The South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO) was founded in Windhoek, South West Africa (presently Namibia) on 19 April 1960 by Herman Toivo ja Toivo. The party was originally formed to advocated immediate Namibian independence from South Africa and became the country’s leading party following independence in 1990.
The SWA territory was entrusted by the League of Nations to South Africa under an administrative mandate after the First World War. After the Second World War, South Africa extended its apartheid policies to this territory and became a military occupier. After South Africa refused a United Nations order to withdraw from the trust territory in 1966, SWAPO turned to armed struggle.
SWAPO emerged as the sole liberation movement in the early 1960s because it had the support of the Ovambo, the largest ethnic group in Namibia. More a military organisation than a political one, SWAPO launched military operations against the South African government’s military positions. On 26 August 1966 the first major clash of the conflict took place, when a unit of the South African Police, supported by South African Air Force, exchanged fire with SWAPO forces. This date is generally regarded as the start of what became known in South Africa as the Border War.
Initially SWAPO suffered heavy losses against the South African Army but later SWAPO was backed by the Angolan ruling party, Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the Soviet Union, the Norwegian government and the African National Congress. SWAPO used Angola as a base for guerrilla warfare on Namibian soil; operations were carried out by SWAPO’s guerrilla force, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). Beginning in 1978 South Africa made periodic retaliatory land and air strikes into Angola. Herman Toivo ja Toivo, the founder of SWAPO, was imprisoned in South Africa for a 20-year term in 1968 but was released in 1984. Nujoma returned to Namibia in September 1989.
In 1978 the UN recognized SWAPO as the sole representative of the people of Namibia. Both SWAPO and South Africa agreed to a UN plan for a cease-fire, withdrawal of South African troops, and free elections to be guaranteed by UN security forces. After years of diplomatic maneuvering, South Africa finally accepted a UN resolution to that effect in December 1988. Sporadic fighting continued. In 1989 Nujoma was elected president and SWAPO won a majority of the delegates selected by the country’s voters to write a constitution for an independent Namibia. The following year a new constitution was adopted and Nujoma took office and in the same year South Africa completely withdrew unconditionally from Namibia.
SWAPO continued to dominate the political scene into the 21st century, transforming itself from a liberation movement into a governing party. SWAPO won the first and second election five years later. During its second term in office, the SWAPO dominated parliament and amended the constitution to allow their long term leader and now president of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, a third term in office. The constitutional amendment raised fears that this compromised Namibia’s democracy. The party won 75.1% of popular votes and 55 out of 78 seats in the parliamentary election held on 15 November 2004.
Controversy within the movement
Various groups have claimed that SWAPO committed serious human rights abuses against suspected spies during the Independence struggle (esp during the period of exile). The most serious of these was the detainee issue, which remains a divisive issue. Another issue was the Breaking the Wall of Silence (BWS), which was founded by those detainees to press the SWAPO-government on the issue of human rights abuses. SWAPO denies serious infractions and claims anything that did happen was in the name of liberation. The stories of the detainees begin with a series of successful South African raids that made the SWAPO leadership believe that they were spies in the movement. Hundreds of SWAPO cadres were imprisoned, tortured and interrogated.
• Encyclopedia Britannica Online (2009), ‘South West Africa People’s Organization’, available at: britannica.com [accessed 14 April 2009]
• SWAPO [online], available at: wikipedia.org [accessed 14 April 2009]
• Angola and South West Africa: A Forgotten War (1975-89) ”“ article published by geocities.com
Dear friends of SAHO
South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.
SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.
Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.