Title: China and SWAPO: the Role of the People’s Republic in Namibia’s Liberation and Post-Independence Relations
Author: Ian Taylor
One-sentence summary: China was not a prominent ally of Swapo, because Swapo already had links with Russia, and Russia was in a conflict of China. But China kept supporting Swapo (mostly verbally), and maintained a good relationship until the Russia conflict fell away and they could deepen their ties to SWAPO.
All of this has to consider that China and Soviet Russia had very tense relations. Even though the West saw both of them as communists, they had important differences and were in constant competition with each other. In some African countries, the Chinese and Soviets supported different organisations striving for independence – in Namibia, both supported SWAPO. SWAPO saw the Soviets as “its only potential major source of material” in the struggle, so focused on that relationship — but they did not pick side and sent comrades to China for training. Meanwhile, China knew that there was no alternative to SWAPO, so continued supporting them.
The primary way of doing this was through diplomatic stances. China was on the UN Security Committee, and often spoke out against apartheid domination of Namibia. This was also good for China: these comments allowed China to raise its profile, as the Chinese wanted to re-establish themselves as global players in politics. Meanwhile, verbal support cost little: while making friends in the developing world through their anti-apartheid stance China could avoid “concrete action or any real demand on its level of commitment”
Portugal Withdraws From Angola
So Portugal experiences a coup, and withdraws from its colonies – including Angola. This means that SWAPO can now operate from bases within Angola, and it receives training from the Soviets, Cuba, and other allies of the Angola’s MPLA. SWAPO adopts a radical Marxist-Leninist programme, which demonstrates their close links with the Soviets. This leaves China unable to compete with the Soviet support and so they continue working mostly through rhetoric.
But they still don’t like the Soviets. When five countries try to negotiate a UN-referendum and South African withdrawal, the talks break down because SWAPO refuses to give Walvis Bay to the South Africans. This breakdown upsets the Chinese, who think that the longer the struggle goes on, the stronger the Soviets are. The Chinese claim that “Moscow and Pretoria are making use of each other to gain something for themselves before Namibia wins independence.”
Things change in the 80s, and the Tianmen square massacre
In the 1980s China realises that the Soviets aren’t a big threat anymore, and the Soviets are less anti-Chinese. The Soviets also realise that supporting all these liberations movements is expensive, and are keen for other countries to get involved.
Sam Nujoma visits China in 1984, and delegations follow. Meanwhile, after the Tianmen Square Massacre in 1989, when the Chinese government brutally cracks down on protestors, Nujoma is”one of the few African leaders to explicitly congratulate China on its suppression of the pro-democracy movement.” He sends a message to the ambassador in Luanda where he
expressed his understanding of [the] resolute action taken by the Chinese Government and the People’s Army to put down the counter-revolutionary rebellion [and wished] to convey his congratulations to the Communist Party of China … on their victory in quelling the counter-revolutionary rebellion.
China would have appreciated the support, as they turned towards developing countries for support as international criticism increased.
China officially recognises Namibia immediately after independence. Moses Garoeb leads a delegation to China in 1991 to discuss joint economic ventures, and Hage Geingob – then Prime Minister – follows in September. The same year, the Chinese Foreign minister Quian Qichen visits Namibia, continuing the campaign to “drum up support from African states in the post-Tianmen period.”
During these various visits (including a state visit from Sam Nujoma to China in 1992 and a visit by Chinese companies to Namibia in 1993) Namibia and China sign a variety of economic partnership agreements, and the relationship has been mostly economic since.
One interesting thing is that it did look for a moment like we could have had two liberation movements supported by different communist pwoers. China acted as a patron to SWANU for a while, even after it became clear that SWAPO was the leading liberation movement. The SWANU chairman visited china in 1960, and its president in 1966 was very pro-China, denouncing “Soviet-American collusion” By the 1970s the Chinese simply couldn’t ignore that SWANU was not nearly as effective as SWAPO, and made sure to support what became the first ruling party of the country.
China supported UN Resolution 435, which paved the way for independent elections. The Soviet Union? They abstained.