Personal Narratives of Political History: Social Memory and Silence in Namibia

Dialectical Anthropology (Volume 25, Number 1): pp27-59

“It is only when we leave the terrain of ‘history’ and read this small story through the eyes of its ‘inhabitants’ that we begin to understand . . .”1

It is never possible for all the voices to be heard within the historical discourse, and inevitably there will be more silence than exposition. However, the oversimplification of historiography is all too often the result of a hegemonic relationship between impersonal “History” and personal stories of individuals in history. Impersonal history is not categorically wrong but, in speaking louder, it drowns out other voices and can inhibit the construction of a useful dialogue in the process of making and remaking history. Personal narratives, in the form of life histories, offer a way for us to problematize accepted notions of historical processes, and question the veracity and lack of contradiction in impersonal historical accounts.

By paying attention to other voices in political history it is possible to approach history through the individual who is an historical being. A. Lass has argued that “the historical individual’s biography has historical significance,”2 meaning that every individual is inextricably linked with and embedded in the historical context of his/her lifetime. This embeddedness stretches back into cultural and social history such that the various forces that act on and shape an individual’s own life history are simultaneously of both that person’s present and past, and of society’s present and past. Thus, we can take the representations of life history as a form of the representation of social history and, in doing so, enlarge and shed new light on the multi-faceted nature of historiography that is easily presented in a unilineal, or one-dimensional, form.3 In addition, the introduction and application of life history to political history constitutes a “re-peopling” of the past; it gives the wider, institutional, national, and global processes a multitude of real human faces which live, breathe, and bleed on the pages of history.

Too often life histories enter the historical discourse only anecdotally. Although the small handful of Namibian life histories may be diminished or over-powered by the monolithic forms of political history, this is not a necessary corollary; the individual in history is a valuable source and indicator of his/her context and need not be reduced to the stature of a footnote. Sider and Smith explain that both “history” and “histories” exist and “we can neither privilege nor deny a ‘grand narrative history’ or multiple specific histories”4— each informs the other, and attention must be paid to the dialectical relationship between the two. Personal narratives can be qualified and set in context by reference to impersonal accounts of political history, while the latter can be enlivened and questioned by interactions with the small-scale. It is also important to be explicitly aware that the processes of political history are not simply products of their own momentum. The contradictions and dynamics of history are the result of interactions between individual agency and wider processes; everyone who acts in the world plays a part in the development of history.

The role of the ordinary people—the non-elites, the uneducated, the unemployed—is often forgotten as the development of history is reflected upon and the self-conscious construction of historiography begins.5 The faces and voices of these “sub-alterns”6 are hidden by those of the “big men” with international recognition and stature, who are taken to be metonymic of the whole nation’s political history. And it is perhaps in the context of African national liberation struggles that the invisibility of non-leaders causes the most deficiency in the historical record. This is because it was these struggles for decolonization during the second half of the twentieth century—more than any others—that were popular movements involving hundreds of thousands of peasants and ordinary people7 who all too often disappear when it comes to the writing of post-colonial histories, becoming little more than a series of illustrative facts and figures, denied a voice and a life. Hearing these voices would give no quarter to elitist and oversimplifying forces in historiography; it would enable us to think in ways that de-center the meta-narratives by taking into account the inter-penetration of the personal and political. In the case of Namibia, the personal narratives that exist are written in English by a small number of well-educated men who, as a result of their relatively high level of education, are not representative of the sub- altern voice. Without extensive interviewing of many individuals, a “bottom up” history is not feasible, but with the available sources (autobiographies and a few interviews) what can be attempted is what we might call an “inside out” history.8 Taking the personal narratives of individuals within the liberation movement as the starting point, it should be possible to work concentrically outwards towards a wide view of political history which is not depersonalized.

Transformation of the personal into the public is an unavoidable result of producing a personal narrative, especially if that personal narrative takes a textual form, thus fixing the story in an unchanging and publicly available medium. By introducing a personal life history into the public domain, the author is enabling a further transformation: namely from personal recollection into social memory.9 The individual’s life history becomes part of the social discourse of an emergent national history as his/her memories become assimilated with those of others and take on a role in imagining the national community founded on common experience and knowledge.10 If we believe, with R. Watson, that in “creating shared memories we construct visions of the past rather than chronologies,”11 then personal memories become essential to the production of a multi- layered, complex, and kaleidoscopic history. We can also see how personal memories, when disseminated and assimilated, play a role in the construction of communities in the present as “constructing the new is deeply embedded in reconstructing the past.”12 It follows that it is equally valid to argue that in ignoring or denying the legitimacy of—and therefore silencing—these voices the construction of society is undermined. To follow such a path of silencing, marginalizing, denying and obscuring is dangerous in any context and is all too common in the specific context of southern Africa, where state control has a tendency towards authoritarianism coupled with the often violent contestation of power. We need only look to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe for evidence of the former; and to the continuing conflict in Angola for an example of the latter.

Namibia’s days as a colonized territory ended in 1989, as much as fourteen years after some of her neighbors such as Zimbabwe (1979), Angola (1975), and Mozambique (1975); in each of these neighboring examples Fanon’s prediction that the struggle for freedom from colonialism and institutionalized racism must have a central military dimension has borne true. And in all these cases the conclusion of hostilities has been followed by a process of reconciliation as an integral part of nation-building which has met with variable success. The economic, political, and social necessity of reconciliation is a common thread but the strategies employed to achieve that aim are varied. In these contexts the importance of personal narratives, often in the form of testimonies, penetrates deep into the political domain as they offer a way to avoid the repetition of the past through its denial, and in being heard publicly and acknowledged individuals who have suffered may achieve a degree of restitution.

The project of constructing a post-independence state that avoids the apparent pathology of former liberation movements in government which are prone to authoritarian and dictatorial reflexes, while simultaneously preventing the factionalism and in-fighting that often characterizes post-liberation politics, has proven to be no easy task. However, by allowing the vocalization of “oppositional histories” and by being aware of and accepting of the multitudinous voices, one more hurdle on the path to the construction of a free and democratic society is removed. The voices and the stories they tell have a further role in re-creating society through their existence in the social memory. If we accept that the memory of the past has a profound effect on our experience of the present13 then any transformation of that memory must facilitate a parallel shift in our experience in the present. The freedom to tell a multitude of stories about the past allows us to recreate the present as something more protean and real. Thus the suppression of, or lack of attention paid to, these stories has a doubly deprecating effect on life in the present: it allows univocality, authoritarianism, and the lack of dialogue; and it negates the possibility of social reconstruction which is inclusive of all members of society.

The usefulness of personal narratives in looking at and constructing political history is that they interact with impersonal historical accounts on a number of levels: firstly, they give the past a (number of) personal face(s) which help(s) to reveal the realities of historical processes on a human scale; secondly, they destabilize univocal or monolithic histories and undermine their hegemonic position within an historical discourse; thirdly, they offer a way of constructing a history that is not projected from the top down, but emanates from the inside out; and fourthly, they enable the construction of a society in which the discursive parameters surrounding history and society are not delineated and ossified by elitist machinery and institutions. Particularly in the context of southern Africa, the inter-penetration of personal narratives and political history has a very real and socially relevant role to play in thinking and in living.

