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Walvis Bay – return to Namibia

Avatar of inke inke - 08. August 2018 - Discover Namibia

Aerial view of Walvis Bay, December 2017. (Photo: Gondwana Collection)

Brigitte Weidlich

The reintegration of the port of Walvis Bay into Namibia in 1994, four years after independence had taken a long time and was the result of protracted negotiations. It was also a success story showing the world that success through peaceful means was possible. 

Being the only natural deep-sea port along Namibia’s entire coastline, Walvis Bay and the surrounding enclave was always economically and strategically significant.

Several players on the political stage

On 22 December 1988 the UN made the historic announcement in New York that an agreement was reached - including apartheid South Africa - that Namibia would finally become independent by 21 March 1990, preceded by a year of transition from 1 April 1989 under UN supervision. It was clear that South Africa's apartheid government would not be able to hold on for much longer.

Namibia's independence paved the way for a democratic South Africa. On the other hand, back in 1981 at a UN conference on Namibia in Paris, which was also attended by several South African politicians in exile, one of them made an important statement about Walvis Bay. Oliver Tambo was president of the African National Congress (ANC). Tambo told the conference that once democracy was obtained in South Africa, the ANC would see to it that Walvis Bay would become part of Namibia. 

Namibia's largest liberation movement, the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) had always made clear that there would be no independence for Namibia without Walvis Bay and its enclave. Developments unfolded a bit differently, however but eventually that goal was reached.

UN Resolution 432

Back in 1978 Resolution 432 of the UN Security Council referred to a UN General Assembly decision taken on 4 November 1977 "that Walvis Bay is an integral part of Namibia". Resolution 432 of 27 July 1978 declared among others that Namibia's territorial integrity had to be assured through the reintegration of Walvis Bay and all offshore islands. 

On 2 February 1990, South African President Willem de Klerk announced that liberation struggle icon Nelson Mandela would be released from prison after 27 years.

On 9 February 1990 Namibia's Constituent Assembly adopted the country's constitution, six weeks before independence on 21 March. 

Resistance leader became president: Sam Nujoma was sworn in by Chief Justice Hans Berker on 21 March 1990. (Photo: National Archives of Namibia)

An important letter

A Swedish transport expert, Nils Bruzelius who was asked shortly before independence by SWAPO to compile a study on transport and communications in Namibia for the future government mentions in his memoirs a letter written by president-elect Sam Nujoma about Walvis Bay. 

On 20 March 1990, one day before Namibia's independence, Nujoma sent a letter to the UN Secretary General stating "... that as from 21 March 1990, Walvis Bay should be recognised as bona fide port of entry of Namibia for oil products and other goods."

In his book How the Port of Walvis Bay became Namibian, published in 2017, Bruzelius writes that during independence celebrations in Windhoek, where the UN Secretary General and South Africa's President de Klerk were present, as well as South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha and his Namibian counterpart Theo-Ben Gurirab, there was no discussion about Walvis Bay on the sidelines. 

Namibia's government only moved in early 1991, when Foreign Minister Theo-Ben Gurirab sent a letter to Minister Pik Botha suggesting a meeting on that topic, writes Bruzelius, who became involved in the Walvis Bay at technical level. 

According to Bruzelius, the Namibian side was considering three scenarios: possible legal implications if Namibia continued using the port at Walvis Bay after independence. The second scenario was looking for another site along the Namibian coast to build a new port. Thirdly, the new government looked at developing emergency transport arrangements into and out of Namibia bypassing South Africa should the new government in Windhoek prohibit the use of Walvis Bay.

After Namibia's independence, South African authorities set up a 'border post' just a few metres away from the southern end of the bridge over the Swakop River outside Swakopmund. (Photo: Ron Swilling)

New border posts in the desert 

Virtually immediately after Namibia's independence, South African authorities set up a 'border post' just a few metres away from the southern end of the bridge over the Swakop River outside Swakopmund. People had to show their (mostly South African) passports to the "border officials" who operated from an army tent. The inhabitants of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay were not too happy about this. Another such post was set up near Rooikop, east of Walvis Bay.

Meeting eye to eye

Gurirab and Botha met on 14 March 1991 to discuss Walvis Bay. At a second meeting on 17 May the same year, they agreed to "reach a negotiated solution for Walvis Bay" and the offshore islands, writes Bruzelius. Progress was made in the next few months and on 20 September 1991 the governments of Namibia and South Africa decided on a Joint Administrative Authority (JAA) for the harbour town. This was confirmed on 26 March 1992 and the JAA agreement was signed in November 1992. Heading the JAA would be a chief executive officer from Namibia and South Africa each, assisted by a team of experts. The Namibian CEO was Nangolo Mbumba, now Vice-President of Namibia. The seasoned South African diplomat Carl von Hirschberg - of German descent was Mbumba's counterpart. 

Among the first agreements they reached was to abolish the "border posts" on 3 December 1992, much to the relief of the coastal population. 

With regards to the day-to-day port operations it was 'business as usual', though some staff and several Walvis Bay inhabitants felt more and more uncertain about their future.

Parallel developments at TransNamib 

The public transport entity TransNamib in Namibia appeared to have different plans than the politicians. TransNamib started its own talks with South Africa's port authority Portnet in order to obtain control of the Walvis Bay port and jointly run it with Portnet!

Bruzelius elaborates extensively on pages 75 to 85 in his book how Namibia's Ministry of Works, Transport and Communications (MWTC) appeared to be sidelined by TransNamib under its Managing Director Francois Uys. Moreover, TransNamib allegedly chose to ignore the Ministry and saw itself directly accountable to Cabinet and communicated accordingly. 

