Seá¡n MacBride and Namibia

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2006), Volume 14

Seán MacBride (left), SWAPO president Sam Nujoma (centre), and IAAM leader Kader Asmal (right) at an anti-apartheid meeting in Buswell's Hotel, Dublin, November 1987. (An Phoblacht)

Seán MacBride (left), SWAPO president Sam Nujoma (centre), and IAAM leader Kader Asmal (right) at an anti-apartheid meeting in Buswell’s Hotel, Dublin, November 1987. (An Phoblacht)

Seán MacBride led a remarkable and varied life. Much of it was paradoxical and often controversial. He was a revolutionary, a journalist, a barrister, a statesman, a diplomat, a human rights activist and a peace campaigner. Throughout his life, however, certain objectives remained constant. They were Irish unity, the defence of political prisoners, and human rights and self-determination for colonial peoples. He was an outsider in Irish politics, and many Irish historians in their analysis of MacBride focus on the idiosyncrasies of the man in domestic politics as opposed to his role as an advocate of human rights.

Varied career

MacBride is remembered for his famous parents, Maud Gonne and Major John MacBride, both highly acclaimed in revolutionary Ireland. Maud Gonne was a political activist and became renowned for her relationship with W. B. Yeats. John MacBride was also known for his revolutionary activity and—ironically, in the light of what followed—for his participation in the Boer War, fighting on the side of the Boers or Afrikaners. MacBride is also remembered for his part in the Civil War, his position as chief-of-staff of the IRA in 1931, secretary of Saor Éire, founding member of Clann na Poblachta, and for his part in the infamous Mother and Child Scheme débâcle, when he hung Noel Brown out to dry.
A great deal more remains to be disclosed about this enigmatic figure, however. After the 1948 election he became minister for external affairs until 1951. Within his own department MacBride left a mark that has endured to the present day. He made a name for himself at European and international level, becoming vice-president of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC). He was a sponsor and signatory of four major international accords: the Convention for European Economic Co-operation (Paris, 1948), the Council of Europe (London, 1949), the Geneva Convention for the Protection of War Victims (1949) and the European Convention on Human Rights (Rome, 1950). In retrospect, possibly MacBride’s most enduring legacy as minister for external affairs was his defence of the government’s decision to stay out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The main factor guiding this position was partition. MacBride’s involvement in foreign affairs at this stage provided a platform for his future career in the United Nations. Additionally, through his work in the Department of External Affairs his reputation on the international scene was raised to a new level.

MacBride's UN identity card.

MacBride’s UN identity card.

He used his skills in international diplomacy and his knowledge of international law for the protection of human rights to intervene in situations around the world. MacBride and a friend, Peter Beneson, established Amnesty International in an effort to protect human rights and mobilise world opinion in the fight against injustice. MacBride was chairman of Amnesty International from 1961 to 1975, and throughout his involvement in the organisation he maintained that Amnesty International should be kept independent of any government or power bloc. It is perhaps for this reason that the organisation has retained international respect and has stood the test of time.
During his new role on the international scene in the 1950s and ’60s MacBride built up strong connections with African governments. He played a part in the drawing up of the constitutions for the republics of Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania. He also became the legal adviser for the heads of state of many of these countries and was an important influence in establishing the Organisation for African Unity. These contributions were little known in Ireland but earned him respect for his work all over Africa. His reputation was reinforced by his work for human rights, especially against colonialism and apartheid. Therefore it came as no shock when in 1973 the South West Africa Peoples’ Organisation (SWAPO) and various African states nominated him for the position of UN commissioner for Namibia. He seemed to have all the necessary attributes: he was a skilful diplomat acclaimed for his legal proficiency; he came from a neutral country that was neither Arab nor African, and was not bound by any military pacts; and he had first-hand knowledge of combating a colonial power by the use of both violent and political means. On 18 December 1973 the nomination was approved and UN Secretary-General Waldheim appointed Seán MacBride as the first full-time commissioner of Namibia with the rank of assistant secretary-general.

