Australian peacekeepers were some of the first deployed as part of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) to Namibia in 1989. At the time, Namibia had been occupied by South Africa since 1915.
In 1966, the people of Namibia rose up against South African forces to fight for independence. The conflict continued for decades, crossing into neighbouring countries of Angola and Zambia.
UNTAG was a combined military and civilian force of peacekeepers, military observers, police, and election officials. The force was established to help the United Nations (UN) monitor the peace process and ensure free and fair elections, and ensure the independence of Namibia.
The first UNTAG members arrived on 1 April 1989. At UNTAG's peak, more than 7,500 troops and around 2,000 international civilian and local staff were on the ground.
From South African colony to UN Trusteeship
The Republic of Namibia has a long and complicated history of colonial occupation. Between 1884 and 1915, Namibia was a German colony known as German South West Africa. However, South African troops invaded and took control of the territory during World War I.
After the war, South Africa was granted a League of Nations Mandate in 1920 to govern the territory as a colony. The territory, renamed South West Africa, was integrated into South Africa's economy and granted political representation, but South Africa also exploited South West Africa's resources. The exploitation and subsequent apartheid (discrimination against the black population) in South West Africa led to multiple complaints to the League of Nations, but these made little impact.
After World War II, the UN replaced the League of Nations, voiding the previous mandate. However, South Africa refused to accept the removal of the mandate and continued to govern South West Africa as part of its own territory, illegally. The matter was brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) multiple times and was still being disputed into the late 1960s.
Movement towards independence
Throughout the 1960s, the people's movement towards independence began to grow. A newly formed nationalist party, the SWAPO, began advocating for the removal of existing racial discrimination and pushing for autonomy from South Africa.
In 1966, the ICJ controversially ruled the international court had no legal standing to question South African governance. Feeling cornered, the SWAPO announced in July that it had 'no alternative but to rise in arms to bring about our own liberation.' It would employ all possible means, including military action, to achieve liberation.
In August 1966, the brutal conflict began. The South African police launched a helicopter assault on a SWAPO base, capturing 54 guerrillas and killing 2 more. By October, the General Assembly officially revoked South Africa's mandate, and the UN was granted Trusteeship over South West Africa.
Territories were placed under Trusteeship by the UN Trusteeship Council. The International Trusteeship System was created to help Trust Territories develop political and social systems that would allow them to advance towards self-government or independence.
In 1968, the UN agreed to adopt the name Namibia for the territory of South West Africa. The new name made the territory distinct from South Africa. In 1971, both the UN Security Council and the ICJ advised South Africa that its continued occupation was illegal and it should withdraw.
The fighting escalated. The South African Defence Force (SADF) targeted neighbouring countries allied with South West Africa, such as Zambia and Angola, to destroy the insurgency led by the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) – the military wing of SWAPO.
Anti-racist sentiment grew in Australia, and in 1974, Australia was elected to the UN Council for Namibia. The Council's role was 'to administer South West Africa until independence, with the maximum possible participation of the people of the Territory.'
As pressure mounted from the UN, South Africa proposed a plan for partial Namibian independence. However, it centred around a white-dominated government and served South Africa's own interests.
The international community rejected this plan. The UN Security Council created a ‘Contact Group' and began private negotiations with frontline countries – Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia. Based on these consultations, an alternative proposal was sent to the Security Council on 10 April 1978, which included:
- a proposed ceasefire between SWAPO and South African military (SADF)
- a UN-supervised election
- the reduction of SADF numbers
- the discharge of local military and paramilitary forces
- the release of political prisoners
- the return of refugees to Namibia
- the removal of discriminatory laws that might prevent a fair and fee election.
These actions were to be undertaken under the supervision of the Administrator-General, with the help of Special Representative of the Secretary-General, and UNTAG.
On 29 September 1978, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 435, setting out the plan to implement a ceasefire and oversee elections necessary to grant Namibia's independence.
Negotiations continued in the years that followed. South Africa agreed to the elections but refused to withdraw its troops from neighbouring countries to resolve the conflicts there. The fight for Namibian independence had spilled into neighbouring Angola, where a civil war was now raging. Angolan nationalists were fighting for independence from Portugal, with the support of the Soviet Union and the Cuban military.
It wasn't until after the New York Accords in 1988, where Angola, Cuba and South Africa signed an agreement which granted Namibia independence, that all parties accepted the ceasefire.
United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG)
UNTAG was a peacekeeping force. Its primary goal was to monitor the peace process and ensure free and fair elections took place in Namibia.
