The South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO) was founded in Windhoek, South West Africa (presently Namibia) on 19 April 1960 by Herman Toivo ja Toivo. The party was originally formed to advocated immediate Namibian independence from South Africa and became the country’s leading party following independence in 1990.
The SWA territory was entrusted by the League of Nations to South Africa under an administrative mandate after the First World War. After the Second World War, South Africa extended its apartheid policies to this territory and became a military occupier. After South Africa refused a United Nations order to withdraw from the trust territory in 1966, SWAPO turned to armed struggle.
SWAPO emerged as the sole liberation movement in the early 1960s because it had the support of the Ovambo, the largest ethnic group in Namibia. More a military organisation than a political one, SWAPO launched military operations against the South African government’s military positions. On 26 August 1966 the first major clash of the conflict took place, when a unit of the South African Police, supported by South African Air Force, exchanged fire with SWAPO forces. This date is generally regarded as the start of what became known in South Africa as the Border War.
Initially SWAPO suffered heavy losses against the South African Army but later SWAPO was backed by the Angolan ruling party, Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, the Soviet Union, the Norwegian government and the African National Congress. SWAPO used Angola as a base for guerrilla warfare on Namibian soil; operations were carried out by SWAPO’s guerrilla force, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). Beginning in 1978 South Africa made periodic retaliatory land and air strikes into Angola. Herman Toivo ja Toivo, the founder of SWAPO, was imprisoned in South Africa for a 20-year term in 1968 but was released in 1984. Nujoma returned to Namibia in September 1989.
In 1978 the UN recognized SWAPO as the sole representative of the people of Namibia. Both SWAPO and South Africa agreed to a UN plan for a cease-fire, withdrawal of South African troops, and free elections to be guaranteed by UN security forces. After years of diplomatic maneuvering, South Africa finally accepted a UN resolution to that effect in December 1988. Sporadic fighting continued. In 1989 Nujoma was elected president and SWAPO won a majority of the delegates selected by the country’s voters to write a constitution for an independent Namibia. The following year a new constitution was adopted and Nujoma took office and in the same year South Africa completely withdrew unconditionally from Namibia.
SWAPO continued to dominate the political scene into the 21st century, transforming itself from a liberation movement into a governing party. SWAPO won the first and second election five years later.