The historic contribution of the United Nations to the resolution of conflicts in Southern Africa

Dr Mpfariseni Budeli is Associate Professor in the College of Law at the University of South Africa (UNISA).
Dr André Mbata Mangu is Research Professor and Director of the Verloren van Themaat Centre of Public Law in the College of Law at UNISA.


Around the middle of the 20th century, Southern Africa presented the international community with two major and interrelated conflict-causing situations – two of the most challenging that it had to deal with since the inception of the United Nations (UN) in the 1940s: South Africa’s illegal occupation of the then South-West Africa, and South Africa’s apartheid policy, which it later extended to this neighbouring country. South-West Africa ultimately became independent as Namibia, and the apartheid regime came to its end, both in the early 1990s. These two crucially important events resulted from a combination of efforts by the UN, regional organisations, local liberation movements and other actors, both international and national. This paper is focused on the contribution of the UN, and almost two decades after the establishment of a democratic constitutional order in these two Southern African countries, it revisits the significant contribution made by the UN to the decolonisation of Namibia and the end of apartheid in South Africa.


Since the international community through the UN took the lead in combating South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia and its apartheid policy, the paper considers the historical background, purposes and organs of the UN briefly. It then reflects on the contribution of the UN as an international organisation to the independence of Namibia and the ending of the apartheid policy in South Africa and Namibia. It acknowledges the important part played by a regional actor such as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and domestic actors such as the liberation movements and their leaders. The actual contributions of these regional and local organisations fall outside the scope of this paper, but the way in which they formed part of the context in which the UN could act as it did is taken into account.

The background and functioning of the UN

From the League of Nations to the UN

The 1914–1918 World War or World War I resulted in unprecedented destruction and misery. The States that then constituted the ‘international community’ resolved to unite their efforts and cooperate to create a more peaceful world free from war.

The League of Nations, as a means of avoiding any repetition of the bloodshed seen in World War I, was promoted by the President of the United States (US), Woodrow Wilson. Wilson’s final plans for the League were reportedly influenced by the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, Jan Smuts, who had published a book entitled The League of Nations: A practical suggestion in 1918. The League of the Nations, which was the forerunner of the UN, was established in 1920 after its Covenant entered into force on 28 June 1919.

The Preamble to the Covenant of the League of Nations stressed its two major functions: namely the achievement of international peace and security and the promotion of international cooperation. However, the League of Nations failed to achieve these twin objectives. A new international conflict, World War II, broke out in 1939 and lasted until 1945. However, the idea of a universal organisation dedicated to protecting and promoting world peace and security survived (Newman and Thakur 2000:2).

Accordingly, the UN was formed as an association of independent states whose principal purpose was to maintain international peace and security, to secure justice and human rights and promote social progress and better standards of life (Preamble to the UN Charter).

Devised by US President Franklin Roosevelt, the name ‘United Nations’ was first used in the ‘Declaration by the United Nations’ of 1 January 1942, which was signed during World War II by the representatives of 26 nations that pledged their governments to continue fighting together against the Axis Power (Russell and Muther 1958:5).

In the Moscow Declaration of October 1943, the ‘Big Four’ – namely China, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom (UK) and the US – agreed to establish, at the earliest possible date, an international organisation based on the principles of sovereign equality of all peace loving states and open membership to all such states in order to promote international peace and security (Riggs and Plano 1994:12; White 1993:4). They anticipated that one of the principal organs of this new organisation, namely the Security Council, should have the function of maintaining international peace and security through collective measures, including the use of force. They also decided that together with France, they should have special permanent positions on the Security Council with special voting rights which would ensure that no substantive decisions would be taken by the Council without their unanimous concurrence. They granted themselves the ‘veto right’ (White 1993:5). In 1944, their representatives met at Dumbarton Oaks, a private mansion in Washington, D.C., and drew up plans for the world organisation.