Due to the political nature of its mission, many of the tasks required went well beyond those previously carried out in traditional peacekeeping operations. In previous missions, peacekeepers were often tasked with military objectives, such as monitoring a ceasefire.
To meet its objectives, the UNTAG contingent was to be made up of both civilian and military counterparts. It was overseen by Special Representative Martti Ahtisaari.
The civilian contingent included a ‘Contact Group' (Canada, France, West Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States) who consulted with all the parties involved, as well as:
- the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG)
- administrative staff to look after UN policies
- an electoral unit to facilitate the free and fair elections
- independent jurors to support SRSG
- the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The UNHCR was deployed to help with the safe return of Namibian refugees, and resettlement and reintegration into Namibian society before the elections.
The military component included:
- UNTAG Force Headquarters with troops from 28 countries
- an infantry brigade of 3 battalions from Finland, Kenya and Malaysia
- 4 additional reserve battalions, who were not deployed
- a specialist group component to provide logistic support units
- military police company monitors from 14 member states
- air support group monitors from Italy and Spain.
The specialist group component included a joint military and civilian medical unit, movement control, postal unit, engineer squadron, support group depot and signals squadron.
The air support group monitors included a headquarters squadron, tactical utility transport squadron, heavy tactical transport flight, medium transport helicopter flight and utility transport helicopter squadron.
Australians arrive in Namibia
As part of the UNTAG mission, Australia agreed to send a contingent of approximately 300 engineers and officers for the peacekeeping efforts in Namibia.
The Australian officers were the first on the ground in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Thirty-six officers and enlisted personnel of the Australian advance party were greeted by the Australian Ambassador to South Africa, Colin MacDonald, and the Australian contingent commander.
Major David Crago and the 17th Construction Squadron travelled north to Grootfontein and were the first to arrive there. Within days they were deployed for mine training in Oshakati, Ovamboland and found the area 'dead flat, covered in white sand and a variety of palm called Makalani… The temperature was about 42 degrees Celsius, and the glare from the sand unbearable.'
Veteran Ross Mills recalls mines being ‘one of the great risks' in Namibia, and ‘everyone had to go through not only personal mine drills but vehicle mine drills as well'.
We headed off in early March with about sixty to eighty people - I can't remember the exact number – but they consisted of the headquarters for the engineering group of all of UNTAG – the Australians were given the role of a chief engineer, a full colonel and his headquarter staff; so they looked after all the engineering tasks concerned with what turned out to be somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 UN personnel, both military and civil. As part of that group 17 Construction Headquarters and a few odds and bods came along as well. They were stationed further north towards the border… It wasn't really a third world country, but it was. I mean, they had some infrastructure there, it was very good, but it wasn't built for also having this huge influx of 10,000 people eventually to arrive there.
[Major Shane Miller of the 17th Construction Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers (RAE), UNTAG]
As the first elements of the British signals unit, the Danish movements staff, Polish logisticians and Swiss medical unit began arriving, the Australians noted that they weren't equipped with the supplies they needed. So the Australian troops shared tents, tables and supplies to sustain the others in the short term.
UNTAG off to a rocky start
By 31 March 1988, the Australian field troop had completed its mine training and had withdrawn to Grootfontein to begin training observers arriving from other countries. Implementation for the plan for Namibia's independence was set to begin on 1 April 1988.
Delays in this schedule would jeopardise the completion of the electoral process before the rainy season began in mid-November. The rain would make the tracks in northern Namibia impassable and prevent people from taking part in the elections. However financial problems within the UN meant the full deployment of UNTAG troops was delayed for almost a full month, until well after 1 April.
But on 31 March, UNTAG Headquarters was warned that armed SWAPO guerrillas (PLAN) were assembling along the Angola border. No action was taken. UNTAG was still not fully deployed, and those that were there were mostly civilians and monitors. They lacked transport and communication equipment.
On 1 April, after a successful 7-month ceasefire, the fighting started again. Heavily armed PLAN troops crossed into northern Namibia. Not long afterwards, SADF aircraft engaged the insurgents and shooting began. Under international pressure, UNTAG's commanding officer granted the SADF restricted movement to counter the attack, and they joined the South African police counterinsurgency unit, Koevoet, in the fighting. In the 9 days that followed, Koevoet policed lost 20 men, but killed 294 PLAN insurgents and captured another 14. SADF lost 5 men, but killed 18 insurgents and captured 26.
