Source: The Guardian Weekend (UK) July 12 1997, pp. 14,16,18,21,23
NO MORE HEROES
The phone on my desk was ringing.
"Is that Mr Tooooolis?" said the voice of a perfect but
familiar stranger, his long Afrikaans vowels ringing in my ears. He did not
introduce himself, but then he never needed to: he was a security policeman in
the illegal South African occupation of Namibia. I answered "Yes", and then
waited, already knowing what was coming next. "You're not verking at The
Namibian newspaper are you, Mr Tooooolis? "
I did not answer because there was nothing I could say or do - this phone call was not an inquiry but an executive act. His words and the decision were synchronous: I was being expelled from the country. Two hours later, two security policemen, one of them my questioner, turned up at the office and handed over my stamped passport and a scrap of paper. I remember them as being casually dressed, in their early forties. They looked like salesmen rather than torturers. They were almost as nervous as I was.
I was nobody important, a mere irritant, an easily removable bit player in the long struggle for independence in Namibia. But that did not matter. In their eyes, I was probably a "terrrrorist", a "white Swapo" - a follower of the liberation movement that challenged Afrikaner rule. Worst of all, I was a racial traitor, a foreign kaffir boetie a black-lover - working for what they considered to be a communist newspaper. I was the enemy.
As security policemen go, they were okay. I did not get thumped or arrested. I was given 80 hours to leave the country under the Aliens Act of 1937, or they would arrest me. I left the capital, Windhoek, two days later, travelling through the and south to Cape Town, and from there back to London. I did not return for more than ten years.
In those ten years, everything had changed for Namibia. Independence had come, the black majority was in power, the chief "terrorist", Sam Nujoma, was now president of a new country, with a new black Namibian government. The protracted isolation of Namibia - due to the international community's refusal to recognize the illegal South African regime - was over. Windhoek's new offices were stuffed with foreign embassies and international charities. A middle-class black civil servants strolled through shopping precincts. Kaiser Strasse, so named by the conquering 19th-century German colonisers, had been renamed Independence Avenue; the road in from the airport was Sam Nujoma Drive. Peace had come, and the armies and torturers of apartheid had fled south their last redoubt, the suburbs of Pretoria, until that citadel, too, had fallen. Everything, on the surface, had changed.
I had gone to Namibia in the mid-Eighties as part of a dream to take part in a crusade against what commonly viewed as the ugliest regime on earth the Great White Monster of Apartheid. From the student bars of my university to the streets of London, South Africa was the titanic moral and political struggle of our era. There was no question: it was Black Good against White Evil. We invested the anti-apartheid struggle and southern Africa with moral superiority that made our own home-grown politics seem pallid. In such a contest, there wasn't space for doubt or cynicism. We were young I was 25 when I went to Namibia - and in our naive, blind political faith we pushed the black-liberation movements and their leaders, Winnie Mandela, the ANC, Swapo, the MPLA, Samora Machel, Frelimo, on to another moral plane: unblemished, unconditional heroes.
We are still doing that today, with the elevation of Nelson Mandela as a late-20th-century saint. Back in the Eighties, we longed for the Afrikaner State President PW Botha to be assassinated and would have paid for the bullets ourselves. We would have rejoiced to see the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square in flames and an Afrikaner diplomat strung up from every lamp-post around the square. We even hated the very sound of Afrikaans, as if the language itself was synonymous with the policies of the National Party. We saw slavery and we dreamed of freedom. I wanted to join that struggle as the White against Evil. I wanted to volunteer for the front against the forces of darkness.
I ended up getting a job with the newly-established paper the Namibian by virtue of a bit of creative lying about my sub-editing abilities. Supposedly, I was to be the chief sub-editor on the paper; I was even supposed to train other people. I had never subbed in my life, and spent the whole flight to Johannesburg terrified, a ruler in one hand and a copy of that day's Sun in the other, abortively trying to measure the column widths and work out how it was done. By the time I arrived, the subbing position had been filled, so I settled down to reporting.