In February 1945, Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States met at Yalta and agreed on voting procedures and called for a conference to draw up a Charter. The UN Conference on International Organisation opened on 25 April 1945 in San Francisco. Fifty countries participated in this conference (United Nations 1992:3). Eventually, their duly mandated representatives signed the UN Charter on 26 June 1945. Poland, which was unable to send representatives to the conference due to political instability signed the Charter on 15 October 1945 and became one of the original 51 UN member States.

The UN officially came into existence on 24 October 1945 after its Charter was ratified by the ‘Big Five’ – namely China, France, the Soviet Union, the UK and the US – and by the majority of other signatories.

Purposes and organs of the UN

According to Article 1 of its Charter, the purposes of the UN are four-fold. First, the UN is to maintain international peace and security and to take effective and collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace and for the suppression of acts of aggression and other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes (Article 1(1) of the UN Charter). Second, the UN is to develop friendly relations amongst nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace (Article 1(2)). The third purpose of the UN is to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character (Article 1(3)). The fourth and last purpose of the UN is to be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations in the attainment of these ends (Article 1(4)).

The UN Charter established six principal organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the Secretariat and the International Court of Justice (Article 7).

The General Assembly is the largest and the main deliberative organ of the UN. It is composed of representatives of all UN member states, each of which has one vote and may have a maximum of five representatives (Articles 9 and 18). It meets in regular annual sessions or in special sessions at the request of the Security Council, of the majority of its members, or of one member if the majority of members concur (Article 20). Decisions on important questions such as those on peace and security, admission of new members and budgetary matters, require a two-thirds majority of members present and voting. Decisions on other questions are reached by a simple majority (Article 18(2)). The General Assembly may discuss any questions or any matters within the scope of the Charter or relating to the powers and functions of any organs provided for in the Charter, and, except as provided for in article 12, it may make recommendations to the members of the UN or to the Security Council or to both on any such questions or matters (Article 10). Unfortunately, the recommendations and resolutions of the General Assembly are not binding on the UN member states.

The second UN principal organ is the Security Council. Its primary responsibility is to maintain international peace and security in accordance with the principles and purposes of the UN (Article 24(1)). It consists of 15 member states, including China, France, UK, the Soviet Union (its seat is currently held by Russia) and the US. These five members hold permanent positions and have a ‘veto’ right that entitles each of them to invalidate any decision taken by the remaining members of the Security Council. In the Security Council, decisions on procedural matters are made by an affirmative vote of at least nine of the 15 members. However, decisions on substantive issues require nine votes including the concurring votes of all five permanent members. The Security Council has the power to take decisions which are binding on all UN member states (Article 24). This makes it the most important and powerful organ of the UN (Article 25). According to Article 39 of the Charter, the Security Council may take enforcement measures after it has determined that a situation poses a threat to or constitutes a breach of international peace and security or an act of aggression. Article 39 provides the Security Council with a mandate to utilise the provisions of chapter VI of the Charter in resolving international conflicts. Under Article 41, the Security Council may decide what measures not involving the use of force are to be employed. These may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations. However, if the Security Council deems the measures taken under Article 41 to be inadequate in restoring international peace and security, it may resort to forcible measures (Article 42). Article 2(7) of the Charter provides that ‘nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the UN to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII’.

The third UN principal organ is the Economic and Social Council. Its primary function is to coordinate the economic and social work of the UN. It is devoted to achieving higher standards of living, improving health and education, and promoting respect for human rights and freedoms throughout the world (Article 62). The Council has 54 members who serve for three years. Voting in the Economic and Social Council is by simple majority and each member has one vote (Article 67). The Council functions under the authority of the General Assembly and reports to it.

The Trusteeship Council was the fourth UN principal organ. Its main task was to supervise the administration of Trust Territories, but this organ has become obsolete as there are no longer Trust Territories.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the UN (Article 92). It consists of fifteen judges elected by the General Assembly on the recommendations of the Security Council. Nine judges make a quorum and a decision is taken by a majority vote. The ICJ has jurisdiction over all disputes which States refer to it, and all matters provided for in the UN Charter. Its judgments are binding on all UN member states (Article 94(1)). The ICJ also serves as the legal advisor to the General Assembly and the Security Council and issues advisory opinions on legal questions submitted to it (Article 96).