Brief History
In the context of this discussion only a truncated history of Namibia is essential for one to understand and make use of what personal narratives there are. The following is a brief outline of Namibia’s political history from the late 1950s to the present, that is over the period during which the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO)14 conducted its struggle for liberation from South Africa’s colonial rule, and fought for post-independence governance.15

The seeds from which SWAPO grew were sown in Cape Town, in 1957, with the formation of its predecessor, the Ovamboland People’s Congress (OPC) by, among others, Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo and Andreas Shipanga. At the time their aim was the abolition of the “contract labor” system run by the South West African Native Labor Association (SWANLA), which was an exploitative and denigrating system;16 although all black Namibians were subjected to contract labor, the majority of workers came from the rural north, giving OPC its initial Ovambo bias. The OPC was then a labor movement first and foremost. In 1958, Ya Toivo smuggled a petition to Mburumba Kerina in the United States, which the latter presented to the United Nations in New York; as a result, Ya Toivo was arrested and deported from Cape Town back to Ovamboland, where he was placed under house arrest. In 1959, the OPC changed its name to the Ovamboland People’s Organization (OPO) and restated its aims with a greater emphasis on the need for ultimate independence and self-government for the people of South West Africa—Sam Nujoma became president. In December 1959, more than sixty people were killed or wounded in the Old Location, Windhoek, when South African police shot at demonstrators who were protesting against the government-proposed move to the new township of Katatura. This served as a catalyst for the OPO’s transformation into SWAPO and the flight of its leadership into exile in Tanzania in 1960.17

SWAPO stressed the importance of diplomatic efforts to achieve independence, through petitioning the UN to end South Africa’s mandate of control over Namibia given by the League of Nations after the First World War. In 1961, Ethiopia and Liberia called on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to end the South African occupation of Namibia; during the five years that the ICJ took to reach a decision (concluding in South Africa’s favor) SWAPO began preparations for adding an armed dimension to its liberation struggle. The commitment to armed struggle secured SWAPO the support of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) which recognized SWAPO as the official Namibian liberation movement. By 1965, the first military trained SWAPO cadres had entered Namibia and, in August 1966, following the ICJ decision against Ethiopia and Liberia, the first major clash between the guerrillas and the South African forces took place at Omgulumbashe in north-west Namibia. A crackdown followed which resulted in thirty-seven Namibians facing trial in Pretoria in 1967-1968 under the newly created, retroactive Terrorism Act—this was despite the UN General Assembly resolution 2145 of October 1966, which terminated South Africa’s Mandate over Namibia, thus rendering the trial illegal.18 During this trial, Ya Toivo delivered his famous speech expressing the sentiments and aims of SWAPO and the Namibian people.19 The “Tanga Consultative Congress,” held in Tanzania in 1969-1970, consolidated the shift of effective power to SWAPO’s leadership in exile and restated the military intentions of the party. Back in Namibia, December 1971 saw the start of a general strike by contract laborers and students which was to last more than three months; this followed the ICJ’s reversal of its previous ruling and the declaration that South Africa’s occupation of Namibia was illegal. In the aftermath of the strike, the South Africans began a brutal crackdown, forcing many organizers and SWAPO members into exile, and culminated in the massive movement of Namibians into Angola following the collapse of the Portuguese colonial regime in 1974.

Among those who entered Angola and Zambia during and after 1974 were a large number of SWAPO Youth League (SYL) members and leaders, many of whom were well educated, relative to the SWAPO “elders” of the external leadership, epitomized by Sam Nujoma, Peter Nanyemba, Dimo Hamaambo, and others. The newcomers were either drafted into the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) which had been formed in 1973, or the refugee camps in Zambia and later Angola. The logistical strains caused by this massive influx of new supporters, coupled with a growing frustration and discontent among SYL leaders and PLAN troops, culminated in the arrest and detention of almost 2,000 SWAPO members in April 1976—these included Andreas Shipanga, who had supported the SYL leaders in their criticisms of the SWAPO leadership. The events were investigated by the leadership-sanctioned “Ya Otto Commission” which made a few suggestions for change within the party but laid the blame for the revolt squarely at Shipanga’s feet.

Events in Angola resulted in SWAPO repairing relations with the MPLA (who SWAPO had been slow to support against UNITA) and moving the party headquarters to Luanda in 1978. It was during this period (1976-78, and on until 1982) that PLAN activities in Namibia reached their height. It was also in 1978 that the South African Defense Force (SADF) attacked the SWAPO camp at Cassinga, Angola, which left about 600 dead and 240 wounded—most of these apparently unarmed refugees.20 The death of Defense Secretary Peter Nanyemba, in 1983, allowed Army Commander Dimo Hamaambo to hold sole authority over PLAN; and, in 1981, his deputy Solomon Hawala was made head of a new internal security organization. During the 1980s, the Military Security Organization, under Hawala, carried out operations reminiscent of Stalin’s party purges and show trials, in which SWAPO members in exile who were accused of being spies were tortured for confessions and detained without trial, these events were centered around Lubango and have come to be called the “spy drama.”

Meanwhile, UN Security Council Resolution 435 (1978) was in the process of being accepted and implemented through long and heated negotiation, with its acceptance by the South African government in 1988. The date for the implementation of UNSCR 435 was set at April 1989, but the whole process was almost brought to a standstill due to fighting between PLAN and South African forces in Ovamboland at this time. Elections to the Constituent Assembly of Namibia were held in November 1989, which saw SWAPO accede to power as a political party. The final draft of the new constitution was voted through in February 1990, and on March 21, 1990, Namibia was founded as an independent nation. Since independence, Swapo has continued to hold power in government, strengthened by its popular support base in Ovamboland. This year, President Sam Nujoma, with the support of the Swapo dominated parliament, has successfully campaigned for an amendment to be made to the national constitution, which will allow him a third term in office.

Marcus Shikombe21
Marcus Shikombe’s personal narrative offers a good example of how each individual is enmeshed in his/her contemporary history and, if a close reading is undertaken, the extent to which every story sheds new light on impersonal History.

Marcus Shikombe is a secondary school teacher in Ovamboland, northern Namibia. Marcus was born in 1953 and received primary education at the local Mission school in Elim district; as a member of the SWAPO Youth League (SYL) he participated in the mass strike and demonstrations of 1971-1972, and then fled into exile in Zambia, via Angola, in 1974. The following year SWAPO sent Marcus to Sweden for further education. Returning to Angola in 1984, he taught at a Namibian refugee camp until his repatriation in 1990, after sixteen years in exile. Marcus is married with three children.

The life story which Marcus sketched for me during interviews at his home in Elim district reveals the extent to which experience of, and in, life is often governed by chance and events beyond the individual’s reckoning. As an example, we can look at the story that Marcus related, explaining how it was that he was able to escape into exile in 1974:

“So in June I went to the south to Windhoek because then my father was working there . . . [on] contract labor, doing this rubbish, just whatever . . . And it was very funny: there were some boys from my village—I used to stay with them—sometimes they were playing dice and they were gambling. So he [one of the boys] made me to be his partner though I did not like the way of gambling. So anyway I took about $200 . . . Coming back now from the holiday I have already decided that I will go in exile because I have money.” 22

The irony of being able to escape South African oppression largely because he had had a good night’s gambling was not lost on Marcus.

Having made his escape to Zambia, the combination of a tooth abscess and an accident while swimming in the Zambezi took Marcus out of military training for a while. When he had recovered enough to return to the front, he was instead assigned to duties in Lusaka, as a cook for the children attending school there. However,

“that was not the only thing. Later they felt that we needed to learn English . . . But as we were going to learn English at this college, then they were registering our names to go for further studies abroad.”

So it was that Marcus was selected and sent by SWAPO to Sweden in October 1975, where he attended secondary school and college, graduating with a degree in computer technology in 1983. Upon his return in 1984, Marcus was posted to Kwanza Sul refugee camp in Angola to work as a teacher to the children living there. In 1989, he remained in Zambia looking after those children who were too young to vote in the elections; Marcus himself returned briefly to register and to vote, returning finally to his homestead in December 1990.

In speaking with Marcus, his dismay at neither being part of the PLAN forces nor engaging with the South Africans directly after leaving the country was clear:

“Yes I really was, I was very much disappointed, it was very much disappointing. But as I was telling you earlier, this idea of not thinking what you want to do but you have to think, “What are the people [that is, the leadership] going to give you to do?” So I mean it must get deep-rooted in you; and I have to accept it.”