The Namibian CEO of the JAA, Nangolo Mbumba got wind of this separate development. Mbumba sent a letter to the permanent secretary of the MWTC, Dr Peingondjabi Shipoh on 13 August 1993 demanding clarity on the TransNamib talks with Portnet. 

Dramatic turn of events (CODESA)

Meanwhile in South Africa, the multiparty constitutional negotiations at the World Trade Centre near Johannesburg had started in December 1991. Namibia had a few observers to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). On 9 August 1993, the Minister for Regional and Land Affairs André Fourie commented on the topic of demarcations for new provinces. Fourie said the Walvis Bay enclave "should form part of the (new) Western Cape Region and be administered from Cape Town as has been the case for decades". 

This did not go down well as the ANC had always maintained Walvis Bay belonged to Namibia. The smaller Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) party held the same view. Three days of intensive lobbying started, involving Namibia's new MWTC Minister, Marco Hausiku and his permanent secretary, Dr Shipoh. 

Interestingly, the PAC had Walvis Bay put on the agenda for the plenary session of CODESA's negotiating council for 12 August plus a draft resolution to be adopted. The text had been drafted some months back already together with Namibia. On 16 August 1993 the resolution on Walvis Bay was unanimously adopted. It stipulated that the governments of Namibia and South Africa should meet to resolve any outstanding issues on Walvis Bay and set a date for the transfer of the enclave to Namibia. Foreign Ministers Gurirab and Botha finally set a date on 8 September 1993 during a meeting in Pretoria. Walvis Bay was to be re-intergrated on 28 February 1994. Only six months were left to map out the details and organise the handover ceremony. 

Countdown starts

Namibia's Cabinet decided on 28 September 1993 during a special Cabinet meeting to establish a new entity, the Namibian Ports Authority (NamPort). TransNamib had to shelf its dream of managing the port.

The technocrats and legal experts in both countries had many tasks to accomplish: drafting detailed agreements for the hand over, about the port assets, laws had to be drawn up and adopted by the Parliaments of both countries. It had to be established who of the senior staff at the port would remain or return to South Africa. 

Similarly, government buildings in the harbour town had to be transferred to the Namibian government. Postal and telecommunications services had to be integrated into the Namibian state-owned enterprises as was done with all the other municipalities in 1990. The defence ministries of both countries had to organise the handover of the military airport at Rooikop, the naval assets at the port and the military immovable properties at the Walvis Bay military base and at Rand Rifles, a spot near the beach a few kilometres outside Walvis Bay where a few cannons were stationed. 

Final round and payment demands

The fifth and last round of negotiations on Walvis Bay, its port and the offshore islands took place on 21 January 1994 in Pretoria, just 38 days before the handover. 

According to his book Chronology of Namibian History former Deputy Minister of Works, Transport and Communications Klaus Dierks wrote, the talks took all day and were "tough". Dierks was present on that day.

Although the old apartheid government in Pretoria was in its dying days it made clear Namibia should pay for assets and immovable property situated in Walvis Bay. South Africa's power utility Eskom demanded R23 million for electricity infrastructure in the town and South Africa's port authority Portnet was not shy with its demand for R$84.7 million. Should Namibia not pay, Portnet would dismantle all "movable assets from the port, including warehouses and transport them to South Africa," Dierks remembered. "The Cape Provincial Administration also wanted money for government buildings. Telkom SA demanded R4.8 million.”

By 8 February 1994, not all details were agreed on. Namibia argued that according to international law, state succession did not entail paying for assets. The “Vienna Convention on Succession of States in Respect of State Property” of 1983 provided the guidelines.

According to Dierks, it became clear that the assets issue would not be finalised by month-end. It was agreed that for the interim Namibia's planned ports authority would take over the day-to-day running of the port from 1 March. 

On 9 February MWTC-Minister Haufiku informed Pretoria that his government was willing to pay N$15 million for the assets. On 21 February the Namibian parliament adopted the Walvis Bay and Offshore Islands Act and two days later the Namibian Ports Authority Act. 

The event for the reintegration of Walvis Bay on the evening of 28 February 1994 was hailed by Namibian President Sam Nujoma as "a joyous occasion as Namibia is now fully independent ... and we can rejoice because the wrongs of history were corrected."

The reintegration was a “glowing example of what can be achieved peacefully and in reconciliation between the erstwhile antagonistic forces," Nujoma added. 

The joyous occasion left a slightly bitter aftertaste with the discovery of a scene of destruction at the Rooikop military airbase the South African soldiers had left behind.

Asset drama only ends in 1996 

In South Africa, elections were held in April 1994 and in May Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's new president. Efforts by Namibia to settle the Walvis Bay port assets issue were unsuccessful. The Pretoria government saw the matter as a commercial transaction between two public enterprises. NamPort tried to get written approval for the recent higher offer of N$30 million made by the Minister. 

The matter dragged on until an agreement was finalised in October 1995. NamPort took out a loan and paid the N$30 million in December 1995. An official asset handover ceremony took place on 22 March 1996.

Finally, six years after independence, Namibia had full ownership of the port's infrastructure, two years and a month after the port was re-integrated. 

On 28 February 2019, Namibians will celebrate 25 years of the rightful return of Walvis Bay, its port and the entire enclave of 1,124 square kilometres, which so many world powers for several centuries desired to own.

Many books cover the historic development of Walvis Bay. (Photo: Brigitte Weidlich)

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