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Published Airpower Journal - Winter 1987-88

Counterrevolution in Namibia

Maj Robert C. Owen

The American view of war is generally incompatible with the characteristics and demands of counterrevolution.

--Sam C. Sarkesian1

THE SOUTH African counterrevolutionary experience in Namibia merits attention for two reasons. First, through careful coordination of an effective military strategy with political reform, the South Africans have fundamentally altered the direction of Namibian politics. They have militarily contained the principal revolutionary force in the country, the Marxist-oriented South West African People's Organization (SWAPO), and they have established a moderate political movement that may be able to govern Namibia successfully despite SWAPO's still-considerable political power and resistance. Second, the Namibian conflict offers indirect insight into American capabilities in this sort of struggle. Unfortunately for American military thinkers concerned with counterrevolutionary war, the unique social and political conditions making South Africa's successful efforts possible, suggest more about American limitations than strengths in counterrevolutionary war.


South Africa's continued presence in Namibia is most effectively challenged by SWAPO. There are several other political groups antipathetic to continued South African rule in the country, but they all have limited constituencies and none have undertaken armed resistance. SWAPO's origins lie in the Ovambo People's Organization, which was formed in the late 1950s to provide social support and political representation for the Ovambo people of Namibia.2 The organization's name was changed in 1960 to reflect its intention to represent all of Namibia's ethnic groups in the struggle for independence from South Africa resistance to less-violent protests, SWAPO's leaders decided in 1961 to begin preparations for armed struggle.3

The ensuing war has had two phases, both militarily unsuccessful for SWAPO. Phase one began when a small group of SWAPO soldiers infiltrated into Ovambo area of north-central Namibia in August 1966. Despite their training and preparations, the members of this first group were quickly discovered and killed or captured by the South African police.4 From that time until 1975, SWAPO continued a sporadic infiltration of small guerrilla units from Zambia into the extreme northern parts of Namibia, mostly into the remote Caprivi Strip. Inexperience and the presence of Portuguese colonial forces in southern Angola kept SWAPO's operations limited to mainly a police problem for the South Africans. The second phase began in 1976, when the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) ousted two other Angolan nationalist movements from the coalition government of newly independent Angola. With MPLA support, SWAPO moved its bases of operations from Zambia to locations in southern Angola. SWAPO's military wing, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), quickly increased the flow of political cadre and soldiers into Ovamboland. PLAN also began to launch annual "invasions" of 500-1,500 troops into northern Namibia. The South Africans countered by reinforcing the South African Defense Forces (SADF) already in the area and soundly defeating any significant PLAN force entering or approaching Namibia. Consequently, while PLAN has never threatened the SADF's control of Namibia, the liberation army's continued presence in Angloa has forced the South Africans to continue costly military operations.

PLAN's persistence has also earned strong domestic and international support for SWAPO. SWAPO is the only political entity in Namibia with something close to national political support in Namibia. The Ovambo, people, comprising nearly half of Namibia's 1.2 million population, strongly support the movement. SWAPO's president, Sam Nujoma, and most of the movement's key leaders are Ovambo. SWAPO also has limited followings in each of Namibia's 10 other ethnic groups, including whites. Internationally, the United Nations General Assembly has declared SWAPO "the sole legitimate representative of the Namibian people."5 Various UN agencies, along with a number of countries and church groups, are SWAPO's main sources of nonlethal aid.6 Military equipment, including tanks and antiaircraft missiles, comes mainly from the Soviet Union and its allies.7

Although regionally powerful on paper, South Africa's resources for fighting the Namibian war are more limited than generally recognized. With a reserve-heavy structure of 83,000 active and 320,000 reserve troops, SADF probably fields a permanent force of about 20,000 soldiers in Namibia.8 SADF troops are generally well trained and armed for counterinsturgent duties. But due to the international embargo on arms sales to South Africa, SADF high-technology weapons, particularly aircraft and helicopters, are aging and in short supply.9 Thus far, SADF's declining technological and logistics base only threatens their ability to conduct punitive cross-border strikes against the increasingly sophisticated defense SWAPO and the Angolan military along with its Cuban and Eastern-bloc allies SADF counterinsurgency operations with Namibia require weapons, vehicles, and equipment well within the capacity of South African industry to produce. However, since offensive cross-border strikes are a critical part of South Africa's overall strategy for dealing with the insurgency, reduced conventional capabilities threaten the country's ability to "stay the course" in Namibia. The South African economy may well be unable to both finance the war in Namibia and sustain SADF conventional strength.10 It is suffering a recession brought on by the strains of falling gold prices, the war in Namibia, the economic inefficiencies of apartheid, and strained relations with most of the world.

