Within the space of two months – mid-July to mid-September in 1966 – four epoch-making events took place that profoundly affected South Africa (SA). These inevitably spilt over into South West Africa (SWA) – then still under SA administration but now the independent state of Namibia. The events had an immediate personal impact on many, and then coalesced to form the basis of the future fate of both nations. They redefined the geopolitical environment in southern Africa for both.

After fifty years, some historical perspective is essential – particularly since a tendency has arisen to overwrite or redefine the sequence of events that precipitated major change in the ultimate fate of apartheid, its territorial reach, and what led to its abolition.

For SWA there were direct connections between what occurred. Firstly, the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on 18 July 1966 triggered SWAPO’s armed struggle for independence on 26 August 1966.

In 1960 Ethiopia and Liberia filed the case in the ICJ against South Africa. They alleged that South Africa had not fulfilled its mandatory obligations towards SWA. In essence the Court ruled that they had no legal right or interest appertaining to them in the subject matter of the interpretation and application of the Mandate of 1920. While simple termination of the Mandate was not a matter for the Court to decide, had the ruling gone against SA on the arguments by Ethiopia and Liberia then the next step would have been to get the Security Council (SC) to force SA from the Territory.

Before focusing on what might have been a far worse scenario than the real developments, as we know them today, it is imperative to recall two other occurrences of equal historical significance. They were again interconnected – and had a severe impact on SA’s own political development; but, as importantly, on that country’s approach to international affairs and more specifically its handling of the SWA issue.

On 6 September 1966 Dr. Verwoerd, then Prime Minister of SA, was assassinated. A week later he was succeeded by his Minister of Justice, John Vorster, who subsequently framed his own policies towards Africa. These included a more conciliatory definition of the SWA issue – and actual engagement with internal leaders in the disputed Territory. However, no representative of SWAPO from inside or outside SWA was involved.

This fresh vision encouraged certain internal SWA leaders to become more involved with each other; and from that an idea took firm root – designated the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on SWA. Established in 1974 it saw those internal leaders meet jointly for the first time. The major flaw continued to be that it excluded SWAPO. The Turnhalle initiative followed afterwards in 1977 – still without SWAPO.

Taken together, these developments brought SA face to face with the new internal SWA leaders, and here Dirk Mudge made a considerable impression, though in the final analysis he considered and chose his own way. But SA/SWA had entered a realm of unplumbed realities. The entire SWA issue became a greater focal point in SA’s foreign policy than ever before. It was now seen and evaluated through the prism of rapidly changed and changing circumstances and caused SA to realise that – even disregarding its internal policies – its international standing would remain fragile (and subject to increased world condemnation) if the SWA issue was not resolved with international approval.

That equivocal balance held for almost eight years and SA was able to reposition itself as a moderating force on SWA independence. Then came a shocking event. The fateful month was April 1974. A coup in Lisbon compelled Portugal – a staunch ally of SA over many decades – to abandon its colonies of Angola and Mozambique.

The upshot was a dark shadow over Angola and SWA for 16 years; and this period of disequilibrium only came to an end when the Cubans withdrew from Angola and that led to Namibia eventually gaining independence in 1990.

However, far earlier, in anticipation of the ICJ’s decision, the United States had its own strategies well in preparation. The US was aware that the ruling could well be exceptionally negative for SA, and therefore for its own standing in global pre-eminence. It needed to devise a strategy that would determine what should occur, not if but when the decision went against SA.

America’s position was finalised on the basis of a State Department National Policy Paper approved by Secretary of State Dean Rusk in 1965. In that document the following was recorded: “It now appears likely that the issue over the mandatory status of South-West Africa may soon bring about the first major confrontation looming between the world community and South Africa. This confrontation also has serious implications for the authority of the UN and the International Court of Justice. It will bring into sharp focus the potential danger for unilateral action by Communist countries which could jeopardise our long-term interests in Africa”.

Immediately preceding the Court’s ruling, President Lyndon Johnson chaired meetings of his National Security Council (NSC). The case at the ICJ featured prominently on the agenda, and vital decisions with far-reaching consequences were taken. On 14 July 1966 Under-Secretary of State George Ball opined that the Court would “rule against SA on all counts”. In officially released documentation his further assessment was that “after stalling, SA will reject the Court ruling and any UN actions to enforce the ruling. The decision will be a blow to sterling, thus creating a major problem for the British. We must expect that black Africans will try in the UN to get military and economic sanctions against SA.”

His conclusion: “We are trying to get SA to accept the Court’s decision when it is handed down.”

Johnson then instructed Rusk “to set up a task force on the SWA problem”. It was to be composed of those officers in State, Defence, Treasury, AID, USIA, CIA, and the NSC Staff responsible for African Affairs. (“Summary Notes of the 561st Meeting of the National Security Council” in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XXIV, Africa).

