basson, then an army major, to provide communications services during 1989. But the military said that the particulars of Basson's duties were "regarded as top secret," and it has filed legal action against him under the Protection of Information Act.
Basson also alleged that the South African government was using its Namibia operation as a model for destabilizing the ANC.
"Namibia was just a dress rehearsal for South Africa," he said in an interview, adding that the army has been providing military training for supporters of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party. Inkatha is locked in a bloody feud with the ANC in South Africa's townships.
The Defense Force called those allegations "ridiculous and not worthy of any further comment." Basson did not provide any hard evidence for his assertions of destabilization in South Africa.
Basson's allegations seemed to confirm the suspicions voiced by SWAPO and others in Namibia that the South African government was using a dirty-tricks campaign to undermine SWAPO and sway the elections in favor of the pro-capitalist Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA).
Pretoria has made no secret of its distaste for SWAPO's Marxist guerrilla movement but it has denied helping the DTA, which had copious financial backing from unknown sources during the campaign. The DTA collected 29% of the vote.
According to Basson, Operation Agree was conducted under the direction of high-ranking military officials, including Gen. Kat Liebenberg, then head of the South African army and now chief of staff of the Defense Force.
Basson, 34, had experience in army public relations and was at one time editor of the army's monthly publication, Uniform. He was working as a public relations consultant when he was asked to direct the media manipulation aspect of Operation Agree, he said.
The operation was designed to prevent SWAPO from attaining a two-thirds majority in the election, and as the election campaign began, SWAPO was thought to have the support of up to 80% of Namibians.
Basson, who worked officially with the DTA as a public relations representative during the campaign, said the operation was conducted without the knowledge of top DTA officials.
Namibia, a vast African country of 1.1 million people, was a German territory until 1920, when it was assigned to South Africa under a League of Nations mandate. In 1966, the United Nations claimed responsibility for the territory, but South Africa did not recognize the claim. Guerrillas of the South-West Africa People's Organization waged a 23-year war against Pretoria--until a U.S.-brokered peace agreement was reached under which South Africa agreed to grant the territory freedom in exchange for the withdrawal of Cuban troops from neighboring Angola. The agreement provided for 1989 elections followed by independence in 1990. More than 95% of Namibia's registered voters cast ballots during the five-day vote, which the United Nations declared "free and fair."