and Policies

South African national security policy is made by a very small, cohesive group of leaders, a group increasingly dominated by military officers. Since winning the national elections of 1980, President Pieter K. Botha has focused more power in the presidency, replacing a government characterized by what have been called "feudal ministries" to bring the maximum of government resources to bear on the country's security problems. The political infighting and realignments involved in these processes have tended to increase the influence and presence of military officers in a broad range of government ministries and committees.11

These developments do not portend instability, weakness, or significant policy changes in the South African government. What pressure there is toward instability is largely counterbalanced by the ideological consistency and quality of civil service and military leaders. Political and military leadership in South Africa is almost exclusively the domain of white, Afrikaans-speaking men. Few members of the English-speaking white community hold significant political power, though they control the bulk of the economy. Nonwhites, except when they strike or riot, still do not wield decisive political influence.

Because they usually attend the handful of Afrikaans-medium universities in the country, are usually members of the Dutch Reformed Church, and share a carefully vetted commitment to white power and the cultural preservation of the Afrikaaner volk, South African leaders are a remarkably unified group politically and ideologically. Promotion within the political and military power structure emphasizes merit, thus assuring quality and consistent leadership. Thus, to a degree that many would envy, South African policy is prepared and executed by a cohesive group of technically proficient experts, and it remains consistent over the long run. Of course, the long-term wisdom of an effort to preserve the nineteenth-century agrarian social institutions of apartheid in a twentieth-century industrialized nation is in some dispute.12

Reflecting the focus and general consistency of other government policies, South African policy in Namibia has, above all else, served the fundamental objectives of security and white power. From its assumption of rule in 1915 until the early 1970s, South Africa treated Namibia as a political and economic extension of itself and rejected international and domestic demands for reform or independence. International Court of Justice decision in 1971 declaring South Africa's rule illegal. In 1974 the South African government apparently reserved itself by acknowledging the "inevitability" of independence and authorizing the creation of political parties to participate in elections for a constitutional assembly.13 But subsequent developments revealed the continuity of South African objectives. Although SWAPO was offered the opportunity to participate in South African-sponsored elections (SWAPO refused), South African sponsorship and financial support clearly focused on the moderate political alternative to SWAPO, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA).

The DTA was a coalition of small, moderate, and ethnically based political parties formed in late 1977 to participate in South African-sponsored elections for an interim government prior to independence. The DTA advocated a "multiracial" constitution that would define politics and establish political representation on the basis of racial rather than ideological or economic groupings. Under such a constitution, each ethnic group in Namibia would vote for, and only for, local and national politicians from that ethnic group.

For the South Africans, a DTA government would enhance security because DTA moderates would not make Namibia a possible haven for Soviet influence and proxy troops. A multiracial constitution could also protect the interests of white Namibians through disproportionate representation and by restricting the kinds of laws a presumably black majority national government could impose on ethnic groups.14 Finally, multiracialism is more in keeping with South African concepts of ethnic separation in society and government.

Creating a viable moderate political movement from the confusion and animosities of Namibian politics of the 1970s was obviously going to take some time. Few whites were prepared to relinquish their favored position, and few blacks could tolerate any plan involving continued South African presence or one so obviously serving South African interests. Significant economic and political reforms were necessary to pursuade the small number of middle-class black Namibians to give credibility and leadership to the moderate political movement. Providing the time and protection required to create the moderate movement was the SADF's job.

A Strategy of Maneuver War

The strategies and operations of South African military leaders reflect their often-stated conviction that the war would be won at the conference table rather than on the battlefield. Thus, they have apparently sought, or at least been satisfied, only to limit PLAN's ability to dominate Namibian politics militarily, not to destroy the guerrilla army in the field. The recognition that restricting a revolutionary army's political influence is not necessarily the same as destroying it reflects a subtle appreciation of the political-military interrelationships of liberation wars. The issues in these wars are human loyalties and time, not military victory.

This political-military strategy also allows the South Africans to conserve their limited military resources. Since political protection is their goal, they can avoid the costly war of annihilation that a purely military solution would require. Instead, the SADF has limited PLAN's political importance through raids against PLAN installations and formations in Angola, backed up by a relatively thin occupation of the areas of northern Namibia exposed to PLAN infiltration. What the South Africans have in fact done is use maneuver war to keep PLAN forces off balance to make the costs of protracted counterrevolutionary war logistically and politically bearable.