Australians' early role in peacekeeping: Operation Piddock
The Australians would become a key component of UNTAG's success in ending the fighting. At the time, they had 96 personnel, including a troop of field engineers, second only in size to Denmark, with 132 personnel.
On 8 to 9 April, representatives of Angola, Cuba, South Africa, the US and the Soviet Union met to formulate a plan to restore peace. They decided to establish 9 UN assembly points to facilitate a SADF ceasefire and allow PLAN insurgents safe passage back to Angola. Each assembly point was to be manned by a combination of 10 Australian and British soldiers and 4 military observers from other countries.
Australian and British troops stood strong in the face of intimidation from SADF troops as tensions remained high. The commander of the British contingent, Lieutenant Colonel Neil Donaldson, commended the Australian and British forces for their handling of delicate political responsibilities in the face of what he called 'South African bullies'.
UNTAG's effectiveness and strategic coordination was widely criticised in these early stages. It was Australian and British involvement in manning the assembly points that helped to establish its credibility. In fact, the instability of the region was proof to the Australian Government that the rest of the Australian UNTAG contingent should be sent to Namibia as soon as possible.
Captain Ian Bottrell was part of the second Australian UNTAG Contingent, commanding the 8th Construction Troop of the 17th Construction Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers. He arrived in Namibia in August 1989 and occupied the SADF base in Rundu on the Angola–Namibia border. From here, he conducted several operations, including engineer support to the UN forces, as well as SADF munitions retrieval and demolition, and helping the local population.
Civilian and military responsibilities
In the months that followed, UNTAG was tasked with the complex mission of creating a climate for the elections to take place. Both civilian and military UNTAG contingents had roles to play in this. Reducing the violence and intimidation throughout Namibia was a central part of this goal. A civilian force of UN police observers was deployed to help keep the peace.
In comparison, the military operations were straightforward. The UNTAG military force worked to reduce fighting and tension between the SADF and SWAPO forces by restricting their movement. The Australian engineers worked alongside both, in a military and civil capacity, making them a crucial part of UNTAG's success.
Experiences of Australians
The Australian engineers were involved in 3 ways:
- providing security for the force
- dealing with mine threats and other forms of violence
- construction of infrastructure.
Major Shane Miller of the 17th Construction Squadron, Royal Australian Engineer (RAE), UNTAG recalled his work in Namibia:
Our first real effort was trying to identify buildings or build buildings literally in the desert with no water, no electricity, no sewerage – no nothing – in the desert in some areas, for UN civilians and electoral monitors who were going to come, to be able to live and work there …
On many occasions, from all the organisations, they considered the Australian group to be the only people doing anything. That's not really correct, but from their perception that was the way it was because many of the other contingents that came, the majority of them were infantry battalions – the Finnish battalion, the Kenyan battalion, the Malaysian battalion – and they came, they were there to have their presence felt, and do patrolling, things like that, but they didn't actually do anything in the sense of ... as far as they were concerned. An engineer would come along, and we'd build a building, or we'd provide some water supply. The refugee camps; you did something, you were there and you were doing something, and so they could put two and two together and say these guys are actually doing something for us.
Protecting the vote
While risky, the task of facilitating and overseeing the election was something Australian Michael Maley found rewarding. In June 1989, the UN Secretariat in New York asked Australia to provide an expert to help draft the electoral legislation. By mid-July, Maley, an officer of the Australian Electoral Commission, was deployed to Namibia to begin the complex negotiations.
[The elections] meant an enormous amount to the Namibians and the turn-out was so close to 100 per cent that it's not funny. The queues were huge … you heard stories of people starting to queue the night before because they wanted to be the first person to vote in their village. There were queues that were 2 km long, you could only photograph them from a helicopter … It was great to see. The whole business is about empowering people and you really had a sense that you'd done it there.
As a civilian, Maley noted the contribution Australian soldiers made during the election:
… they were doing what engineers do. But they also gave a lot of help at election time … they provided a lot of support to the monitors who were deployed in the north … Most of my AEC colleagues who were there speak very highly of the support the Australian military gave them.
[World Wide Effort: Australia's Peacekeepers, Department of Veterans' Affairs]
National Peacekeepers' Day
On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947. It's a day to recognise the important work of those who have served, and continue to serve, in the name of global peace.
Learn more about Australia's peacekeeping missions since 1947.
International Day of UN Peacekeepers
29 May is a day of commemoration and acknowledgement of all military, police and civilian personnel who have served as peacekeepers with the UN. Since UN peacekeeping began, more than 4,000 peacekeepers from many countries have lost their lives while performing their duties under the UN flag.
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