WHEN the Republic of Namibia gained its independence from apartheid South Africa in 1990, there were fears that whites would be disadvantaged and that rampant Stalinism would prevail. Those worries, and charismatic campaigning by a white-led opposition in 1989, held the revolutionary Marxist winning party's majority at the polls to 57 percent, below the two-thirds vote required to control the writing of the country's first constitution.
Instead of using its legislative power to disadvantage opponents and antagonists, the ruling South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) has preached and practiced reconciliation.
SWAPO has carefully negotiated a 50-50 wealth-sharing agreement with the giant Anglo-American Corporation for control over the country's vast diamond wealth. It has sustained and regulated its important fishing industry. It has successfully won control over the South African-owned port of Walvis Bay. It has welcomed and supported the activities of its largely white-controlled agribusiness industry.
At the polls last December, SWAPO won 70 percent of the popular vote, increasing its seats in the 72-seat Legislative Assembly from 41 to 53. President Sam Nujoma, who has governed with a steady, tolerant hand since 1990, was reelected with an even larger share of the total poll.
Three black-led opposition parties were no match for SWAPO. Nor did Misheke Muyongo, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance and once Mr. Nujoma's second-in-command, give the president any serious competition. Indeed, either contentment or apathy ran a stronger second to SWAPO and Nujoma; the total turnout was a low for Namibia, 76 percent of registered voters, compared with 97 percent in 1989.
The opposition parties had no real platform. Namibia still lacks the most crucial characteristic of a viable democracy - strong, coherent opposition parties capable of becoming a future government.
Since SWAPO became the effective ruling party in 1990, there has been less economic growth than hoped for, and a gradual increase in allegations of official corruption. But Nujoma's regime has not dominated the country in any heavy-handed way; the clauses in the Constitution enshrining private enterprise and foreign investment, and protecting the rights of white civil servants, have been respected.
Precisely how SWAPO will seek to use its two-thirds majority to alter the Constitution is unclear. Its civil service, for the most part constitutionally protected, is about twice as large as Namibia needs. Before the election, the government talked about reducing civil service employment, which would mean laying off whites, many of whom still occupy senior-level positions.
Doing more than not filling positions that fall vacant would be a first, necessary step. But it would also roil race relations, which Nujoma obviously wants to avoid.
With donor countries watching (they are scheduled to meet in May), and South Africa observing closely, Namibia will move cautiously, even with its overwhelming mandate from the voters. Nujoma has promised to put proposed constitutional changes to a national referendum.
There is no official desire to make Namibia less attractive to foreign investors, some of whom have taken positions in the fishing industry, or to hinder prospecting for offshore oil and gas and, on shore, precious minerals. The growing ecotourism industry also relies upon a stable political environment. Agriculture, particularly the grazing of cattle and sheep, still depends primarily on white capital. Economic growth in the populous north could also be jeopardized by any disruption of business confidence in the south.
For all these reasons, SWAPO will be slow to take full advantage of its enhanced popularity. Elements within the SWAPO leadership will be keen to revise the astute, gentle compromises in the Constitution. But the sharpening of existing ethnic cleavages are hardly what Namibia now needs.
Namibia has done well socially and economically by adhering to the spirit as well as the letter of its Constitution. Radical change will come gradually, if at all. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.