The essence of maneuver war is to use movement, surprise, and deception to bring concentrated force against an enemy's center-of-balance--that part of his military power that, when destroyed, most seriously degrades or dislocates his fighting ability. The aim is economy of force and minimum casualties by applying maximum force against critical targets. SADF strategy has focused on restricting PLAN's ability to dominate Namibian politics and on reducing the liberation army's credibility as a military force with a reasonable hope of liberating the country or of even protecting SWAPO followers from SADF retaliation.

Between 1978 and 1985, the South Africans launched at least seven major crossborder raids, and many smaller actions, against SWAPO forces based in southern Angola.15 These "sanctuary-denial" operations amounted to raids in force. They emphasized shock, surprise, aggressive advance, intelligence and maximum disruption of the PLAN forces engaged. Raiding units usually were about brigade size or smaller. These strikes forces were supported by artillery and multiple rocket launchers, and a limited number of close-air support strikes. Airborne and air mobile assaults were also normal features of these operations.

Few risks were taken to pursue PLAN units beyond the battlefield, and only a few strategic points in Angola, such as the Ruacana Dam, were occupied for any length of time. As part of the February 1984 "disengagement agreement" between South Africa and Angola, SADF troops were pulled out of Angola in April 1985.16 But even as SADF troops left southern Angola, South African covert intelligence-gathering and sabotage operations continued in northern Angola.17

The casualty rates inflicted on PLAN by these operations were extremely high. In 1978, for example, the SADF lost three soldiers and killed about 1,000 PLAN soldiers and civilian supporters during Operation Reindeer.18 Operation Super cost PLAN 201 soldiers in exchange for three SADF commandos.19 These casualties plus those of other raids reduced PLAN's combat strength from some 14,000 troops in 1980 to about 8,000 in 1984.20 PLAN's ability to send troops into Namibia declined dramatically when cross-border raids forced removal of its base camps about 300 kilometers farther into Angola after 1980.21

PLAN's reduced capabilities allowed SADF troops in northern Namibia to deploy for efficient occupation rather than for defense against large-scale attack. Consequently, the SADF effectively controls area of about 60,000 square miles with about 40,000 troops, counting South West African territory forces. The thinness of this occupation is clearer when compared to the 1.5 million allied troops required to occupy South Vietnam's 66,000 square miles in 1970.22

It is important to understand that the South Africans apparently do not pursue all airtight occupation of northern Namibia. SWAPO cadre do infiltrate and operate covertly, especially among the Ovambo. As one South African official told this author in a conversation in Windhoek, the so-called internal wing of SWAPO is even allowed to conduct "legitimate" political activities throughout Namibia to "keep it out in the open, and keep the faint-hearted from going to Angola." In the early 1980s firefighters between SADF and PLAN patrols were fairly frequent occurrences, especially during the January-to-March rainy season. Hostile contacts are less common now, although SWAPO does maintain a presence. The South Africans seem willing, or at least are resigned, to live with a certain amount of SWAPO activity so long as it does not amount to overt political or military control of any Namibian territory.


The South Africans appreciate the material and moral value of allies in the struggle against SWAPO. They currently receive military support from the South West African Territory Force (SWATF) and the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). These forces contribute importantly to SADF military success and reduce the war's human and material costs for South Africa.

South Africa created SWATF in August 198o to mobilize Namibians more effectively and eventually provide the country with a national army.23 SWATF draws troops and officers from all Namibian ethnic groups. By 1984 SWATF fielded about 11,000 troops, generally equipped and trained for local defense and counterinsurgency operations. Current strength is over 20,000 personnel. By 1984 SWATF carried about 60 percent of the occupation burden in northern Namibia and participated in cross-border operaton.24

As one of the Angolan liberation movements ousted from the government in 1976, UNITA is at war with the MPLA. SWAPO forces, as MPLA allies, come under frequent UNITA attack. SWAPO and Angolan forces and camps are often intermingled for mutual protection.25 SWAPO camps attacked during the SADF's Operation Daisy were found laid out as much for defense against UNITA as for defense against the SADF.26 The South Africans estimated in 1985 that UNITA occupied the defensive efforts of 65 percent of SWAPO's troops. South Africa remains UNITA's principal source of arms and (occasionally) direct military support. UNITA's president, Jonas Savimbi, and South Africa's president, Pieter Botha, maintain coordination through occasional meetings.27