Obviously it was never his intention to go into exile and become a cook, nor indeed did he seek further education:

“You see I didn’t think of going to school, I did not think of going to school. No, no. But you have no choice, because now you are not going to learn for yourself you are going to learn for the Namibians. So you are just like somebody fighting, you are not fighting for yourself you are fighting to liberate the entire Namibia. So . . . the education is not your private property though if you think maybe deep it is yours because now you work for your money and you don’t think of the one who did not get a job that you were together with. You don’t look at him. But anyway it is like that.”

Marcus often stresses the need there was to obey the authority of the leaders and not to question what you were told to do:

“Now, during the liberation struggle, being at the front, you do not decide what to do. That is also very, very important. You come to join people who are already there, when you come there you don’t decide now. Things are decided, democratically of course,23 but you are told what you are going to do, you are given a task. Which you cannot refuse whether it is good or it is for you or you think it is not good, you have to do that. Who else is going to do that?”

Indeed he is disparaging with regards to those who disobeyed, or tried to question, orders:

“Of course there were some people who thought maybe they were very clever and these are the people who maybe, I think, I suspect that most of the people who were refusing the decision taken by the higher authority, they were the people who were silly because, I mean, there were never decisions taken which are bad.”

This can be seen as a reference to what SWAPO has called the “Shipanga crisis” of 1976 which had its roots in the discontent with the leadership felt by some SWAPO members between 1974-1976.24

Marcus’ very positive view and unquestioning support of SWAPO is unsurprising, given the success with which his life has been furnished, having received a high level of education which enabled him to take a job as a secondary school teacher after independence: he has a respected social position, in addition to a well-paid job. The importance that SWAPO held and still holds in Marcus’ eyes is reflected in the following exchange:

Tristan: “Looking back, do you think that SWAPO was a good organization, not so much what they were fighting for but just as an organization?”
Marcus: “Now, its a very nice question. You see now you are asking that question as if you are asking me if I was good because SWAPO is me. I am a part and parcel of SWAPO. I think I was good, I think SWAPO was good.” Tristan: “You still feel very much . . .”
Marcus: “I am still SWAPO, I am still SWAPO. I feel strongly that I am part and parcel of SWAPO. Whatever will happen, if people come with new ideas maybe which I don’t like, I will still feel that I am that old SWAPO.”

A number of important issues are raised by these recollections and thoughts which Marcus allowed me to record. The lack of individual choice and autonomy within the liberation movement in exile comes through very clearly; one was expected to obey orders without question and, as Marcus’ testimony shows, this was accepted by many Namibians as part of their patriotic duty. It is also revealed the extent to which those who were in exile with SWAPO in the years before independence feel an obligation and sense of belonging to the political party post-independence, and it is this strong support base, particularly in Ovamboland, which has secured Swapo’s continued pre-eminence on the Namibian political landscape.

Torture and the Terrorism Trial
Both Helao Shityuwete and John Ya Otto were tried during the Terrorism Trial of 1967-1968. Prior to the trial, both were taken to Pretoria, where they were tortured and interrogated over a period of weeks and were then held in solitary confinement in Pretoria Local prison for many months, during 1966 and 1967. Helao was arrested in March 1966, and Ya Otto was arrested in December that year; however, both suffered similar treatment at the hands of the same Special Branch officers in the Kompol building in Pretoria—the Special Branch headquarters. In their autobiographies, both Helao and Ya Otto devote a large amount of space to describing the torture and the trial that followed (forty-eight pages, or 1/5 of the book, and fifty- four pages, or 1/3 of the book, respectively) which illustrates the salience that this period holds for each of them in their lives. Although dealing with similar circumstances, each does so in their own idiosyncratic style, which serves to bring home the lived experience of torture to the reader. The reader is given a shocking inside account of the personal experience, while also being shown the inhuman methods employed by the South African forces against SWAPO supporters and the failure with which these methods met.

“Helao and four others were arrested at the end of March 1966, and flown to Pretoria. In the middle of May, he was taken to the Kompol building where he met Captain Swanpoel,25 who was to be his torturer for the next month. When Ya Otto was brought to the Kompol building in January 1967, it was Swanpoel, again, who led the torture and interrogation, which in this case went on for a period of three weeks.26 Helao describes four stages of torture orchestrated by Swanpoel and his men: first, they let him “speak to Nujoma by phone”—a euphemism for electric shock treatment—which left Helao unconscious27; second, [a] broomstick was thrust behind my knees through my squatting legs and tied to my wrists . . . They picked me up and I was placed between two tables. Suspended by the broomstick I hung upside down . . . I was left there for a long time—maybe six or seven hours.”28

Stage three saw Helao handcuffed and suspended from water pipes high on the wall for a few hours while passing policemen beat him with fists, sticks, and boots; stage four came later, after five days during which he was made to stand all day and was interrogated each night:

“Putting a stick in the loop of the leg irons, the policeman ordered me to move back and pulled me over . . . They started running, pulling me round the room. Then the rest of the gang, some armed with broomsticks and hosepipes, joined in, chasing after me, hitting out wildly. Those who could not find something with which to beat me used their boots to kick out at me.”29

After seven consecutive nights of this treatment, in desperation at his refusal to talk, Swanpoel tied a plastic bag around Helao’s head almost suffocating him.30 Once the ordeal was over, Helao was returned to solitary confinement in Pretoria Local; however, if his name was mentioned by any others during similar tortures Helao was dragged back to Kompol for further “questioning.”31

Ya Otto’s treatment at the hands of Swanpoel was very similar: he was beaten and stripped naked, then the head of Special Branch operations in Ovamboland, Lieutenant Ferreira, “ordered me to run around [the table], holding a broomstick raised above my head. The gang gathered in a circle and slashed at me with sticks and lengths of rubber hose . . . Time after time I crashed to the floor, out of breath and with my heart racing. The others’ kicks to my naked crotch got me back to my feet.”32

“Stage three” followed, but in this case Ya Otto was also given electric shocks all over his body, particularly to his genitals.33 He was finally questioned and, failing to admit that he had been sending SWAPO supporters abroad for military training, was once again beaten unconscious and hung from the water pipes, where he remained all night.34 He writes:

“The three weeks that followed haunt me still as a long, jumbled nightmare. Days and nights of torture were interspersed with Ferreira’s questioning and my pain-dazed spells in the cell. For several weeks I was nearly blind after knocking my head against the water pipes during electric shocks.”35

During this period, Ya Otto writes that he existed in a semi- conscious state, hallucinating, mixing the torture with memories of his family and Windhoek.36 Having failed to extract a confession from him, Swanpoel and Ferreira returned Ya Otto to Pretoria Local, where he remained in solitary confinement for six months.

These two testimonies bring torture to life in all its horrific truth, refusing to allow the reader’s eye to slide away from the bodily and emotional trauma that it causes. In a way that impersonal history simply cannot do, the personal narratives draw the reader into a world of fear and loathing which is otherwise inaccessible; we are compelled to visualize the treatment, and empathize with Helao and Ya Otto as they suffer before us. In this way we achieve a deeper understanding not only of the type of human rights abuse that was common currency during the liberation struggle, but also of how these experiences change and affect the individuals who suffer them. In both cases the refusal to give in strengthens their resolve to survive and to fight back. Ya Otto writes:

“Once I had made up my mind not to give in, every session in the Kompol building became a challenge. The worse the pain, the stronger my hatred for the Branch men, and the more determination I managed to muster. They had the physical power but so long as I resisted, I had the strength that comes from self-respect. In isolation from the rest of the world, I measured myself against my torturers, and each session I survived was a victory—even if I had to be carried to the car.”37

This determination to fight on is visible in their accounts of the trial proceedings, in which all thirty-seven accused faced the death penalty under the Terrorism Act, yet spoke articulately and forcefully through Toivo Ya Toivo in his speech before the Supreme Court in February 1968:

“I know that the struggle will be long and bitter. I also know that my people will wage that struggle, whatever the cost. Only when we are granted our independence will the struggle stop. Only when our human dignity is restored to us, as equals of the whites, will there be peace between us.”38

The judgment was made on February 9, 1968. Ya Otto and two others each received five year sentences with four years and eleven months suspended; two more received five years; Helao, Toivo Ya Toivo, and six others all received twenty years; and the nineteen remaining received life sentences. Those who had been given the long sentences—including Helao—were immediately taken to Robben Island.