Overseas tyrant exchanged for one next door

The history of the region now constituting Namibia was punctuated by a series of disastrous events during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mostly linked to the complex history of colonial occupation. The German occupation of South-West Africa finally came to an end in January 1915, when Generals Botha and Smuts, acting on British government instructions, marched an army of 8,000 South Africans into the territory and seized the town of Windhoek. As a result of the brutal nature of German rule the indigenous people welcomed the ‘British’ forces, but before long the Africans realised that they had simply exchanged an overseas tyrant for one next door. In December 1920 the territory was handed over by the League of Nations to the government of the Union of South Africa for temporary keeping as a ‘sacred trust of civilisation’. South Africa, however, not only continued many of the Germans’ oppressive regulations but also brought in many of its own.
The end of the Second World War brought about huge changes in international opinion regarding colonial rule, and as a result the situation in South-West Africa grew in importance on the world’s agenda. From its very first session the UN (the successor organisation to the League of Nations) concerned itself with the future of the mandate countries and the aim of making them independent. With these new provisions in mind, the UN expected that all states administering a mandate territory would place their mandate under the new trusteeship system of the UN. This was adhered to by all states except South Africa, which renewed its efforts to include South-West Africa directly under its own control. In 1948, with the victory of the Afrikaner National Party, came the beginning of the modern ‘apartheid’ legislation. The new government tried to draw South-West Africa even closer to South Africa, despite an International Court decision in 1950 that the UN were legally entitled to supervise the administration of South-West Africa. South Africa introduced draconian laws to contain African nationalist aspirations.
Until the mid-1950s the UN had not made any real impact on the situation in South-West Africa. From 1957 onwards the organisation’s attitude began to harden, however, as non-aligned members increasingly regarded South Africa’s defiance as an international affront.

The UN Institute for Namibia (UNIN) in Zambia-one of MacBride’s most profound achievements as commissioner. He insisted that for its future success the ‘entire staff should be African’. (UNIN)

This shift in the UN gained momentum as an increasing number of ex-colonial countries joined the international organisation. The predicament of South-West Africa gave them a perfect platform to articulate their concerns. In October 1966 the general assembly stated that South Africa had failed in its mandatory obligations and that its mandate should be terminated. The case was referred to the Security Council, which declared South Africa’s presence in Namibia illegal. In June 1968 the UN recognised the legitimacy of SWAPO’s struggle for independence and its objective of achieving total political and economic independence for the territory, which was formally renamed Namibia. In addition, a UN council for Namibia was set up to act as the legal sovereign for the territory. South Africa’s position remained uncompromising, however.

By 1973 the Namibian situation had escalated into a perplexing international problem that had reached a deadlock. One obstacle preventing successful negotiations was the inconsistency of the members of the UN and the stalemate that this caused. On a number of occasions the Security Council called for mandatory sanctions and issued deadlines. None of these deadlines were adhered to, however, principally because these decisions did not have the backing of the major powers. The attitude of the Western powers was influenced by their economic ties with South Africa and South-West Africa. Companies such as DeBeers Diamonds and Rio Tinto Zinc had invested huge sums in exploiting the territory. Hence Seán MacBride became commissioner in 1974 at a time when South Africa’s government was still confident about its position in Namibia and most Western countries were apathetic as regards the situation. Conditions in the country were both daunting and volatile. For many MacBride reflected a flicker of hope. The Sunday Press commented before he took up his position:

‘It is almost an impossible task, even for such an extraordinary man as Seán MacBride. Yet the African nations which pressed him to accept the position believe that if any man can bring about freedom and independence for the wretched and downtrodden and humiliated people of Namibia it is he.’