The sixth UN principal organ is the Secretariat. The Secretariat carries out the day-to-day functioning of the UN. It serves the other organs of the UN and administers the programmes and policies laid down by them. The Secretary-General as the UN chief administration officer heads the Secretariat (Article 97). The Secretary-General is indeed the key figure with regard to all the interrelationships represented by the UN (Rivlin 1993:5) and the shaping of the peace and security agenda of the UN (Kille 2006:1). The Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council for a term of five years and may be re-elected once (Article 97). Through him passes all the interrelationships represented by the UN. Since its inception in 1945, the UN has had eight Secretary-Generals. Trygve Lie was the first UN Secretary-General, and he served until 1952. The current Secretary-General is Ban Ki-moon.

The contribution of the UN to the decolonisation of Namibia and the end of apartheid in South Africa

The UN and the decolonisation of Namibia

From 1883 to 1915, South-West Africa was colonised by Germany. After World War I and the defeat of Germany, it became a Mandate Territory as a Class C Mandate under the Covenant of the League of Nations (Article 22) and was administered by South Africa since 17 December 1920 (Souare 2006:86). One of the duties of the Administering State was to lead the Mandated Territory to independence. The Union of South Africa refused to allow South-West Africa’s transition to independence, however, and regarded it as its fifth province, in violation of the Covenant of the League of Nations.

When the UN Charter came into operation and the League of Nations was dissolved, the Mandate System was transformed into a Trusteeship System. The Union of South Africa objected and proposed to annex South-West Africa in 1946. It contended that its accountability over South-West Africa was owed exclusively to the League of the Nations and that the mandate lapsed when the League of the Nations died during World War II (Slonim 1973:4). It further argued that the UN lacked jurisdiction to deal with the issue since it was a domestic issue and any attempt to do so was contrary to its Charter (Article 2(7)). On the other hand, the UN argued that South Africa was under the League’s supervision for its administration of South-West Africa and since the League of Nations represented the organised international community and had been replaced with the UN, South Africa had to account to the new organisation (Slonim 1973:4).

The Union of South Africa relied on secret arrangements made by three other powerful UN member states – namely Great Britain, France and Japan – which had agreed prior to the armistice that the Union of South Africa as a former British Dominion was entitled to annex some mandated territories, particularly South-West Africa. Thanks to US President Roosevelt’s insistence, the principle of ‘no annexation’ was adopted and the UN rejected any annexation of South-West Africa by the Union of South Africa. However, since legal issues were raised and there was a dispute over the administration and the legal status of South-West Africa, the ICJ as the UN judicial body had to intervene and deal with the matter.

In an advisory opinion given in 1950, the ICJ first ruled that the Union of South Africa was not obliged to convert South-West Africa into a UN trust territory, but was still bound by the League of Nations Mandate with the UN General Assembly assuming the supervisory role. It added that the General Assembly was empowered to receive petitions from the inhabitants and to call for reports from South Africa, the mandatory nation.

In 1955, in another advisory opinion, the ICJ ruled that the UN General Assembly was not required to follow the League of Nations voting procedures in determining questions concerning South-West Africa but still, the Union of South Africa objected to the competence of the Committee on South-West Africa established by the General Assembly to receive petitions from the mandated territory.

During the 1950s, the Herero chiefs submitted many petitions to the UN calling for it to grant South-West Africa independence. The Union of South Africa also objected to this and alleged that the Committee on South-West Africa was not entitled to receive or entertain such petitions. In an advisory opinion delivered in 1956, the ICJ recognised the power of this Committee to grant hearings to petitioners from the mandated territory.