Most things in life disappoint after a time; that job, that lover, that holiday, your house ... but Namibia for me in 1985 never did. After the crush and grimness of London, Namibia was a Dreaming Country. Every morning I would wake in the streaming light, shoulder my verbal armour, and go out to fight apartheid. We were doing something important - standing up to the regime and we were having a good time.
The Namibian, a sister paper to the South African Weekly Mail,
was a chaotic, radical newspaper that was the lone voice of opposition in a
country in the thrall of a waning racist dictatorship. Our days were spent
bashing out copy about various evil acts, our nights drinking beer, smoking
grass, playing Trivial Pursuit or jumping in the swimming pools that were a
feature of white suburban life in Namibia. Each edition of the paper was like a
miracle; the final pages were always put to bed just as dawn was breaking. At
weekends, we would take off for the immensity of the desert (Namibia is huge,
half the size of western Europe) where the aridity has frozen geological time
and the skeleton of the earth - mountain ranges, rocks, valleys - is naked to
the eye. The absence of moisture makes even the stars shine like dust in the
heavens - compared with Europe, it is like having a ladder into the cosmos.
The Namibian was the child of one woman Gwen Lister, the first real hero I met. Gwen thrived in the paper's tight world of stress, adoration, clannish loyalties. Most of the staff, male and female, were in love with her - myself included. She chain-smoked 60 cigarettes a day and had an Imelda Marcos-like love of good shoes. She was brave and, like all real heroes, a dangerous person to know. I was privileged to be a part of a group of white and black journalists challenging apartheid. The bonds were incredibly close and, at that time, I would have laid down my own life for my friends.
Our enemies certainly took us seriously by spying on us, arresting staff members and breaking into the paper's offices. Gwen Lister was a hate figure. Bullets from freelance right-wingers were regularly fired into the building and windows smashed. Long after I had gone, the paper was firebombed and the offices destroyed. And, in the run-up to independence, a close associate of the paper, Anton Lubowski, was assassinated outside his home in Windhoek by the notorious Civil CoOperation Bureau,, apartheid's hit squad.
We were not afraid. In one of the many rows with the Transitional Government I wrote the following editorial. "We are not intimidated by your threats ... We are not and we will not be frightened into suppressing the truth about what is really happening in this country ... and we will not cut our journalistic conscience to suit the fashion of anyone." Even at this distance, it seems absurdly, dangerously, defiant - as well as verbose. We were believers, and I am still proud of the gutsiness we had in the face of a malevolent enemy.
The country I had arrived in was a backwater, a forgotten province that, through no fault of its own, was now a bargaining counter in the geopolitics of the region. Most of the world's attention on southern Africa was understandably focused on the war in the townships of Cape Town and Soweto. In comparison, Windhoek was a sleepy dorp of 100,000 people on the edge of the world. What it did have was an extraordinary number of newspapers - in Afrikaans, English, German - that were published daily. Not that any of them were worth reading. They all carried the same pro-government line and reinforced their readers' ignorance of the world and the political reality of what was happening in Namibia.
At night, Windhoek's streets were empty and peaceful. I lived across from the railway station, and at dusk would stare out at the slow clanking trains full of white conscripts passing through the deserted city towards the war in the distant north. Namibia was caught up in not one but two wars. The country, South West Africa as it was then known, had come under South African control in 1916 when South African troops invaded the German colony on behalf of the British Empire. The League of Nations mandated the territory to South Africa in 1920. The isolated National Party apartheid regime refused to leave. The armed struggle for independence began in 1966 with the first guerrilla actions by the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO). The South Africans soon turned northern Namibia into an armed camp to repel the annual rainy-season infiltration by Swapo guerrillas. That was War Number One.
