Brian Urquhart Meets Sam Nujoma in Swakopmund
By Steven W. Lawry
I was new to Ford, and was in Windhoek, Namibia, where I was serving as Assistant Representative reporting to John, hired to head the new Windhoek office, which we opened in October 1992. Namibia had become independent in March 1990. Ford had supported Namibia’s independence process in various ways for many years, also out of its New York headquarters. Though it was a small country, Franklin Thomas, Ford’s president, had convinced the board that the Foundation could contribute to Namibia’s long-term success by helping build an independent judiciary and new civil society organizations dedicated to women’s rights and poverty alleviation for the first 10 years after the country’s independence.
John’s fax read: “Brian Urquhart, Ford Foundation Scholar-in-Residence and one of the great men of the 20th century, visiting your office in Windhoek next month. Please make all necessary arrangements.”
I hadn’t met Brian, so John’s characterization of him as “one of the great men….” obviously caught my attention. Those who were fortunate enough to know John (he passed away in 2003) were aware that he was inclined now and then toward exaggeration. But I had quickly realized that underneath what seemed hyperbole were basic truths about the person’s character. I came eventually to suspect that there might be admonishments for program officers hidden inside the generous praise. Another example: “Susan Berresford reads three books daily before breakfast.” Translation: “Susan works hard, is smart and knowledgeable, so best to be on your toes.”
Brian would be traveling with his wife, Sidney Howard, who was a senior editor at Time. Their arrival was set for after the Christmas and New Year holidays, in early January, so my office had time to prepare. My first task was to inform Namibia’s leadership, so I sought a meeting with Theo-Ben Gurirab, Namibia’s foreign minister. (The Foundation’s country agreement was with the foreign ministry.) The minister was thrilled at the news. He had been SWAPO’s (South West Africa People’s Organization) resident representative at the United Nations for 16 year prior to independence. The UN was the principal convener of negotiations between South Africa, SWAPO, internal parties and global powers (the Contact Group) and I came to learn that Brian played a decisive role in crafting Security Counsel Resolution 435, the framework for Namibia’s independence negotiations.
Brian and Minister Gurirab had worked closely on the negotiations, including on Resolution 435, over many years. (An important expression of the centrality of the UN’s role in Namibia’s independence, apart from organizing the first elections and the Constitutional negotiations, was that the then UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar swore in Sam Nujoma as Namibia’s first president, on March 21, 1990.)
Minister Gurirab undertook to arrange a meeting between Brian and President Nujoma. In the meantime, I received a note by pouch from Brian, along with a copy of his wonderful memoir, A Life in Peace and War—“for what they are worth” as he’d written in the note. Of course, they told of a remarkable life, helping create the UN system and its political and civil service structures, define its peacekeeping mission, mediate conflicts in the Congo, Middle East and South Asia and, as it turned out, help bring an end to South Africa’s apartheid occupation and a just peace to Namibia.
A chapter of the memoir is dedicated to Namibia’s long and fitful peace negotiations. Brian writes of preparing for an all-party conference that would take place in Geneva in early 1981. He’d secured agreement from SWAPO, the occupying South African government and South Africa-backed parties within Namibia for UN monitored elections for a constituent assembly that would negotiate a new constitution.
But Ronald Reagan had been elected president in November 1980. Brian and then UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim flew to Washington in early January 1981 to call on the incoming Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. Haig remarked that the United States would not “countenance a Marxist-Leninist flag flying over Windhoek.” The South African foreign minister, Pik Botha, had already gotten the message. The Americans did not expect the South African delegation to show up in Geneva. What were meant to be final-stage negotiations were scuttled.
UN Resolution 435, shepherded by Brian in its more or less original form in 1978 until his retirement from the UN in 1987, eventually became the basis for the peace agreement reached by all parties in 1989, by then with significant support from the United States. Still, the war and South African occupation continued nearly 10 years longer than necessary.
Brian and Sidney eventually arrived. We were to meet President Nujoma at his summer offices in Swakopmund, a small resort town on Namibia’s Atlantic coast. Swakopmund was cooled in the summer by a cold mist coming off the Atlantic, providing relief for those seeking refuge from Windhoek’s heat.
My wife, LoriAnn Girvan, and I drove with Brian and Sidney on the two-lane road between Windhoek and Swakopmund, about a five-hour trip. Foreign Minister Gurirab was waiting for us at the entrance to the President’s residence. We were escorted into the President’s empty office. A few minutes later President Nujoma appeared. His brilliant smile lit up the room, and as he approached Brian with his arms held high in a gesture of embrace, he exclaimed, “Brian, we’re here!”
Those are the words—“Brian, we’re here”—I most remember from the visit. They summed up somehow the joy of victory after many decades of struggle, and appreciation for a friend from another part of the world who, on behalf of many others, contributed to Namibia’s freedom.
A postscript: In March 1996, Franklin Thomas visited Namibia with three board members as part of a tour of Southern Africa timed to honor Frank’s retirement as Ford Foundation president. The trip culminated in a meeting of the entire board in Cape Town, where the baton was passed to Susan Berresford.
The Windhoek office hosted a reception for Frank and the board members (other board members were on visits to Mozambique and Kwazulu-Natal.) Foreign Minister Gurirub attended and offered words of appreciation for the Foundation’s grant-making in Namibia, and especially for Franklin Thomas, who had committed Ford Foundation resources throughout the 1980s in support of an independent and democratic Namibia.
Minister Gurirab said in the course of his remarks, “Namibia’s independence was planned in the offices of the Ford Foundation on East 43rd Street.” I glanced across the room at Frank. What might his expression reveal of his reaction to what surely was an exaggeration? Frank gave nothing away. Regrettably, John Gerhart wasn’t there, but with the other board members in Mozambique. If he’d been in Windhoek I imagine him glowing and thinking, “Now that’s a good one.”
Steven Lawry was Assistant Representative and Rural Poverty and Resources Program Officer in South Africa and Namibia from 1992 to 1997, Representative for the Middle East and North Africa from 1997 to 2001 and Director of the Foundation’s Office of Management Services from 2001 to 2006.
Brian Urquhart died January 3, 2021 at the age of 103. For more information, please visit In Memoriam, Winter 2021.