Managing Delayed Decolonization: Southern Africa
The United Nations first became involved in peacekeeping in southern Africa at the end of the 1980s when it took on a major role in the linked processes of the South African ‘decolonization’ of Namibia and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. This was only the second UN peacekeeping venture in Africa, although almost two decades had passed since the operation in the Congo. The intervening period had seen the peacekeeping project as a whole, firstly, become focused on key areas of ‘detente management’ (principally the Middle East) and then fall fallow altogether as global bipolarity deepened once again into cold war. Coming just as that cold war was resolving itself, the Namibian venture was to be the first in a sequence of UN engagements in southern Africa over the following decade. Subsequently, major operations were established in Angola and Mozambique where they were supposed to manage peace setdements designed to end long-fought civil wars and to supervise associated processes of democratic change.At the centre of all of these UN interventions lay the problem of white minority rule in the regional giant, South Africa. The problems of Namibia, Angola and Mozambique were all to some degree a function of the increasingly desperate struggle for self-preservation by the beleaguered apartheid state. The broader brush of cold war rivalries touched all three conflicts as well. Additionally, the Angolan and Mozambican conflicts had distinct indigenous elements. Local ethnic, regional and economic dimensions, in the case of Angola at any rate, proved to be much more intractable than many outsiders, including would-be peacemakers, had initially appreciated.The effect of the southern African peacekeeping experience as a whole was to highlight the limitations of the United Nations as an agent of conflict
S O U T H E R N A F R I C A politically. The United Nations Angola Verification Mission (UNAVEM) was charged with supervising the withdrawal of Cuban forces, firstly from Angola’s southern border with Namibia and then from the country as a whole. Simultaneously, the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) was established to manage the process leading to Namibia’s independence from South Africa.The success of this combined venture underlined an essential truth of the peacekeeping process. That is, that a combination of involvement by leading external powers exercising leverage over local state actors and a fundamental, self-interested commitment on the part of all involved to a pre-agreed outcome will virtually guarantee success. The Namibia-Angola settlement was not the first illustration of this truth. It had already been evident in the UN’s first full-scale peacekeeping operation in Suez from 1956. It was a first for sub-Saharan Africa, however, and a welcome corrective after the confusion and complexity of the UN’s experience in the Congo. Its very success, though, stored up some future difficulties for the UN, leading as it did to a certain over-optimism about the potential of peacekeeping solutions in other African situations. This was perhaps most obvious (and most understandable) in relation to the continuing problem of the civil war in Angola, which had been underway since the country’s independence in 1975. The characteristics that we have identified as conducive towards success in the initial undertaking there were simply not present in this deeper-rooted ‘local’ conflict. But at the time the almost textbook outcome to the missions of UNAVEM and UNTAG fitted with a wider international optimism grounded in the end of the cold war and a culture of democratic change.