In 1974, the South African Defence Forces (SADF) invaded Angola in an attempt to seize the capital, Luanda, the Portuguese having withdrawn from their one-time colony. A Cuban expeditionary force rapidly dispatched by Castro fought the SADF to a stalemate in the savannah of southern Angola. War Number Two, between the Cubans and the Afrikaners, was obviously a bigger event - part of the Cold War, involving Moscow and Washington, as well as Pretoria. Namibia was South Africa's launch-pad into Angola and a bargaining chip in the complex geopolitics of the region. There would be peace eventually, but at that time war was a way of life. On Sunday mornings, I would tune into the troopies' favourites, a South African Broadcasting Corporation radio program that sounded as if it had been lifted straight from the BBC World Service of the Fifties. "Joanne says she misses you very much, Peter, and it won't be long now," said the transposed English suburban announcer's voice, before the next Sixties hit was played.
In practical terms, both wars were impossible to report accurately, but we tried anyway. All sides maintained a steadfast policy of lying, and the battlefields were beyond reach.
My first trip to the war was in a hired white BMW that, along with our white skin, was an automatic gate-opener at every South African base we visited. With a friend, Peter Moore, I ended up one night dining on lobster in the South African officers' mess in their main headquarters at Oshakati - the lobsters had been flown into the middle of the war zone by military plane and were served by linen-clad, white, conscript waiters. It felt like a Vietnam war folly. Oshakati was itself a symbol of apartheid. It was literally a white town in the middle of a tribal homeland. Blacks were barred from entering its streets unless they were servants of the master race, and its borders were maintained by a line of machine-gun posts and checkpoints. The "white city" was a suburban enclave of bungalows, lawn sprinklers and garden bunkers - in case of incoming mortar fire. We even managed a dip in the pool at the club.
But outside in the darkness, beyond the machinegun posts and sandbags, a vicious counterinsurgency war raged. To fight SWAPO, Pretoria established a mercenary anti-terrorist unit, largely black, named Koevoet (or Crowbar). Koevoet's standard operating procedure was murder, mayhem and torture. They would burn the skin off children's faces by holding them against the red-hot exhaust of their Casspir armoured vehicles. They would "slot" Swapo guerrillas in the bush, tie the bodies to the Casspir's bumpers or else trail the body behind on a rope and then do a victory tour through the townships. Prisoners were routinely tortured, killed and dumped in mass graves.
The war also had its weird contradictions. The phone number of the National Intelligence Service - the South African equivalent of MI5 - was listed in the telephone books under "Useful Numbers". We could and did arrange an interview with the head of the security police, Brigadier Tomas Tomasse. Because the Afrikaner government came from a Protestant culture based on the laws of the Bible, they conceived of themselves as a civilized people whose actions were governed by the law. Every cruel racist act was backed up somewhere by a statute. Their soldiers were licensed to kill and torture in so far as they were never called to account. The Namibian's lawyer successfully pursued a compensation claim for £7,000 on behalf of one detainee, Severmus Siteketa, 34, who had been tortured near to the point of death by a Koevoet officer, Captain Engelbrecht.
Engelbrecht had arrested Siteketa in northern Namibia for helping a wounded Swapo guerrilla and held him in indefinite detention under a statute known as AG9. Engelbrecht starved his captive of food and water, and imprisoned him in a corrugated iron dog kennel in the 90-degree heat. Siteketa could barely stretch out, never mind stand. Somehow he survived the months of captivity and Engelbrecht's torture sessions that routinely began with, "Now, you Swapo moer [cunt], now you are going to die." Because, unlike most detainees, Siteketa survived, he was able to sue his torturers for damages and win.
Outside the war zone, the South African apartheid regime had constructed one of the most elaborate systems of government known to humankind to disguise its racist rule: each racial grouping - Ovambo, Hereto, Bushman, White - had its own administration, its own schools, its own hospitals. Instead of having one government for a country of 1.5 million people, Namibia theoretically had 13.