The kind of treatment which Helao and Ya Otto describe illustrates the nature of the enemy that SWAPO faced during the liberation struggle.39 It was a common occurrence for SWAPO supporters, members of the internal leadership and the SWAPO Youth League, and anyone suspected of giving help to PLAN guerrillas to be summarily rounded up and subjected to such tortures as these.40 In the light of such brutal treatment by South Africa, we may be better able to understand the way in which the leadership reacted to perceived threats to SWAPO—the only organization which really offered an escape from apartheid.

The “Shipanga Crisis,” 1974-1976
In 1974, Andreas Shipanga was Secretary for Information and Publicity in SWAPO. One year previously, he was the subject of an interview published by the Liberation Support Movement (LSM), in which he described the history and continuance of SWAPO’s struggle, and his role in these processes. This is the synopsis of Shipanga’s life given by the LSM:

“. . . a founding member of the South West Africa People’s Organization. He has been a SWAPO Field Organizer inside Namibia, a branch chairman in Cape Town, South Africa, and SWAPO representative to various African countries. In 1960 Shipanga became a member of SWAPO’s National Executive and since 1970 he has directed the SWAPO Information Service.”41

Three years after this was written, Shipanga languished in a death row cell at Ukongo Central Prison in Tanzania, regarded by the SWAPO leadership as a threat to the organization.42 His story is inextricably linked with—and offers a way to understanding—the rapidly changing political economy of the region in the mid-1970s and the specific character of the SWAPO leadership under Sam Nujoma.

One year after the collapse of Caetano’s regime in Portugal (1974), between 4,000 and 6,000 Namibians had left their home country via the Angolan border to join SWAPO in Zambia.43 Among the first to arrive were leaders and members of the SWAPO Youth League (SYL) who had escaped the brutal crackdown in Ovamboland. The leaders were young, educated, urban, and democratically elected at the SYL Congress in Oniipa;44 these activists had played vital roles in organizing both the general strike of 1971-1972, and the electoral boycott the following year, as a result they felt ready to join the ranks of the SWAPO leadership in exile and fight for independence. Shipanga writes,

“I was encouraged by the dynamism of the new arrivals, particularly the Youth League leaders. They were keen to go and fight, but to my horror neither Nujoma nor Nanyemba [then Secretary for Defense and one of Nujoma’s most loyal supporters] wanted to encourage them.”45

Indeed, the leadership did quite the opposite, ignoring the SYL and thereby fostering frustration among its leaders. At the same time, the PLAN combatants were becoming restless and increasingly disillusioned as they stagnated in Zambian guerrilla camps, lacking arms and adequate provisions. Marcus Shikombe left Namibia in June 1974, and explained that upon reaching the SWAPO training camp in Zambia, he found only one truck belonging to the organization, while “the transport and the guarantee for food was not really there.” For some of the guerrillas, the situation was indicative of high-level corruption within the SWAPO leadership; Shipanga is explicit in accusing Nanyemba, Nujoma, and Peter Mueshihange of profiting on corrupt rackets in Lusaka. Nanyemba, he writes,

“lived like a warlord, womanizing and spending money freely. He had many business interests; he was in partnership with Nujoma and Mueshihange in two nightclubs in Lusaka.”46

According to Leys and Saul, these were common allegations and at the time were “widely believed.”47

In addition, the political situation concerning Angola and the region as a whole was becoming increasingly complicated and impenetrable to the guerrillas at the front who, according to Shipanga, found themselves being ordered to fight along side UNITA (and, by implication, the South African forces), on more than one occasion.48 The confluence of interests between the SYL leaders and the discontented PLAN fighters found expression in the call for a party congress (which was by now overdue), at which leaders could be democratically elected, and the current leadership could be held accountable to SWAPO members. Leys and Saul maintain that “the demand for a reasonably democratic congress, which would have cleared the way for more efficient prosecution of the war, was the core demand of both the soldiers and the Youth Leaguers.”49 Shipanga was sympathetic to these demands and joined the call for a congress, causing him to fall out with Nujoma and Namyemba. As the discontent and calls for accountability spread, the leadership appealed to President Kaunda for help to deal with “dissidents” within SWAPO’s ranks. In April 1976, 1800 guerrillas were arrested and taken to a prison camp at Mboroma in northern Zambia, while SYL leaders and sympathetic SWAPO leaders (including Shipanga) were rounded up and taken to a guarded farm outside Lusaka. It has been suggested that after putting down this “rebellion” it was “the leadership’s decision to adopt a purely authoritarian stance” from then on.50 This decision was to have serious repercussions for the hundreds of SWAPO supporters accused of being enemy agents during the “spy-drama” of the 1980s.

Shipanga was held without trial by President Kaunda, and subsequently by President Nyerere for two years, before his release into the hands of the UNHCR in May 1978; he believes that it was only his high international profile which saved his life: “Nyerere was unable to spirit us away because important people knew we were in his hands and held him responsible for our survival.”51 The detainees at Mboroma were not so fortunate: their plight remained unknown until April 1977, when two of the prisoners escaped to Nairobi, from where they could make their stories heard in relative safety.52 Shipanga’s story, In Search of Freedom, is an example of an oppositional history which often contradicts the official account of the “Shipanga crisis,” as presented in the report of the Ya Otto Commission.53 In that report, the actions taken by the SWAPO leadership, with the help of the Zambian and Tanzanian presidents, was framed as a necessary action against a “well-organized conspiracy, involving South African-Imperialist forces . . . [taking advantage of] reactionary, ambitious and disgruntled elements within SWAPO.”54 In this way, Shipanga and his “co-conspirators” were branded as traitors before the Namibian people and, from their Tanzanian cell, were unable to defend themselves even when, in March 1978, Nujoma disseminated the false information that Shipanga was complicit in the South African attack on Cassinga which left 600 dead.55

The extent to which SWAPO’s demonization of Shipanga succeeded is evident in comments made by Shityuwete in his autobiography:56 when Toivo Ya Toivo was released from Robben Island in 1984, he was met by “[t]he puppets in the so-called ‘transitional government’ . . . [who] wanted to claim credit for Ya Toivo’s release,” first to greet him was Shipanga but “[w]hen Ya Toivo saw him, he just turned and went back to his cell . . . [Ya Toivo said] that he did not want to see him.”57

The “Spy Drama,” 1981-1989
The Ya Otto Commission report accused Shipanga of being “a witting agent” involved in an “international imperialist-South African conspiracy” against SWAPO, while the SYL leaders were depicted as undisciplined upstarts involved in a power struggle with the “mother body.”58 In this way, the leadership was able to “trivialize the democratic thrust from below that was the real issue at stake.”59 However, the report did make a number of recommendations concerning the way SWAPO was run and the way it operated;60 had these recommendations been heeded in any serious way, the “spy drama”61 that overtook SWAPO for much of the 1980s might have been avoided.