Putting Namibia on the map

On 1 February 1974 MacBride took up his post in New York. His friend and UN colleague Proinsias MacAonghusa stated that MacBride’s greatest achievement as commissioner was to ‘put Namibia on the map’. Up until the time of his involvement foreign correspondents very rarely visited Namibia. The Irish Times reported on 13 May 1974 that ‘there is a great similarity in the cases of Namibia and Northern Ireland. Unfortunately the plight in Namibia is largely unknown’. In an effort to rectify this MacBride undertook a systematic campaign to expose South Africa’s actions in Namibia. He held many conferences around the world to publicise the case of Namibia. He personally gave a great number of press and radio interviews worldwide. Much of the success of publicising the situation in Namibia can be attributed to MacBride’s drive and personality.
In January 1975 MacBride was sponsor of a conference in Dakar, Senegal. There were 331 participants from 72 nations—human rights lawyers, UN officials, churchmen, state delegates and representatives of SWAPO. Because of its make-up and its findings the conference attracted international attention. A seventeen-point programme was recommended to achieve ‘Namibian liberation’. An important agenda item at the conference was the implementation of Decree Number One. This was a decree issued by the Council of Namibia and approved by the UN on 13 December 1974 to prevent the exploitation of Namibian natural resources. MacBride asserted that ‘states should recognise that the Republic of South Africa has no valid authority to issue permits, concessions, licences, mining or prospecting rights etc.’
One of MacBride’s most profound achievements as commissioner was the establishment of the UN Institute for Namibia (UNIN). In a programme of action in February 1974 he suggested that a research and training institute should be set up for Namibians in Zambia. This proposal was adopted by the UN Security Council on 27 September 1974 and endorsed by the general assembly on 13 December. In his opening address on 26 August President Kenneth Kaunda declared:

‘This is the first time in the history of a non-self-governing country that the international community has taken the initiative before the liberation of preparing the infrastructure and administration that will be required as soon as freedom is achieved.’

One of the key principles of the institute was to keep an ‘African outlook’. Sam Nujoma, leader of SWAPO, took a keen and active interest in it. MacBride insisted that for the future success of the UNIN the ‘entire staff should be African’. By 1979 there were 298 students in the UNIN.

SWAPO supporters in a refugee camp in Angola, January 1981. (Joost Guntenaar/IADF)

SWAPO supporters in a refugee camp in Angola, January 1981. (Joost Guntenaar/IADF)

On 29 December 1979 the first group of 66 students received their diplomas in management and development studies. MacBride could do nothing about the sceptical nature of the South African press, however, and their attempts to undermine the UNIN. On 23 June 1974 the Irish Times reported a statement made by Die Oosterling, a South African paper, which had commented:

‘Tell somebody in SWA that the UN is shortly going to train black men by means of a crash course as the nucleus of a new public service for the mandated territory, and he will undoubtedly enjoy it as a good joke. That, nevertheless, is precisely what is being said will be done. The man behind this wonderful castle in the air is the UN’s new Commissioner Seán MacBride.’

Since independence the UNIN has moved to Windhoek and has become the University of Namibia.
As commissioner MacBride had to work in close collaboration with SWAPO. He assumed responsibility for transferring food, clothing and transport to Namibians through Angola, Zaire and Zambia. MacBride also initiated a new programme with SWAPO to train Namibians as nurses in Ireland.
During his first term as commissioner MacBride was honoured by being presented with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974. This was principally in recognition of his work for human rights in Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists and the UN. He used his Nobel speech, ‘The imperative of survival’, to reiterate his characteristic ideas about southern Africa. Once again the South African media tried to undermine his successes with vitriolic comments such as ‘MacBride is hoping that this Nobel Peace Prize will give more weight to his words. Unfortunately countries are not built on words’.