A make-believe government of puppet black leaders, the Transitional Government of National Unity, had been installed by the country's real ruler, the Pretoria-appointed Administrator General. Under the Transitional Government, the white administration could use its "white" taxes to fund luxurious rest-camp bungalows in the National Parks, whereas the impoverished black majority lived in townships devoid of sanitation, running water, adequate education or health provision. In reality, nothing had changed; the whites held power. The immediate reason for my expulsion was for pointing out that the security police's local cafe openly refused to allow black customers to eat at the tables.
But, ten years later, that was all in the past. Independence
had come and the dross of apartheid had been swept away. White and black were
now, at least theoretically, equal under a democratic constitution. My return to
Namibia was a journey of hope, of reckoning. I came back to see if the land I
had fallen in love with had become the country I had dreamed of.
The crimes of apartheid are written in stone and their burden still weighs heavy. Independence came in 1990, but seven years is not enough to wipe out the huge disparities in wealth between the whites and the blacks. Nowhere is this more evident than in the physical geography of every town in Namibia, with their white suburban streets, their run-down coloured quarters and the desperate poverty of the townships. You will always find the township somewhere between the sewage plant, the rubbish dump and the back of the power plant. It was not enough for apartheid's civic planners to impoverish and blight, they always had to hide this crime from their own sight. It was like that in 1985 and it is still like that in 1997.
As I walked around the contrasting streets of the coastal resort town of Swakopmund and its associated township, Mondesa, it was hard not to be filled with rage. The physical geography remains immutable, but then, so too do the hearts of the majority of whites. Apartheid has been replaced by what is called cold apartheid. There may be a black president, but black shop assistants are still called "shop boys", gardeners "garden boys". If you are black, you can work faithfully for a company for years and yet never be trusted to put a single rand in the till.
In one town, I was dropping off a friend to catch a bus and we asked the white receptionist in the local hotel about getting a taxi to the bus stop. "It's not possible," she countered as she stood beside the black waiter. "There are taxis but they are only used by black people. It's not safe. Anyway, there is no place to sit for the bus because it's full of black people. So there is no place." I looked at the black waiter and he looked back impassive. It was old news: nothing had changed. I traveled 4,000 miles in Namibia and not once did I hear one white express any regret for their collusion with the apartheid state. On the contrary, they believe themselves to be victims - victims of a black wave, victims of the impoverished black they once held in bondage, victims of fate. Prejudice ubiquitous "they" litter their every sentence. "They [blacks] steal. Ach man, it's terrible. The delivery boys are in cahoots with the stockroom. You have to watch them like a hawk." Around a dinner table one night, I encountered Gunther, a chain-smoking German who had lived in Namibia for 24 years and worked as a garage manager. He was 54, a thin, sour-faced man, whose eyes only fit up when he was talking about the Magnum handgun he had bought after his car radio was stolen. He was, he said, looking forward to using it on the next black who came in over the fence.
And yet the whites remain a mystery, a puzzle. There were only 100,000 whites in the whole of Namibia. They were outnumbered 15:1 by the black population. For decades, they'd resisted the inevitable black rule. They twisted reality into an unsustainable lie. It was always easy to see what they were against, but impossible to understand what they believed in, what they were fighting for. Independence has not changed that.
We were driving south along the thin, two-lane road that runs through Ovamboland, the former war zone in northern Namibia, when we saw something ahead shimmering like a red mirage. We had been to see what remained of the white citadel of Oshakati after its inhabitants had fled, its lawns withered into dust, and its sand-bagged bunkers fallen into collapse. My partner Dea, beside me, began screaming: "It's a person, it's a person." It was a girl dressed in a red shirt lying as if asleep on the southbound lane of the highway. I braked hard and steered around her stopping the car 20 yards beyond. I ran back.