In 1960, with the Union of South Africa opposing UN decisions and ICJ rulings with the backing of some of the most powerful UN member states with a veto right in the Security Council, particularly the US, UK and France, African countries sought to push the UN to act more strongly against this country. Ethiopia and Liberia instituted proceedings before the ICJ against the Union of South Africa. They argued that South Africa’s continued presence in South-West Africa was contrary to the UN Charter and violated the right of the people of South-West Africa to self-determination. The General Assembly endorsed this move.

In 1966, the ICJ dismissed the case brought against South Africa by Ethiopia and Liberia on the ground that they were not proper parties to bring the case and therefore lacked locus standi.

The struggle against South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia – to which it also extended its apartheid policy – received impetus with the creation of the OAU in 1963, which aimed at eliminating all forms of colonialism in Africa.

With South Africa persisting in its defiance of the international community, the UN General Assembly now dominated by Third World countries, including African countries that had acceded to independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, decided to take one step further against South Africa.

By Resolution 2145(XXI) adopted in 1966, the General Assembly terminated South Africa’s mandate over South-West Africa and ruled that South Africa had no further right to administer this country (Slonim 1973:313). This Resolution assigned the UN direct responsibility for the territory and designated the Security Council as the legal administering authority (Tessitore and Woolfson 1989:32).

On 12 June 1968, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 2372(XXII) that changed the territory name from South-West Africa to Namibia as proposed by SWAPO, which was formed by black Namibians in 1960 but was not recognised by the international community.

The General Assembly also ruled that the continued presence of South Africa in Namibia was illegal and South Africa was under the obligation to withdraw immediately from this territory. All UN member states were obliged to recognise the invalidity of any act performed by South Africa on behalf of Namibia, which was subsequently removed from the list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. SWAPO was recognised as a legitimate representative of the Namibian people and was granted UN Observer Status in 1968. South Africa was not impressed and continued its illegal occupation of Namibia in violation of the UN Charter and in total defiance of the international community.

In 1969, Resolution 269 was adopted by the Security Council. It called on the Republic of South Africa to withdraw its administration from Namibia, stating that ‘its continued occupation constitutes an aggressive encroachment on the authority of the United Nations, a violation of the territorial integrity and a denial of the political sovereignty of the people of Namibia’.

It also called on other member states to refrain from all dealings with South Africa concerning Namibia. Other resolutions such as resolutions 276 and 283 were adopted in 1970 reiterating the Security Council’s position regarding South Africa’s continued administration and calling on all member states to terminate all dealings with the South African government.

Security Council Resolution 284 requested an advisory opinion of the ICJ on the legal consequences of South Africa’s continued presence in Namibia (Sonnenfeld 1988:138). In 1971, the ICJ ruled that South Africa’s continued administration in Namibia was illegal as it violated the UN Charter and other relevant rules and principles of international law. The extension of its apartheid policy to Namibia was also found to be a flagrant violation of the purposes and principles of the UN Charter (Slonim 1973:4; Dugard 2000:238).

With the assistance of the international community and particularly of African independent states within the OAU more committed to achieve one of its objectives to liberate Africa from colonialism and help all its peoples achieve political independence (Article 2.1 (d) of the UN Charter), SWAPO intensified its struggle for independence.

On the other hand, South Africa was fighting another war at the domestic level where the African National Congress (ANC) and other liberation movements were determined to bring the apartheid regime to an end with renewed support from the international community and particularly from African countries within the OAU. This was too much a burden for the apartheid government that had lost much of the backing it received from its former Western allies within the UN Security Council.

In 1988, South Africa agreed to end its illegal occupation of Namibia and subsequently its apartheid policy in this country. On 21 March 1990, Namibia finally gained its independence. On 23 April 1990, Namibia was admitted to the UN. The independence of Namibia sent a clear message to the apartheid government in South Africa that its days were numbered.

The UN and the end of apartheid in South Africa

During the 19th century, South Africa was colonised by Britain. In 1910, South Africa became a self-governing ‘dominion’ under the British Crown with the state powers vested in the hands of the minority of white settlers who oppressed the majority of black South Africans (Souare 2006:78).