The Political Front

As anticipated, the creation of a viable, multiracial, moderate political alternative to SWAPO in Namibia has been difficult. The Democratic Turnhalle Alliance's promising start, winning 85 percent of the vote for a National Assembly in 1978, foundered on its inability to develop a new constitution or to gain international recognition as a legitimate representative of the Namibian people. In January 1983 the South African administrator-general of Namibia allowed the DTA-dominated National Assembly to dissolve without new elections. The Multi-Party Conference (MPC), a new coalition that included remnants of the shrunken DTA, is now the officially approved and supported moderate alternative to SWAPO. Although international recognition is still a problem, the South Africans gave Namibian moderates a chance to form another interim government in June 1985. Called the Transitional Government of National Unity, the moderate coalition remained organized and active in December, but it was also "beset with internal dissent and threats of defection" over constitutional issues.28

The ability of moderates to form a stable government in Namibia remains murky. Many observers would agree that "any fair elections would almost inevitably bring to power SWAPO."29 But extensive Namibian participation in the national elections of 1978 and the local elections of 1981, despite SWAPO demands for boycotts, may suggest that SWAPO's support stems from its position as the vanguard of the liberation struggle, not from a popular acceptance of its Marxism, militancy, or multiethnic political platform. Another indication of the uncertain extent of SWAPO's power base was indirectly revealed when some 13,00 people gathered in 1986 to "attend the liberation movement's first legal meeting many years."30

One wonders what the other 120,000 Namibians living in the area who were "solely represented" by SWAPO were doing at the time.

The dogged survival of the moderate movement suggests SWAPO is not the shootin for political power that the movement and its supporters assert it to be. Perhaps the end of liberation as a political issue would see SWAPO's political base shrink to an awkward coalition of committed radicals and Ovambos. Then again, SWAPO might retain its political strength and continue the ideological struggle. American military planners considering our own involvement in counterrevolutionary situations would probably prefer more concrete and declarative terms than may suggest, could, and might. But such terms reemphasize that there is no certainty in counterrevolutionary war except that it is usually protracted and expensive in blood and treasure.

Some Comparisons

Namibia is obviously unique. In addition to the usual problems of a counterrevolution, the South Africans were obliged to create an "incumbent" government to benefit from moderate reforms and give the South African part of the conflict a logical place to end. Historically, other colonial powers left their colonies in the hands of a political party with at least some sort of popular legitimacy, if not actually in the hands of the revolutionary party. Namibia's moderate coalition is clearly the creation of the South African counterrevolution. Whether a generation of political and social reform can overcome the barrier to legitimacy remains to be seen. But the viability of the incumbent government can never be really tested until the sponsor has left. Whether in Vietnam, Malaysia, Namibia, or El Salvador, at some point the sponsor government must withdraw support for the incumbent government and hope for the best. There are no guarantees of success, and little possibility of reintervention if the incumbent fails.

The South Africans enjoy significant advantages in the conduct of counterrevolutionary war. Policy and strategy-making are disciplined, coordinated, and answerable to far fewer interests than in the United States. The South African government is relatively less sensitive to international moral and political criticism than is the American government. Public opinion in South Africa is strongly behind the war effort. Whatever other divisions they may have, South Africans, including many blacks, are deeply concerned with the growth of Soviet influence in their region. The same is true in Namibia. The SADF's freedom to attack SWAPO's sanctuaries in sovereign Angola and take full advantage of all available allies greatly enhances its ability to fight the war effectively. The proximity of the Namibian war certainly enhances South African motivation to fight.

The United States also has some potential strengths in this type of conflict. Unlike South Africa, whose motives are more self-serving and better articulated, American objectives in counterrevolutionary wars have been more balanced between self-interest and concern for the uncoerced desires of the local people. Awareness of the American position could reduce the damage done to the credibility of a host government by our support. This, in turn, would bring about a potential reduction in the degree of American involvement needed to stabilize the situation. Moreover, the United States is less likely to be in the position of having to create and support a political entity as initially artificial and narrowly supported as the moderate movement was in Namibia. Last, American resources for fighting counterrevolutionary war, or any war, are certainly greater than South Africa's.

Of course, as America learned in Vietnam, an abundance of force can be more a hindrance than a help in limited wars. Attempting to Harry the political process through intensive military operations is much like overwatering a plant. A little water is good, but too much only rots the roots, and defeats one's purpose. In counterrevolutionary war, no more military force can be usefully employed than the slow rate of political and social change can accommodate. During 21 years of active conflict in Namibia, the leaders of South Africa have shown the cohesion and patience to under-take this kind of protracted conflict. They have also made their job easier by taking full advantage of good strategy and the availability of allies. A moderate government has yet to stand alone in Namibia, but conditions for its success are certainly better now than only a few years ago. One wonders if the leaders of the United States, a country that Gen George Marshall said could not fight a seven-year war, can ever generate this same level of endurance and national consensus in a counterrevolutionary conflict. Any national policy for such war should begin with a clear answer to that question.


