Sam Nujoma is commonly referred to as ‘the father of the nation' and, indeed, his personality and achievements tower over Namibian politics and public life. Nujoma is the central figure in the liberation struggle that brought independence to Namibia and he is equally central to the policies and practices that have shaped Namibia since then.
Nujoma was born in 1929 in Etunda in what was then called Owamboland. He attended a Finnish Lutheran mission school at Okahao and completed grade eight, which was as high as was possible for black Namibians in those days. In 1946, he moved to Walvis Bay where he worked in a store and then at a whaling station before moving to Windhoek to work as a cleaner on the South African Railways in 1959. In 1956 he visited Cape Town, where he met some of the Namibians working there who were opposed to South African policies in Namibia (then South West Africa) and wanted it to be placed under United Nations trusteeship. Soon afterwards they formed the Ovamboland People's Congress, forerunner of the Ovamboland People's Organisation (OPO), itself the forerunner of the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), the party that Nujoma eventually led to power in independent Namibia in 1990. Nujoma was the first and only president of the OPO.
After the shootings at Windhoek's Old Location in December 1959, political repression in Namibia increased and, with Nujoma facing the likelihood of being ‘internally exiled' to Owamboland, the OPO decided that he should join the other Namibians in exile who were lobbying the UN on behalf of the anti-colonial cause for Namibia. Nujoma left Namibia in February 1960 and, by various means, made his way to Tanzania, which was still the British colony of Tanganyika. There he received permission to address the UN Committee on South West Africa in New York and, while en route, visited the independent African countries of Ghana and Liberia. It was during this time that the decision was taken to give the OPO a national character by changing its name to the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), with Nujoma as its first, and thus far only, president. In New York, Nujoma addressed a number of UN committees, a forerunner of his involvement in international diplomacy that would intensify with the years.
With strong support from Julius Nyerere, the future leader of independent Tanzania, Nujoma established SWAPO's headquarters in Dar es Salaam, where other exiled Namibians began to join him. Thanks to their efforts, SWAPO gained important support and status, especially when the Organisation of African Unity recognized SWAPO in 1965. Nujoma worked tirelessly for SWAPO, setting up offices in various countries around the world, achieving significant diplomatic success when, in 1971, he was the first leader of an African liberation movement to address the UN Security Council. There was further success when in 1976 the UN General Assembly recognized SWAPO as ‘sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people'.
As the internal and external pressures on the South African regime increased, it began to negotiate over Namibia with the UN Security Council and its five-member Western Contact Group, comprising Britain, Canada, France, the United States, and West Germany. Nujoma led the SWAPO delegation in these negotiations, which eventually led to UN Security Council Resolution 435 and a comprehensive plan and set of measures for bringing Namibia to internationally recognized independence. With the connivance of the USA, South Africa managed to delay developments for nearly a decade until, finally, Resolution 435 was implemented on 1st April 1989. Nujoma returned to Namibia in triumph on 14th September of that year and led the successful SWAPO election campaign for the Constituent Assembly, which became the first parliament of independent Namibia and elected Nujoma as the first president of the country. Nujoma eventually served three terms, gaining larger majorities with each election, after the constitution was amended to allow him to stand for an extra term.
At independence, Namibia was gravely divided as a result of a century of colonialism, dispossession, and racial discrimination, compounded by armed struggle and propaganda. For instance, SWAPO had been so demonised by the colonial media and by official pronouncements that most white people, as well as many members of other groups, regarded the movement with the deepest fear, loathing, and suspicion. One of Nujoma's earliest achievements was to proclaim the policy of ‘national reconciliation', which aimed to improve and harmonise relations amongst Namibia's various racial and ethnic groups. Generally, under his presidency, Namibia made steady if unspectacular economic progress, maintained a democratic system with respect for human rights, observed the rule of law, and worked steadily to eradicate the heritage of apartheid in the interests of developing a non-racial society.