Johannes Gaomab was only seventeen years old when he fled Namibia in 1979. During the next five years he rose through the ranks of PLAN to become responsible for 600 guerrillas, as the deputy commander of a special task force known as Typhoon Unit. In March 1984, while driving to Typhoon headquarters, Gaomab was arrested by personnel of the SWAPO Security Organization62 and taken to “Kilimanjaro” prison, near Lubango, where he was interrogated:

“I sat down on the ground and they told me to recount my biography. I did. Then they said, but you have forgotten something very important. What, I asked. When you were recruited by the South Africans, who recruited you, and what your mission is. I said they were crazy. They made me strip off, and when I was naked, they began to beat me.”63

Gaomab’s interrogation and torture at the hands of SWAPO Security continued for six months, during which he was held in solitary confinement; throughout this period “[t]hey never asked any questions besides those first three.”64 This pattern is reflected in the testimonies of others who were detained in and around Lubango during the 1980s, for example: Ben Motinga was arrested by SWAPO Security in January 1985 and recalls that “[o]ne of them asked me where, when and how I was recruited by South African security services”;65 and when Emma Kabangula was recalled to Angola in 1985 from studying for a medical degree in Budapest, she was also confronted with a similar three questions—they wanted to know “[w]hen I was recruited, by whom and where I was trained.”66

SWAPO Security employed torture tactics in order to extract wholly false confessions, the veracity of which was of little consequence or concern. Gaomab describes the form that his tortures took:

“I was slung horizontally between two branches of a tree, tied by my wrists and ankles to be beaten. The marks are there, and on my knees, since later I was also dragged behind a Land Rover for about 100 meters, but slowly enough so that men running behind could still beat me with sticks.”67

They also forced him to sit on hot coals, giving him burns which became infected, and as a result he lost part of his left buttock.68 Both Motinga and Kabangula were stripped naked and beaten;69 others tell of being dragged behind moving vehicles, simulated executions, and being buried alive.70 Prisoners feared for their lives during the repeated beatings and torture, and would eventually confess to whatever crime the Security officers accused them of, in order to escape the physical abuse and save their lives. A former detainee interviewed by Africa Watch said, “They just wanted you to confess to anything. They didn’t care what you confessed to.”71 It was a common element that the Security officers were not satisfied until the prisoner had implicated a number of others in his or her confession; one former prisoner explained that,

“If you give them some information, it saved you from a severe beating. Sometimes they would give us a quota, telling us that we must give them sixteen names. When you gave them a name that they had on a list [of those under suspicion or previously implicated] they would nod and smile. They would write it down and you would spare yourself a few strokes.”72

Clearly, in this context, it is impossible to say how many—if any— real South African spies were caught by SWAPO Security; Leys and Saul explain that “if there were any actual spies caught in the net, the interrogators’ methods were in no way likely to detect them.”73

Having given false confessions, detainees were taken to prison camps which, in the example of “Minya,” “consisted of three dugouts, holes in the ground roofed over with tin and concealed with grass and bush.”74 Other camps included Etale and Hainyeko, the former was principally used to accommodate “difficult” prisoners, while the latter had previously served as a PLAN training camp for new recruits.75 One of the dungeons at Etale camp was simply,

“a hole with high walls. The walls were ordinary sand. On the top they put sticks and sheet metal which was covered with sand. When you walked nearby you didn’t realize it was a prison . . . the ventilation was very poor in the dugout.”76

The conditions in the SWAPO dungeons in the Lubango area were appalling:

“They were closed . . . and overcrowded. The severely ill were fighting for air. We took turns in looking after them . . . Quite a few of my friends died in my arms.”77

In this environment, disease spread easily, aided by the lack of sanitary facilities, while the very poor quality diet provided for the prisoners ensured that malnutrition was rife. In addition, prisoners were not allowed to exercise unless they were carrying out a chore for the guards, and the only reading matter was a small number of censored Soviet magazines and Marxist books.78 It was in these dungeons that close to 1,000 SWAPO members languished for periods of up to nine years.

While being held in the prison camps, it was not uncommon for the Security personnel to compel detainees to participate in the recording of videos in which the “spy” would confess his or her guilt to the camera. The first of these videos, in a display reminiscent of the Communist show trials of Stalin’s era, was played to over 500 SWAPO members gathered in the United Nations Institute for Namibia in Lusaka, on March 4, 1985.79 However, the public revelation of guilt and the concomitant validation which that bestowed on the SWAPO leadership was only part of the role which the videos were to play:

“The more the audience saw their faces and heard their voices, the more they were seized by a paralyzing horror. As part of their confessions, the “spies” gave the names of other freedom fighters who were also under suspicion of espionage.”80

One SWAPO supporter was studying in Birmingham, England, when he saw some of these video confessions which he described in an interview with me as “not convincing” and lacking in strong evidence. He himself was very nearly caught up in the “spy drama,” despite having only recently been released from Robben Island:

“I was also—I just say thanks to the implementation of Resolution 435—I was called, or recalled, to go to Luanda to go and face disciplinary action for whatever reason.”

Fear and suspicion became so endemic in the external organization that, referring to SWAPO as a whole, an anonymous cabinet minister mirrored his words by telling Leys and Saul that, “We were saved by [the implementation of Security Council Resolution] 435.”81

Listening to the voices of those ensnared in the net cast by SWAPO Security reveals a further insidious aspect of the operation, that is the regional and tribal bias of the arrests. One ex-detainee told Africa Watch that “[t]he practice was that everybody who came from the south and centre was arrested.”82 Johannes Gaomab was born in Kaokoveld, and says that, while at school, “I was SWAPO”;83 his commitment to the cause is evidenced throughout his life story, leading up to his arrest, yet he still fell victim to the Stalinist purge of the 1980s. Gaomab explains that,

“There was a deep dislike and distrust of outsiders, non-Ovambos, among the old guard and rural peasants from northern Ovamboland . . . some thought that if you came from the south you had no place in SWAPO.”84

Emma Kabangula was born in Tsumeb and educated in Walvis Bay and Windhoek,85 while Ben Motinga was also brought up in the south.86 Anti-southern feelings were exacerbated by the large influx of SWAPO members from the south after South Africa introduced conscription there in 1980, thus, the arrival of a greater proportion of non-Ovambos coincided with the establishment, in 1981, of the Security Organization under Solomon Hawala, an Ovambo of the old guard. However, the prejudice was not only anti-southern, it was also anti-intellectual, continuing a trend that had previously erupted to the surface during the “Shipanga crisis.” As a result, southerners were at a dual disadvantage as they were, in general, better educated than the Ovambos from the north, due to the prejudices of the apartheid system. In addition, urban and educated Ovambos “were considered decultured, and called Mbutidis: weeds between the true corn”87 and they, like the SYL leaders involved in the “Shipanga crisis,” were in danger of attracting the attentions of the SWAPO Security.

The “no questions” approach of the SWAPO leadership evidenced in the “Shipanga affair” and consolidated thereafter, found its apotheosis in the “spy drama.” The leadership’s authoritarian control over SWAPO, combined with tribalist and anti-intellectual tendencies, facilitated the “institution of the system of organized terror which . . . enveloped the entire organization, and which was halted only by the peace accord of 1988.”88 As Chief of Security Hawala, who had been trained by the KGB in the Soviet Union,89 extended the “no questions” approach to its logical limit such that it became impossible even for members of the Central Committee to question what was going on around Lubango.90 The “spy drama” was a case of “the revolution . . . consuming its own children” in a way that impacted horribly on the individuals engulfed, and on SWAPO as a whole.91 However, the potential repercussions of the “Shipanga crisis” and the “spy drama” for post-independence Swapo, and post- independence Namibia, are such that these periods must not be allowed to disappear into the murky pasts of an unspoken History.

On July 4, 1989, the first group of ex-detainees, numbering 153 men and women,92 returned to Namibia from the dungeons at Lubango; they were followed by a second group of sixteen on August 8.93 Apart from these 169 acknowledged detainees, there are others who, having sworn an oath of allegiance to SWAPO, were taken to refugee camps from which they were repatriated with other exiled SWAPO members; still others have simply disappeared without trace, although even now rumors continue to resurface concerning the whereabouts of these missing detainees.94 Those who rejoined SWAPO upon their release paid a high price for their “rehabilitation” into the party:

“They had to promise to keep silent about the injustice that had been inflicted upon them. The tortured had to ask the torturers for forgiveness.”95

Moses Garoeb, then SWAPO’s Administrative Secretary, visited the detainees in early 1989 and, according to one prisoner at “Ethiopia Base,” explained their position in no uncertain terms:

“Garoeb said: “Do you want the party to release you?” We said, “Yes.” “Do you regret what you have done?” Everyone was quiet. Garoeb said, “You didn’t understand what I am saying. If the party releases you, will you work for the party?” “Yes,” we answered. “OK, SWAPO is prepared—in the spirit of forgiving but not forgetting—to let you go. If you get out and work against the party, there will be no second pardon. There will be no mercy.””96

The choice which detainees were offered was either to return to the party or be handed over to their “South African masters,” which would prove their complicity.97 Prior to being repatriated, United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) observers visited the prisoners near Lubango and, before the UN delegates and assorted foreign journalists, a number of the detainees denied that they were spies and told their stories, with some of them revealing the scars suffered while being tortured by the SWAPO Security officers.