1. Sam C. Sarkesian, "Low-Intensity Conflict: Concepts, Principles, and Policy Guidelines," Air University Review, January-February 1985, 15.

2. Department of Information and Publicity, SWAPO of Namibia, To Be Born A Nation: The Liberation Struggle for Namibia (London: Zed, 1981), 176.

3. Ibid., 172-78.

4. Michael S. L. Morris, Armed Conflict in Southern Africa (Capetown: Jeremy Spence, 1974), 3-15.

5. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3111, December 1973.

6. International Defense and Aid Fund, Namibia: The Facts, London, 1980, 44.

7. "Interview with Mr Theo-Ben Gurirab, SWAPO's Permanent Observer to the United Nations," Third World Diplomacy, Winter 1982, 86.

8. International Institute of Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 1984-85 (London, IISS, 1984), 82-83; John Reed, "Frontline Southwest Africa," Armed Forces, February 1985, 60.

9. Dora Alves, "The South African Air Force in the Early Eighties," Air University Review, July-August 1983, 72-79.

10. Christopher Coker, South Africa's Security Dilemmas, Washington Papers: No. 126, Center for Strategic Studies, Georgetown Univ. (New York: Praeger, 1987), 28-29, 48-62.

11. Robert I. Rotberg discusses recent alternations in the government and bureaucracy in "Decisionmaking and the Military in South Africa," South Africa and Its Neighbors: Regional Security and Self-Interest (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1985), 13-26.

12. This paragraph is based on an excellent discussion of the workings of the South African government in Leonard Thompson and Andrew Prior, South African Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 107-16.

13. Department of Information and Publicity, 214-15.

14. "SWA/Namibia: Political Settlement or Mobile Warfare?" ISSUP: Bulletin of the South African Institute of Strategic Studies, Pretoria, June 1981, 4.

15. They were Operations Reindeer (May 1978), Smokeshell (June 1980), Protea (August 1981), Daisy (November 1981), Super (March 1983), and Askari (December 1983).

16. "Remaining SADF Members Withdrawn from Angola," Johannesburg Domestic Service, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, 18 April 1985, U2. Hereafter cited as FBIS.

17. "Captured RSA Commando Reveals Mission, Tactics," Luanda Domestic Service, FBIS, 29 May 1985, U1. Hereafter cited as FBIS.

18. Government of South Africa Fact Sheet, "Operation Reindeer (4 May 1978): The SADF's Most Successful Operation Against SWAPO to Date," undated.

19. "Operation Super: Crushing Defeat for Terrorists," Paratus, April 1982, 5.

20. John Reed, "Frontline Southwest Africa," Armed Forces, January 1985, 19.

21. Ibid., 20.

22. Guenter Lewy, American in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 147 and 455.

23. International Defense and Aid Fund, Apartheid's Army in Namibia, London, 1982, 33.

24. "Van Niekerk Comments on Military and Economic Situation," Johannesburg International Service, FBIS, 11 February 1985, U1.

25. "Operation Protea," Paratus, October 1981, 69.

26. Arnold Kirkby, "Life and Death in Operation Daisy," Cape Argus, 7 December 1981.

27. "Van Kiekerk Comments," U1.

28. "Namibia: Dissent Threatens Coalition," Africa News, 23 September 1985, 26.

29. George W. Shepherd, Jr., "Breaking the Namibia Impasse," Africa Today, July 1982, 27.

30. John A. Evenson, "Namibia: The Question Still Stands," Africa Report, September-October 1986, 65.


Maj Robert C. Owen (BA and MA, University of California at Los Angeles) has been executive officer of the 34th Tactical Airlift Training Group, Little Rock AFB, Arkansas, since 1987. From 1975 to 1981 he was a C-130 pilot assigned to Dyess AFB, Texas, and Rhein-Main AB, West Germany. He was an associate professor of history at the US Air Force Academy from 1981 to 1985; and in 1985-86 he was an instructor pilot with the 16th Tactical Airlift Training Squadron, Little Rock AFB. Major Owen is a distinguished graduate of Squadron Officer School and a graduate of Air Command and Staff College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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