One of the options contemplated by the task force was a naval blockade of SA in the event of its noncompliance with the Court decision. A few days after that crucial NSC meeting on SWA, the US Ambassador to SA handed a demarche to the SA Government warning SA to accept the forthcoming judgment. Attention was specifically drawn to Article 94 of the UN Charter in terms of which SA (as a member of the UN) was bound “to comply with the decision” of the Court. Furthermore, if it failed “to perform the obligations incumbent upon it … [the Security Council may] decide upon measures to be taken to give effect to the judgment.”

A Security Council decision declaring SA’s presence and administration illegal, and demanding a SA withdrawal, was not farfetched. This would have caused a major confrontation: a forcible removal of SA from SWA while it still held legal title to the area and port of Walvis Bay would have caused unthinkable consequences. But this was only part of SWA’s tenuous geopolitical position.

Its access to the outside world by sea and land would have been severely curtailed. Lüderitz was its only harbour. It had limited infrastructure and far removed from Windhoek and even more so from the majority of the population living in the northern parts of the country. Swakopmund which was so extensively used by the Germans during their colonial history in the Territory ceased to be a proper harbour of that bygone era.

Its only rail link was with SA. The few road outlets to SA would also have been problematic. Movement of both people and goods to and from SA would have been uncompromisingly restricted and cumbersome. The southern border of SWA at that time was still the northern bank of the Orange River. The issue of water would also have become intractable. (Fortunately the anomaly with the definition of that border was rectified with the adoption of Namibia’s constitution which declares correctly the middle of the river as the country’s southern border.)

Other borders would not have been less precarious. In Angola the Portuguese were still in control of all aspects of life. The border town of Kazungula, in the Eastern Caprivi, where the territories of SWA, Zambia, Bechuanaland (it gained independence and became Botswana on 30 September 1966) and Rhodesia came close to meeting at a quadripoint would not have been much of a comfort. The Caprivi Zipfel bordered Zambia but the western part of that strip was so inaccessible that the eastern part was only reachable by air from the rest of SWA. That geographical hindrance resulted in Katima Mulilo being administered for a period from Pretoria. Thus the Zambian border meant not much to the rest of SWA at that time. The priorities of the emerging Botswana were uppermost to take care of the realities its own independence would demand. Rhodesia was struggling to cope with its own international isolation less than nine months after its Unilateral Declaration of Independence on 11 November 1965. It was so dependent on SA that it would not have done anything to antagonize its protector.

Even a voluntary departure would have brought results for which SA, SWA and the affected world were ill-prepared. Specifically, it needs to be retrospectively asked: what would the situation on the ground have been if demands for immediate independence were indeed met? The departing SA-appointed Administrator and his administration would have left behind no leadership in a position to maintain the affairs of governance. The then Legislative Assembly – consisting only of whites – would have been anathema to the outside world and a vast majority of the inhabitants.

Not all of those who played such a crucial role in bringing Namibia to independence in 1990 and forming its first government were already on the scene. There was no leader who would have commanded the respect and acceptance of the majority of the inhabitants. Sam Nujoma was only starting to spread his wings internally, let alone internationally. Phohamba, Geingob, Gurirab, Katjavivi – to name only a few – had not yet gained prominence. The perennial petitioners at the UN were not commanding majority support throughout the Territory. By then Dirk Mudge had only five years of experience in the Legislative Assembly and one year of service as a member of the Executive Council. Clemence Kapuuo was a revered leader amongst the Herero – but nationwide acceptance was not a foregone conclusion. An independent Namibia in 1966 would have been premature and not as successful as the one that came to statehood in March 1990.

Even with the pain that a continued SA presence brought to SWA in the ensuing 24 years, those years in hindsight helped forge a leadership cadre outside and, especially, inside SWAPO that stood Namibia in good stead in the years following 1990. The international exposure and experience that SWAPO leaders gained in the intervening years enabled them to lead with confidence the constitutional process that resulted in world acclaim.

Dirk Mudge made a quantum leap early in his political outlook. He faced the new realities emerging in his country head on. While he could easily have wandered along the well-trodden path of his fellow white compatriots of those early years, he adjusted.

He did so as he had the foresight with which few in his country – indeed, even in SA – had been endowed and blessed. That leap was that of a visionary: it was calculated. When he acted he could count true supporters on his two hands; yet what he achieved has now been recorded in various publications, including his own.

What is sorely lacking – not so much in Namibia where he is to this day a respected leader, but in SA – is the recognition for his endeavours so tirelessly performed over so many decades. What he pioneered in Namibia was not always well-liked in SA and by its then leaders. Indeed, sometimes there was little to no appreciation for what he wanted to achieve and did achieve against great odds.

So there remains little or no recognition of what he accomplished – and the labels hung around his neck were definitely not deserved. Had a few pages from his approach to meaningfully engaging his fellow human beings been more widely accepted and understood, a difference would have been affected in SA where that engagement was dismally lacking.

When his book “All the Way to an Independent Namibia” is introduced in Pretoria on 28 September, it must be hoped that the accolades that were formerly denied him by SA will now be given to a person who made a real difference in his own country.

To reiterate: he set an example for his neighbouring state where many of its leaders were hesitant – even fearful – to proceed on a path by then already well-travelled by Dirk Mudge.