An investigation carried out by the United Nations Mission on Detainees (UNMD) in September 1989, concluded that “the majority of persons allegedly detained or missing have been repatriated or accounted for”;98 however, these findings left 115 dead and 315 missing out of a total of 914 SWAPO members detained. Ex- detainees associated with the Political Consultative Committee (PCC) found a number of inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the UNMD report, which debased it in the eyes of former prisoners, relatives of those dead or missing, and others. Importantly, the report made no suggestions concerning accountability or the need for justice with respect to the “spy drama.” As the PCC became more vocal about the treatment which they had suffered, Theo-Ben Gurirab, SWAPO Secretary for Foreign Affairs in 1989, publicly admitted that, during interrogations,

“. . . some were tortured and that some of the officers charged with gathering information . . . had taken the law into their own hands and have carried out brutalities against these persons which we very much regret.”99

Gurirab stated that those responsible would be, and had to be, brought to book in order to heal the wounds of war, yet no such investigation or accounting has been carried out to this day.

A prominent feature of Namibia’s post-apartheid political landscape has been the call for “national reconciliation.” C. Tapscott explains that the policy was,

“both practically astute and economically necessary. Not only did it forestall the flight of much needed skills and capital, but it also minimized the potential for political destabilization by disaffected opponents.”100

At a superficial level, reconciliation appears to have met with remarkable success: independence has not been followed by increased economic hardship, and civil unrest has remained at a low level.101 Certainly among those who have benefited under Swapo’s leadership, support for the party remains strong.102 However, national reconciliation in Namibia is still incomplete and lacks the necessary concomitant public display of truth-telling and official accounting.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa was set up in order to foreground the human rights abuses committed and suffered during the apartheid years. For the duration of the TRC hearings, we were confronted with testimony upon testimony from individual victims and perpetrators, both black and white, of violent and horrific human rights abuse.103 By constructing a platform from which these voices could be heard the process—though painful—was a democratizing one in which “the past was transcribed into the particularity of individual lives, into the constitution of their identity”104 and personal recollection was transformed, and became a constitutive part of South Africa’s social memory. The transformation of the private into the public, while meaning that the horrors of human rights abuse neither slide from view nor are forgotten, results in personal trauma becoming social trauma and it is necessary to ask whether such public revelation is healing, either for the individual or for society. In this context R. Sieder’s comments are pertinent: she asserts that while the truth is necessary for there to be reconciliation, at the same time it is not possible for all violators to be brought to justice.105 The result is what we see in South Africa, and elsewhere— a trade-off between truth and justice—an amnesty extended to those who will admit their crimes. However, “memory with impunity” has its own problems, particularly with respect to victims of abuse for whom there is inadequate restitution without punishment. As yet it remains to be seen whether the TRC has had the positive effect which was hoped for: to foster national reconciliation through the enactment of a social catharsis which would give rise to a renewed, truly inclusive, South African national identity.

Namibia’s is a very different story. There has been no act of public truth-telling, no state-sanctioned accounting for abuses, no official revelations nor transparency. It is apparent that Swapo (and undoubtedly a number of the Namibian people) are content to leave the past behind, believing that the potential costs of remembering outweigh the costs of forgetting. As a result, there is still a pervasive silence washing over the political landscape, which is broken only intermittently by a handful of pressure groups, some individuals, and a few in the media. Undoubtedly, there are those who could seek to make their voices heard but, instead, choose silence, and equally there are others who want to be heard and upon whom silence is imposed. It is these latter individuals and groups for whom, “the memory of the past casts a dark shadow over the significance of change,”106 as they connect the present to an experience of the past which is suppressed in the social memory. Yet, memory is too subjective and individual to be simply subsumed beneath officially constructed meta-narratives of the sort reeled out at the Swapo Congress in 1991.107 In accepting that the “narrative of one life is part of an interconnecting set of narratives; [that] it is embedded in the story of those groups from which individuals derive their identity,”108 it becomes an obligation to create a space in which these personal narratives can be heard, thus, the embedded nature of these stories is made explicit and the silent exclusion of unacceptable narratives is opposed.

M. Lambeck has argued for the “perspectival” nature of memory, and for the need to see the act of remembering as a form of “moral practice”;109 if we follow Lambeck’s lead, it is not hard to see that memories, and the right to voice those memories, will be a contested arena. The ex-detainees are a case in hand; where their voices and memories are in a transitional phase, “no longer fully subjective and not yet fully objective . . . [they have not yet been] legitimated in collective constructions like history textbooks, ritual commemorations, or legal testimony.”110 Their voices are not accepted as legitimate components of this historical cacophony, they are refused entry into the dialogue—their voices are excluded from what Bakhtin would term the heteroglossia111—of history, and their visions of the past do not form acceptable shards in Namibia’s national kaleidoscope. As a result, the ex-detainees remain a pariah group, still branded as “spies”; they are excluded from the parallel projects of national reconciliation and the construction of a national identity. Clearly then, to include their voices would indeed be a moral act.

The reaction of the Swapo leadership to those who seek to speak out has been disappointing. Shortly after the launch of Pastor Siegfried Groth’s book Namibia—The Wall of Silence, secretary general Moses Garoeb and President Sam Nujoma both spoke out publicly against the book and its author, denouncing them as being opposed to the process of reconciliation in Namibia.112 Their pronouncements, and the Swapo leadership’s attempts to impose a culture of silence where the issue of detainees and human rights abuse is concerned, is worryingly reminiscent of the leadership’ s authoritarian rule during the liberation struggle, which reached its zenith in the “Shipanga crisis” and the “spy drama” considered above.

The aspects of Namibia’s political history which I have chosen to approach through the lenses of personal narratives may not, in the end, seem to leave Swapo in a very positive light. However, I have tried to respond to the call, articulated by Sider and Smith, that “we [must] come to focus on the fractures, tensions, and contradictions of any society as central for understanding its historical dynamic.”113 A second reason for focusing so strongly on authoritarian and undemocratic tendencies within the liberation movement, and the extent to which their traces can still be seen today, is that it is these tendencies which, in my view, hold the greatest threat for post- apartheid Namibia. However, it must not be forgotten that throughout Swapo’s history there have been individuals and groups willing to challenge undemocratic and authoritarian rule and there is no indication of this opposition ceasing.114 In addition, it must not be forgotten that without Swapo, Namibia would not be a free country today, free of colonialism, and free of apartheid; but until the voices which cry out are heard and acknowledged, Swapo’s history and Namibia’s history will be incomplete. It is in this context that personal narratives are compelling voices, demanding to be heard, above the silence and within the emergent historical discourse, not lost along with the experiences that they represent and the memories that they embody.