South Africa was one of the founders of the UN. It participated in the drafting and adoption of the UN Charter in 1945. South Africa’s Prime Minister, General Smuts, who was the President of the Commission on the General Assembly, reportedly played a leading role in the formation of the UN and in the drafting of the Preamble to its Charter (Dugard 2000:236). South Africa also contributed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948.

South Africa became a terrible embarrassment to the international community when the National Party government adopted apartheid as an official policy when it came to power in 1948 (Souare 2006:79). The apartheid policy disenfranchised the majority of the population, who were black, by depriving them of all political rights, in violation of the Charter of the UN, of which South Africa was a founding member, and of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which South Africa had contributed. Political rights were reserved for the white minority who alone were considered citizens and entitled to rule. The NP government later on transported its apartheid policy to South-West Africa. South Africa became a pariah state under international law due to its policy of apartheid.

The issue of racial discrimination has dominated the agenda of the UN since 1948 and was even raised in the General Assembly before it was legalised in South Africa. As early as 1946, the government of India complained before the UN General Assembly that the government of South Africa had enacted legislation which discriminated against South Africans of Indian origin (United Nations 1992:158; Dugard 2000:237).

In its Resolution 44(I) of 8 December 1946, the General Assembly declared that the treatment of Indians by the Union of South Africa impaired friendly relations between the two states and that the Indians should be accorded treatment in conformity with international standards (cf. Heunis 1986:250).

However, South Africa consistently maintained that its policies were a matter of domestic concern and that the UN resolutions were illegal and unacceptable since they violated the principle of non-interference in its internal affairs (Article 2(7) of the Charter) (Schweigman 2001:52). Since 1952, the issue of apartheid appeared annually on the agenda of the General Assembly (cf. Heunis 1986:251). By Resolution 616B(VII) of 5 December 1952, it had already ruled that the apartheid issue was subject to its jurisdiction in view of the legally binding commitment of the UN to the international protection of human rights.

Later on, the Assembly adopted several resolutions (e.g. Resolutions 1178/1957 and 1248/1958) in which it requested the government of South Africa to revise its apartheid policies.

Following the Sharpeville incident of 21 March 1960 when 69 peaceful black demonstrators were killed by South African police for protesting against the government’s requirement that all Africans should always carry their identity documents, the Security Council first met to deliberate on the issue and by Resolution 134 of April 1960, it condemned apartheid as a crime against the conscience and dignity of mankind. The Security Council stated that the situation in South Africa had led to international friction and if continued, it could endanger international peace and security (United Nations 1992:158).

In 1962, the General Assembly requested member states to break off diplomatic relations with South Africa, boycott South African goods and refrain from all exports to South Africa including armaments (United Nations 1992:158). Later, by Resolution 1761(XVII) of 6 November 1962, the General Assembly again considered the question of the treatment of persons of Indian and Indo-Pakistani origin in South Africa together with the question of the policy of apartheid (Dugard 2000:238).

In its Resolution 181/1963, the Security Council expressed its conviction that ‘the situation in South Africa is seriously disturbing international peace and security’ and considered it ‘inconsistent with the principles contained in the United Nations Charter’ (cf. Malone 2004:71). The Security Council also called upon the international community to establish an arms embargo against South Africa.

However, the South African government ignored UN calls and continued with its apartheid policies. Between 1960 and 1963, the General Assembly adopted many resolutions on apartheid, including Resolutions 1598/1961, 1633/1961 and 1761/1963. Later on, in terms of its Resolution 2202 of 16 December 1966, the General Assembly condemned apartheid as a ‘crime against humanity’.

Between 1948 and 1966, the UN did not act strongly against the South African government because Britain, France and the US opposed such action due to their economic interests. They misused their veto power in blocking the proposed UN Security Council’s actions against South Africa (Souare 2006:78). The attitude of the three Security Council’s permanent members towards South Africa explains why the bulk of the UN work against the apartheid system in South Africa was done by the General Assembly and not by the Security Council. This also explains why apartheid in South Africa lasted for 45 years (Souare 2006:78).