Namibia and the Cold War

Under the difficult circumstances that existed MacBride’s achievements are all the more impressive. Not all the predicaments he encountered could be overcome with ease, however. His efforts were increasingly hindered by the stalling techniques of the government of South Africa and of Western countries with economic interests in Namibia.
The collapse of the Portuguese colonial regime in Angola in 1975 was a seminal event in the history of Namibia. It transformed the liberation struggle politically, militarily and psychologically. In November 1975, independence was won by the Soviet- and Cuban-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). A people’s republic was declared, with communism as the official ideology. Fearing the prospect of being the last colonial rulers on the continent, South Africa acted immediately. It could no longer depend on Angola, Mozambique or Rhodesia as buffer states against black advances on their white fatherland. This increased the importance of Namibia for South African security. The South Africans immediately introduced more repressive measures in Namibia and increased their military presence.
The independence of Angola gave SWAPO new confidence as they realised that African aspirations could be achieved. Their military wing launched new initiatives. Disillusioned by the Western powers’ passivity, SWAPO hoped that Cuba and the Soviet Union could provide them with the essential help they needed. This new influence of the Soviet Union and Cuba dramatically increased the importance of Namibia in the eyes of the United States. Namibia had now fully entered the realm of the Cold War.
As the US became more directly involved, MacBride’s position in the UN grew increasingly unstable. As MacAonghusa suggested, Seán MacBride complicated issues for the US by undermining the alliance between South Africa and the Western countries, and by doing this he was ‘embarrassing people’. At the beginning of 1976 he incurred severe criticism from the US and the secretary-general for saying that if SWAPO invited Cuban forces into Namibia to help them liberate their country, he did not think the UN would do anything about it. From this moment he faced real opposition among his colleagues in the UN and the US.
MacBride became increasingly aware that the US wanted to control every aspect of negotiations on Namibia, including his position, especially given his continued support for SWAPO. The US State Department accused MacBride of ‘complicating delicate negotiations which the US had in hand’. The UN also surmised that the CIA and BOSS (South Africa’s notorious security agency) were behind plans to organise a ‘black propaganda campaign’ to undermine MacBride. On 30 October the Johannesburg News reported that ‘intrigue, backstabbing and a complex power struggle are pulling apart the elaborate UN machinery working for South West African independence. The man in the middle is Seán MacBride’. No doubt this ‘conspiracy’ persuaded MacBride to leave his post at the end of 1976. It had been a job that required a huge amount of energy, however, and inevitably after two terms he was feeling his age (72).

Never saw Namibian independence

Seán MacBride continued to be politically active until the day he died. He retained his fervour for the independence of Namibia, and a year after he retired from the position of commissioner he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. It was not until 20 March 1990 that Namibia was finally declared an independent state. After intense negotiation involving SWAPO, South Africa, the US, the Soviet Union and the UN, a resolution edged closer. Changes in South African government under President De Klerk had a positive effect and an eleven-month transition period passed relatively smoothly, to the great relief of the international community.
It was unfortunate that Seán MacBride died just two years before Namibia gained its independence. No doubt he would have been pleased with the final resolution of the problem, which established Namibia as an independent state under SWAPO’s political control. Although his work of helping to liberate the people of Namibia was not complete, his achievements were substantial. The reverence for his work was shown by the tributes paid to him when he died. Sam Nujamo, the Namibian president, said that his death left a void in the ranks of the worldwide struggle aimed at human liberty, universal justice and world peace. MacBride had earned the respect of the Namibian people. When he announced that he was leaving his post as commissioner he received many letters of praise and appreciation for the work he had done. When he was in Windhoek the local people affectionately called him ‘old man’.

MacBride joins the Dunnes Stores picketers in May 1985. (An Phoblacht)

MacBride joins the Dunnes Stores picketers in May 1985. (An Phoblacht)

Although he did not look too kindly on the pseudonym, it shows how he touched the people of the country at every level. The naming of a street after him in Windhoek further showed their gratitude. Oliver Tambo, the president of the African National Congress, proclaimed after MacBride’s death:

‘Seán MacBride will always be remembered for the concrete leadership he provided to the liberation movement and people of Namibia and South Africa. Driven by his own personal and political insight arising out of the cause of national freedom in Ireland . . . our debt to him can never be repaid.’

Without the aid of the UN many more Namibian people would have suffered materially and physically under South Africa’s apartheid regime. MacBride succeeded in gaining international recognition for the plight of the Namibian people. The UNIN gave people something to aspire to and made the transition to independence easier. Decree Number One, although it could not protect all of their valued resources, distinctly laid down the laws for trading with Namibia. These measures best portray the image of MacBride as a visionary in human rights as he achieved unprecedented advances for Namibia. By some his assignment has been hailed as a ‘Namibian crusade’; by most, however, it has gone unremarked.

Kim Wallis is a history graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, with a master’s
degree in international relations from Dublin City University.

Further reading:
R. Dreyer, Namibia and Southern Africa: regional dynamics of decolonization 1946–1990 (London, 1993).
A. Jordan, Seán MacBride, a biography (Dublin, 1993).
B. Wood (ed.), Namibia 1884–1984 (London, 1988).


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568