  1. G. Sider, and G Smith, eds., Between History and Histories: the Making of Silences and Commemorations (Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1997).
  2. A. Lass, “From Memory to History: The Events of November 17 Dis/membered” in R. Watson, ed., Memory, History, and Opposition Under State Socialism (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1994), p. 89.
  3. To do so recognizes what P. Antze and M. Lambeck have asserted, that “[p]ersonal memory is always connected to social narrative as is social memory to the personal.” See P. Antze, and M. Lambeck, eds., Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory (London: Routledge, 1996), p. xx.
  4. Sider and Smith, Between History and Histories, p. 11.
  5. Sider and Smith have argued that “the more or less self-conscious construction of histories by our subjects and by ourselves” links anthropologists and historians in a common project, Between History and Histories, p. 5.
  6. R. Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies I: Writings on South Asian History and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).
  7. F. Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (England: Penguin, 1963).
  8. See also, M. Chamberlain, and P. Thompson, eds., Narrative and Genre (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 16.
  9. Lass, “From Memory to History.”
  10. B. Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991).
  11. R. Watson, ed., Memory, History, and Opposition Under State Socialism (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1994), p. 9.
  12. Ibid., p. 6.
  13. P. Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
  14. The pre-independence liberation movement is referred to by the acronym SWAPO; the post-independence political party is given the proper name Swapo, after L. Dobell, Swapo’s Struggle for Namibia, 1960-1991: War by Other Means (Switzerland: Schlettwein, 1998).
  15. Unless otherwise stated, information on SWAPO’s history comes from Dobell (Swapo’s Struggle for Namibia.), C. Leys, and J. Saul, eds., Namibia’ s Liberation Struggle: the T wo-Edged Sword (London: James Currey, 1995), SWAPO, To Be Born a Nation: The Liberation Struggle for Namibia (London: Zed Press, 1981), and United Nations Council for Namibia, The Political, Economic, Social and Military Situation in and Relating to Namibia (New York: United Nations, 1987).
  16. The South African run contract labor system was the only way in which black Namibians could gain employment, although it meant that workers were bought and sold as property. Workers were graded according to health and physical strength; this grading would then determine what jobs were available for an individual; the worker had no choice of employment, location, length of contract, or wages and it was not uncommon for white employers (or “baases”) to beat or even kill their workers. See also, N. Hishongwa, The Contract Labor System and its Effects on Family Life and Social Life in Namibia: A Historical Perspective (Windhoek: Gamsberg Macmillan, 1992) for an analysis of the contract labor system and its effects; or V. Ndadi, Breaking Contract: the Story of Vinnia Ndadi (Recorded and edited by Dennis Mercer) (London: IDAF, 1989) for a personal account.
  17. Tanzania (then Tanganyika) was to become, in 1961 under President Nyerere, the closest independent African nation to Namibia.
  18. See the Special Campaign Committee for the Release of South West African Political Prisoners, The Trial of 37 SWAPO Freedom Fighters, Pretoria, 1967-1968 (Dar es Salaam, SCCROSWAPP, c.1968) for a more in depth, if somewhat partisan, account.
  19. Reprinted in SWAPO, To Be Born a Nation., appendix B.
  20. See A. Heywood, The Cassinga Event: An Investigation of the Records by Annemarie Heywood (Windhoek: John Meinert, 1996) for a comprehensive investigation into the Cassinga massacre.
  21. Informants’ names have been changed to maintain anonymity.
  22. To put Marcus’ escape in context, 1974 was a continuing period of brutal treatment of SWAPO supporters all over Namibia, and especially in Ovamboland, which had begun as a response to the end of the general strike in May 1972. The harsh repression saw indiscriminate arrests, beatings, torture, public floggings, and disappearances perpetrated by the South African police and aided by the government sponsored chiefs.
  23. This comment illustrates the meaning of “democracy” among some members of SWAPO in exile: things are decided democratically but by a small elite, as Marcus later explained, “I think in a way [decisions are taken] democratically even though it is just done by a few people.” See also, comments on democracy in the liberation movement made in C. Leys and J. Saul, “Liberation Without Democracy? The Swapo Crisis of 1976” in Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 20, no. 1, (1994).
  24. Marcus’ comments also contain a suggestion of the “anti-intellectual” tendencies within SWAPO, which rose to the surface during the “Shipanga crisis” and the later “spy drama”: “. . . some people who thought maybe they were very clever . . . .”
  25. H. Shityuwete, Never Follow the Wolf: The Autobiography of a Namibian Freedom Fighter (London: Kliptown, 1990), p. 135.
  26. J. Ya Otto, Battlefront Namibia: An Autobiography (London: Heinemann, 1982), p. 100.
  27. Shityuwete, Never Follow the Wolf, p. 135.
  28. Ibid., p. 136.
  29. Ibid., p. 139.
  30. Ibid., p. 143.
  31. Ibid., p. 144.
  32. Y a Otto, Battlefront Namibia, pp. 92-93.
  33. Ibid., p. 95.
  34. Ibid., p. 98.
  35. Ibid., p. 100.
  36. Ibid., p. 103.
  37. Ibid., p. 100.
  38. Reprinted in SWAPO, To Be Born a Nation, p. 316.
  39. When I was teaching in Namibia in 1996, students who were asked to write to the title “A day I remember” often described being arrested and abused by South African soldiers. I remember one girl, who was nineteen at the time of writing, telling of how she was arrested by soldiers, beaten, and then locked in the trunk of a car for a whole day, without food or water, in the heat of the sun.
  40. Particularly following the general strike of 1971-1972, and the electoral boycott in Ovamboland of 1973, police brutality increased, in an attempt to suppress SWAPO’s activities; in 1975, South African brutality towards SWAPO supporters in Ovamboland reached extreme levels, following the assassination, by PLAN guerrillas, of Chief Philemon Elias, a South African- backed “Bantustan” chief (see also, R. Vigne, “SWAPO of Namibia: A Movement in Exile” in Third World Quarterly, vol. 9, no. 1 (1987).
  41. Liberation Support Movement, Andreas Shipanga, LSM Press (1973), p. 2.
  42. A. Shipanga, and S. Armstrong, In Search of Freedom: The Andreas Shipanga Story as Told to Sue Armstrong (Gibraltar: Ashanti, 1989), p. 126.
  43. Dobell, Swapo’ s Struggle for Namibia., p. 47.
  44. Leys and Saul, Namibia’ s Liberation Struggle, p. 46.
  45. Shipanga, In Search of Freedom, p. 99.
  46. Ibid., p. 101.
  47. Leys and Saul, Namibia’ s Liberation Struggle, p. 48, see also note 32, p. 60.
  48. Shipanga, In Search of Freedom, p. 107. While Angola was under Portugese rule, it was necessary for SWAPO to cooperate with UNITA, who controlled the south-eastern region of Angola through which PLAN guerrillas traveled to reach Namibia. With the collapse of Caetano’s regime, UNITA and the MPLA launched into a civil war in which South Africa supported UNITA, thus forcing SWAPO to rethink its relations with UNITA. When South Africa decided to withdraw from Angola in 1975, the MPLA effectively won the battle, opening up new opportunities for the realigned SWAPO.
  49. Leys and Saul, “Liberation Without Democracy?,” p. 140.
  50. Leys and Saul, Namibia’ s Liberation Struggle, p. 50.
  51. Shipanga, In Search of Freedom, p. 128.
  52. See Leys and Saul (“Liberation Without Democracy?”) for further information on the escape of two prisoners and the subsequent publication of “Appeal for the Release of over 1,000 Namibians in Detention in Zambia and Tanzania.”
  53. “The Ya Otto Commission of inquiry into circumstances which led to the revolt of SWAPO cadres between June 1974 and April 1976.” It should be noted that Ya Otto was a staunch supporter of Nujoma’s leadership.
  54. Quoted in Shipanga, In Search of Freedom, pp. 132-133.
  55. Ibid., p. 142. On May 4, 1978 the South African Defense Force attacked the SWAPO camp at Cassinga. While the South Africans claimed that Cassinga was a legitimate military target, the evidence points to it having been predominately a refugee camp. See Heywood, “The Cassinga Event,” for further information.