In 1970, the Security Council condemned violations of the arms embargo established in 1993 and called on all member states to strengthen and implement it unconditionally, not to supply vehicles, equipment and spare parts for use by South African military and police forces, to revoke all licences and patents granted for South African manufactures of arms, aircraft or military vehicles, to prohibit investment and also to cease all military cooperation with South Africa (United Nations 1992:160).

The Security Council further held in Resolution 282/1970 that ‘the apartheid policies and the constant build-up of the South African military and police forces’ constituted a ‘potential threat to international peace and security’. The Council reaffirmed the right of the people of South Africa to self-determination and recognised the legitimacy of their struggle against apartheid (Schweigman 2001:55). Later also, by Resolution 3068(XXVIII) of 30 November 1973, the General Assembly approved the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. This Convention denounced apartheid as a ‘crime against humanity in violation of international law’ (Article 1).

In December 1973, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 3151 which declared that the South African regime had no right to represent the people of South Africa and recognised the liberation movements recognised by the OAU as the representatives of the majority of South Africans (cf. Heunis 1986:224).

Instead, the General Assembly invited the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC) to participate in the debates on apartheid in the Assembly’s special political committee in 1974 and later on recognised these two organisations as the ‘authentic representatives of the majority of the South African people’ (United Nations 1992:160).

The General Assembly recommended that due to its continued apartheid policies, South Africa be excluded from participation in international organisations and conferences held under the auspices of the UN. South Africa was prevented from participating in the proceedings of the General Assembly.

On 16 June 1976, thousands of Black South Africans, mostly school children, demonstrated in Soweto against ‘Bantu Education’, a second zone education which was offered to the Black people who were also compelled to learn in the main language used by the white minority, namely Afrikaans. The South African government responded by resorting to violence and killing. The General Assembly adopted Resolution 392 of 19 June 1976 that condemned the Soweto massacre and reaffirmed that the policy of apartheid was a crime against the conscience and dignity of mankind and seriously disturbed international peace and security.

The increasing public pressure and the intransigence of the apartheid government in South Africa led the UN Security Council by its Resolution 421/1977 to impose an arms embargo on South Africa. The Council also adopted Resolution 418/1977, which made the arms embargo against South Africa mandatory. This was the first time that such action had been taken against a UN member state under chapter VII of the Charter. All states were required to cease forthwith any provision to South Africa of arms and related materials.

In furtherance of its policy of apartheid, the South African government embarked on ‘Bantustanisation’, a policy consisting in the granting of independence to a number of homelands occupied by the black people, starting with Transkei in 1976. Transkei was to be followed by Bophuthatswana (1977), Venda (1979), and Ciskei (1981). The General Assembly adopted several resolutions stating that the establishment of Bantustans was designated to consolidate the inhuman policies of apartheid, to destroy the territorial integrity of the country, to perpetuate and to dispossess the African people of South Africa of their inalienable rights. Accordingly, it called on all the UN member states to refuse recognition to Bantustan States. These resolutions were endorsed by the Security Council (Dugard 2000:446–461).

In 1978, the Security Council adopted Resolution 473 of 13 June which reaffirmed that ‘the policy of apartheid is a crime against the conscience and dignity of mankind and incompatible with rights and dignity of man, the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and seriously disturbs international peace’.

The Security Council Resolution 473 of 13 June 1980 recognised ‘the legitimacy of the struggle of the South African people for the elimination of apartheid and for the establishment of a democratic society in which all the people of South Africa, irrespective of race, colour or creed will enjoy equal and full political and other rights and participate freely in the determination of their destiny’. In response to this Resolution, the South African government announced its plans for a new constitution in 1983. This constitution was approved by a referendum in which only white South Africans were entitled to participate. It provided for segregated chambers of Parliament for coloured persons and Indians, but not for black South Africans. In terms of Resolution 554/1984, the Security Council declared this constitution ‘null and void’ and urged all governments and organisations not to recognise the results of elections held under the 1983 constitution and to continue ‘to assist the oppressed people of South Africa in their legitimate struggle for a non-racial democratic society’.

