46. Intelligence Note Prepared in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research1



South Africa offered on January 27, 1971, to join the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in conducting a plebiscite to let the inhabitants of South-West Africa (renamed “Namibia” by the United Nations) register a choice between South African and UN rule. The offer is an interesting example of political calculation, tailored to appeal to what South Africa sees as responsible world opinion, and intended to undermine the UN’s position on South-West. We discuss below some of the offer’s implications and the possible outcome of a plebiscite if one were held.

South Africa Versus UN. The issue of South-West Africa has been a primary and perennial concern of the UN since the establishment of the world body. In 1966 the General Assembly decided, by Resolution 2145, that South Africa had forfeited its right to administer South-West under its 1920 League of Nations mandate, and that the territory was thenceforth a direct responsibility of the UN as the League’s successor. South Africa claimed that Resolution 2145 was illegal, and has pertinaciously asserted that its stewardship of the territory is both legal and in the best interests of the inhabitants. The matter is at an impasse, leaving South Africa with the advantage because it exerts de facto control over South-West, and because effective UN measures to oust it are not in prospect.

Terms of the Offer. South Africa made its plebiscite offer in connection with current deliberations at The Hague on a UN request for an ICJ advisory opinion on the “legal consequences for states” of South Africa’s continued presence in South-West. The South Africans framed their offer in these terms: the basis of Resolution 2145 was that South Africa had failed to fulfill its obligations under the mandate. However (according to South Africa) the allegations on which the resolution relied are not proved, and the UN still “uncritically” accepts that South African practices and policies in the territory oppress the inhabitants and deny them the right of self-determination. To refute such allegations, South Africa will seek to put them to “the most fundamental test of all: that of the express will of the inhabitants . . . by way of a plebiscite [Page 127] . . . to determine whether it is the wish of the inhabitants that the territory should continue to be administered by the South African government or should henceforth be administered by the United Nations”. South Africa and the ICJ would jointly supervise the plebiscite.

Undermining Resolution 2145. The question presented to the court for an advisory opinion was carefully framed to assume the validity of Resolution 2145; most participants agree, nevertheless, that the court may examine this question. South Africa is trying to use this non-binding proceeding to call into question the competence of the General Assembly to pass such a resolution, the validity of the resolution itself, and, further, to reopen and argue the allegations of fact on which Resolution 2145 was “uncritically” based.

Minimum Risk for South Africa. While South Africa is implying that a plebiscite would be an exercise in self-determination, it has not committed itself to act in accordance with the results of the vote. South Africa is also limiting the scope of the question by omitting reference to a vote on the alternative of independence for the territory. Finally, South Africa is in a position to reject a plebiscite if it finds proposals for the modalities of campaigning and voting unacceptable.

Alternative for the ICJ. In considering the plebiscite proposal, which is one aspect of South Africa’s comprehensive approach to the case, it is questionable that the ICJ could directly participate in setting up or supervising a plebiscite. Additionally, the court would probably want to assure itself that it would not be usurping functions of the UN’s political organs. It is much more likely that the ICJ will refer the offer—if it deals with it at all—directly to a political organ of the UN. If the court thus finesses the plebiscite, South Africa may decline further discussion of it on grounds that it is sub judice, that it was made only to the ICJ, and that in any case the political organs of the UN have already demonstrated their unwillingness to accept the facts of South African administration and are not interested in self-determination for the people of the territory. Thus, the South Africans expect in any event to make political gains at small risk.

A Hope of Self-Determination. A plebiscite arrangement which would give the hope of genuine self-determination would require South Africa to commit itself to act on the vote, to allow ample time for campaigning, to allow freedom for all the inhabitants (including exiles) to campaign, and to immunize those engaged in electioneering from harassment before or after the vote. The UN for its part might commit itself (e.g., by resolution), if it won the plebiscite, to a timetable for independence and to substantial assistance programs. The political obstacles to formulating such an agreement are formidable, but failure to deal with the plebiscite matter would leave the propaganda field to South Africa. Already, Dawid de Villiers, leader of South Africa’s legal [Page 128] team at The Hague, has said that he would find it incomprehensible that South Africa’s critics should spurn the offer. He added that while he could not commit South Africa to accept the outcome of a negative vote, this would be a “tremendous setback to the stance of the South African government”.

Will It Come to a Vote? We doubt that the South African government expects that its offer will be accepted, and we believe the South Africans would be content with the political gains inherent in the offer itself. But they also believe that they would not be taking much of a political risk, should the matter come to a vote under mutually agreed conditions.

How Would a Vote Go? South-West Africa has a population (according to 1966 estimates) of 610,000. By far the largest group are the 270,000 Ovambos grouped along the northern border. Ovamboland, South-West Africa’s only functioning Bantu “homeland,” has received a very limited measure of local self-government, and South Africa has devoted substantial resources to the improvement of its infrastructure, social facilities, and agriculture. At the same time, South Africa has entrenched a political structure controlled by government-paid chiefs and has emasculated political opposition through police presence and application of South Africa’s notorious Terrorism Act. Given these carrot-and-stick conditions, plus South African willingness to offer favors to cooperative Ovambos, a majority of the Ovambos would probably vote for continued association with South Africa rather than the UN.

Virtually all of the 96,000 whites, who form the second largest group in the territory, would also vote for association with South Africa; the Ovambos and whites together comprise 60 percent of the population. Among the other inhabitants, only the Hereros and the Rehoboth Basters are presently in outright opposition to South African rule—but this does not necessarily mean they would prefer UN rule.

Much would depend on the manner in which the plebiscite was organized and conducted; in particular, how much time would be allowed to educate the people to the issues involved and how much free discussion permitted. Officials of the South-West Africa Peoples Organization (SWAPO) have expressed full confidence that, given freedom for 9–12 months to work within the territory and explain the issues to the people, the result would favor the United Nations. This very possibility makes it most unlikely that South Africa would permit such a campaign.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 19 SW AFR. Confidential; No Foreign Dissem; Controlled Dissem. Drafted by Hugh Campbell, cleared by Lloyd Rives, and released by David Mark (INR/Africa).