  56. The following is an example wherein the “writer of the ‘simple’ life history often unintentionally reproduces the assumptions and biases contained in [the links between personal memory and social memory]” (Antze and Lambeck, Tense Past), p. xx.
  57. Shityuwete, Never Follow the Wolf, p. 247.
  58. Quoted in Dobell, Swapo’ s Strugggle for Namibia, p. 84.
  59. Leys and Saul, Namibia’ s Liberation Struggle, p. 51.
  60. A section concerning “official shortcomings and incompetence” criticized the lack of a party constitution and clear political program, which resulted in confusion exacerbated by a lack of communication and coordination; in addition, it suggested that there was a lack of accountability among the leadership with regards to the ordinary SWAPO members. The difficulty of obtaining a copy of the report means that I have had to use only what evidence exists in secondary sources, in particular Dobell (Swapo’s Struggle for Namibia), and Leys and Saul (Namibia’ s Liberation Struggle).
  61. There is only a limited literature available dealing with the SWAPO “spy drama”; of particular use in the context of this discussion are the personal testimonies reprinted in Africa Watch, Accountability in Namibia: Human Rights and the Transition to Democracy (USA: Human Rights Watch, 1992), N. Basson and B. Motinga, eds., Call Them Spies (Windhoek: African Communication Projects, 1989), and S. Groth, Namibia—The Wall of Silence: The Dark Days of the Liberation Struggle (Germany: Peter Hammer Verlag, 1995).
  62. The SWAPO Military Security Organization was founded in 1981; it was headed by the Deputy Army Commander, Solomon “Jesus” Hawala, and based at Lubango (see also, Leys and Saul, “Liberation Without Democracy?”).
  63. Basson and Motinga, Call Them Spies, p. 14.
  64. Ibid.
  65. Ibid., p. 5.
  66. Ibid., p. 16.
  67. Ibid., p. 14.
  68. Groth, Namibia—The Wall of Silence, p. 120.
  69. Basson and Motinga, Call Them Spies.
  70. Africa Watch, Accountability in Namibia; Groth, Namibia—The Wall of Silence.
  71. Africa Watch, Accountability in Namibia, p. 77. Africa Watch is a division of the international organization Human Rights Watch, established in 1988 “to monitor and promote observance of internationally recognized human rights in Africa.” Africa Watch conducted interviews in 1991 with those Namibians who had suffered human rights abuse during the liberation struggle.
  72. Ibid., p. 79.
  73. Leys and Saul, “Liberation Without Democracy?,” p. 145.
  74. Gaomab in Basson and Motinga, Call Them Spies, pp. 14-15.
  75. Africa Watch, Accountability in Namibia.
  76. “Ex-SWAPO detainee” quoted in Africa Watch, Accountability in Namibia, p. 81.
  77. Gaomab in Groth, Namibia—The Wall of Silence, pp. 123-24.
  78. Africa Watch, Accountability in Namibia.
  79. Groth, Namibia—The Wall of Silence.
  80. Ibid., p. 106.
  81. Leys and Saul, Liberation Without Democracy?,” p. 145.
  82. Africa Watch, Accountability in Namibia, p. 76.
  83. Basson and Motinga, Call Them Spies, p. 12. It is interesting to compare this comment with the words spoken by Marcus Shikombe, who told me “SWAPO is me. I am part and parcel of SWAPO.” Both these assertions illustrate the extent to which SWAPO’s symbolic power as the harbinger of freedom enabled the organization, as an entity, to be internalized in many of those who opposed apartheid, thus becoming part of the “habitus”—(after P. Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977)—of the SWAPO member.
  84. Ibid., p. 13.
  85. Ibid., p. 16.
  86. Ibid., p. 4.
  87. Gaomab in Basson and Motinga, Call Them Spies, p. 14.
  88. Leys and Saul, Namibia’ s Liberation Struggle, p. 55.
  89. The increasing Soviet influence, after 1976, has been commented on by, among others, Leys and Saul (Liberation Without Democracy, Namibia’s Liberation Struggle); this was due to the move to Angola (into areas under MPLA control) and SWAPO’s increasing dependence on Soviet support. Leys and Saul even assert that SWAPO Security was “trained in the Soviet bloc” (Liberation Without Democracy, p. 145).
  90. Leys and Saul recount an alleged incident that occurred at a Central Committee meeting during which Hage Geingob brought up the question of the spies and their treatment but was “shouted down” by Hawala (Namibia’ s Liberation Struggle, p. 56).
  91. Ibid., p. 56.
  92. In May 1989, SWAPO revealed that 201 “spies” were being held in Angola; of these, 48 accepted the offer to rejoin SWAPO, while the remaining 153 were repatriated and founded the Political Consultative Committee (PCC) which “pledged itself to assist in preventing SWAPO from coming to power” (B. Harlech-Jones, A New Thing? The Namibian Independence Process, 1989-1990 [Windhoek: EIN, 1997]), p. 88.
  93. Africa Watch, Accountability in Namibia.
  94. See also, “Detainees ‘still alive’ in The Namibian” ( April 14, 1999.
  95. Henning Melber, Director of NEPRU (Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit), quoted in Groth, Namibia—The Wall of Silence, p. 179.
  96. Quoted in Africa Watch, Accountability in Namibia, p. 93.
  97. In this light, it is interesting to note the similarity between the need to “remember” the past and “re-member” the organization after the struggle— only by accepting a different memory could ex-detainees be accepted into SWAPO again.
  98. Quoted in Africa Watch, Accountability in Namibia, p. 100.
  99. Ibid., p. 105.
  100. C. T apscott, “A Tale of Two Homecomings” in T . Allen, and H. Morsink, eds., When Refugees Go Home (London: James Currey, 1994), p. 253.
  101. Exceptions include the repeated marches and demonstrations by unemployed ex-PLAN guerrillas, the most recent of which took place in August/September 1998; however, it was interesting to note that when I was in Namibia in 1996, despite the freshness that apartheid era experiences had, and the number of stories of abuse I heard, few of these were told with either bitterness or anger.
  102. See also, comments made by Marcus Shikombe, above.
  103. A. Krog, Country of my Skull (South Africa: Random House, 1998); TRC, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (Cape Town: TRC, 1998).
  104. Lass, “From Memory to History, p. 88.
  105. R. Sieder, “The Politics of Memory: Remembering and Forgetting in post-conflict Central America,” (Lecture at Department of Latin American Studies, Cambridge, Feb. 22, 1999). The comments of a Rwandan human rights activist, though depressing, are interesting here; he says that, “Individual justice is a futile exercise, and I have come to the conclusion that maybe it’s not even worth trying” (speaking on film, M. Stewart (dir.) “The Terror and the Truth: Justice” part 1 in series Justice, Truth and Reconciliation, BBC 2, 1997).
  106. Lass, “From Memory to History,” p. 89.
  107. L. Dobell, “SWAPO in office” in Leys and Saul eds., Namibia’s Liberation Struggle: The Two-Edged Sword (London: James Currey, 1995), pp. 182- 185, writes: “Moses Garoeb, party chief and congress coordinator, promised that “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in SWAPO’s history would be revealed during the course of the congress . . . [However, the] 60-page “Report of the Central Committee,” covering the events of three decades of struggle, and read by the President, contained no surprises . . . it dutifully summarized the official history of SWAPO.”
  108. Connerton, How Societies Remember, p. 21.
  109. M. Lambeck, “The Past Imperfect: Remembering as Moral Practice” in Antze and Lambeck, Tense Past.
  110. Ibid., p. 242.
  111. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).
  112. See also, “Controversial book reveals charges of Swapo torture” in Mail and Guardian (, March 1, 1995, and “Namibia reconciliation up against the ropes” in Mail and Guardian (, March 15, 1995.
  113. Sider and Smith, Between History and Histories, p. 9.
  114. As recently as March this year, a new political party was launched, called “The Congress of Democrats” (CoD)—“New Namibian opposition party launches” in Mail and Guardian (, March 24, 1999— its platform is the need for democratic accountability and transparency in Namibia. However, they too have drawn strongly worded criticism from Swapo, and even threats from the Minister of Home Affairs, who invoked the rhetoric of “silencing the spies and traitors” while denouncing CoD at a Cassinga Day commemoration in Ovamboland; see “Ekandjo goes ballistic” in The Namibian ( May 7th 1999.