By Resolution 556/1984, the Security Council once more considered apartheid a ‘crime against humanity’. The Council adopted other resolutions such as Resolution 558/1984 to reaffirm the validity of the UN sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

In April 1987, the South African government passed a decree in terms of which all protesters were to be detained without a trial. The Security Council expressed its concern and called on the South African government to revoke it. The General Assembly urged all UN member states to adopt legislative measures against South Africa and also imposed sanctions on individuals and enterprises that violated them (United Nations 1992:164–165).

Between 1967 and 1989, under the initiative of independent African countries such as Ghana, Guinea, Ethiopia and Liberia, the UN embarked on international campaigns appealing to the world public to put pressure on their governments in a bid to end the apartheid regime in South Africa (Souare 2006:86). The OAU also reinforced its pressure on the apartheid regime by increasing its support to liberation movements.

Some Southern African countries provided a sanctuary for militants who were persecuted in South Africa and offered them a base for military operations against the apartheid government. The leaders and peoples of countries such as Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe sometimes paid for their support to the ANC and other South African anti-apartheid organisations. On the other hand, the fall of the Berlin Wall that marked the end of the Cold War deprived the apartheid government of much of the support it once enjoyed from the West. The apartheid regime was therefore doomed to collapse and its leaders faced the dramatic challenge: reform or perish.

In 1990, the same year when Namibia became independent and apartheid was abolished in this country, President F.W. de Klerk announced lifting the ban on all black political parties and freeing Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners. Accordingly, the UN promoted negotiations between the white minority-led government and the black majority through the liberation movements. These negotiations resulted in the adoption of the interim Constitution of 1993 that paved the way for the first free and fair elections which were held in 1994. The ANC won these elections in which Black South Africans participated for the first time and Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa.


South Africa’s illegal occupation of South-West Africa (Namibia since 1968) and the apartheid system that the National Party established in 1948 were two of the most serious international conflict-generating problems in Africa during the last six decades of the 20th century. The UN, determinedly and consistently, played a crucial role in the decolonisation of Namibia and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. It was not the only role player in this regard, and it should be said that it was the combined action of the international community through the UN and African states within the OAU that eventually led to South Africa’s withdrawal from Namibia and the termination of its apartheid policy. Credit should also be given to the Namibian and the South African peoples and their liberation movements led by SWAPO and the ANC respectively. In any liberation movement or struggle, as in the consolidation of democracy that still remains a major challenge, the peoples have to play a very important role.

Barack Obama rightly disagreed with those ‘who believe they can single-handedly liberate other people from tyranny’ (Obama 2008:374). As he pointed out, ‘there are few examples in history in which the freedom men and women crave is delivered through outside intervention. In almost every successful social movement of the last century, from Ghandi’s campaign against British rule to the Solidarity movement in Poland to the antiapartheid movement in South Africa, democracy was the result of a local awakening’ (Obama 2008:374). The peoples are therefore the primary architects of their development and the major actors in the resolution of conflicts that affect them. One of the critical lessons learned in the decolonisation of Namibia and the termination of apartheid in South Africa is that in Africa, as elsewhere, the people have to fight to liberate themselves and they should not expect to be liberated by other (foreign) peoples despite the support they may receive from them.

In the case of the then South Africa, however, the National Party government was so entrenched in an unassailable position that to overcome their obsession with their ideology much more was needed than a merely local struggle. Regional and international enforcement had to be applied to overcome the monster of apartheid. This case study can therefore serve to emphasise the conclusion that to overrule and eliminate a severe human rights violation nothing less may be needed than a combined national and international onslaught.


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