She was about 12, barefoot, lying stretched out across the lane. There was no one else around. We were in the middle of nowhere in a tribal homeland that had nothing but villages in the bush. Her head was oozing blood, congealed matter from the underside, where it made contact with the tarmac. It was already a thick bloody, murky, gelatinous mass. Her eyes were far back in her head and she was emitting an animal rasping choking. And there were tiny bloody scrapes on her legs that had been inflicted by the mysterious thing - a car or perhaps, the lorry that she had fallen from - that had caused this terrible event. Beneath her body lay a small stick - she was a shepherd girl who had been sent out as evening descended to round up the family's goats or cattle. Her lungs were gurgling. She was dying.
Some small boys appeared 150 yards away and I called to them. Other children appeared. They drew closer, perhaps surprised to see boers whites - on the road, but they were soon mesmerised by this dying thing on the ground which they stared at as if looking at a broken cow.
I asked, "Is there a hospital nearby?" But every one spoke Oshiwambo, the local language.
I flagged down the first passing car and by now a small group had gathered. The driver got out and said in perfect but stilted English: "What exactly has happened here?
"There has been an accident. We found her lying in the road . . ." I answered.
But already I felt guilty. Our car, with its hazard lights
flashing, was 2 0 yards beyond the girl. There were no witnesses. Did they think
we had knocked her down? That the boers had killed the girl? "Where is the
nearest hospital?" In Europe, there always would be a hospital, emergency
services. I kept thinking of the BBC 999 program. But this was Africa. The
crowd, far from being energised, seemed hopeless. Every question we asked seemed
to provoke incomprehension.
"Five miles back," someone said. Another member of the crowd pointed in the opposite direction "No, no, no, in Oshakati," said another. Oshakati was 180 kilometres behind us. They fell to arguing among themselves in a language that we had no comprehension of.
"She needs an ambulance. What about a phone?"
We decided to leave to find a phone. We could not take
responsibility for the dying girl - we could do nothing. We had no idea who she
was, where her family was, where we were or how to find help. Nor was there any
possibility of explaining what we were doing.
We drove south for five, ten, 15 miles. There was nothing, and then we hit a strip of cuca shops bars. We pulled into a bar, a stable really, to use the telephone. It was simple concrete shed, surreally filled with men and women, smartly dressed, nightclub-style, drinking huge bottles of beer in the middle of the afternoon.
They were amazed to see us. The whole bar turned to stare as these panicky boers ran in and demanded to use the telephone. We told them there had been an accident. We asked for the number of the local hospital. No one could agree on the number or the location of the hospital. Someone shouted out a number and I called it. The operator spoke only Oshiwambo. It was hopeless.
A woman in the bar spoke reasonably good English, and with her help I finally got through to another hospital and spoke to the ambulance dispatcher: "I want to report an accident."
"Has the car overturned?" he asked. "No, there was no car, it was just a person." "Was the car damaged?"
"No, no, it was a person..." I searched for the word to describe the little shepherd girl in the bush. "A pedestrian." It seemed ludicrous.
"Ah, a pedestrian," the dispatcher repeated phonetically, the way one repeats a word in an unintelligible foreign language. "And how many people were injured in the car, sir?"
"No, no, it was a child, a girl."
"And you are?"
I spelled out my name as, on the other side of the phone, he filled in the form.
"And where are you calling from?"
"We are at... Ontwepi. .." Already I felt the correct pronunciation of the village slipping from me. "And you are calling from, sir?
"A public telephone."
"Ah, a public telephone," in a tone that implied that this was the answer to the mystery of who I was and what I was reporting. He hurriedly brought the conversation to a close. "Well, yes, thank you. I am sure we will send something."
I put the phone down and turned towards the room. The whole bar was staring at me.
In a gesture of what I thought was superfluous politeness, I asked the bar owner how much I owed her for the calls - expecting her to dismiss it.
"Eight dollars," came the cold reply.
Eight dollars was about £2 - the call could have cost 30 pence
at the most - but I was too stunned by her reply to think. In my head, I was
thinking Europe, 999, the recovery position, the emergency services, ambulances,
Save a Life, you-can-do-something, life matters. I slowly counted out the money
in change and then we left.
We drove south in silence for a long time.. Despite my time in Namibia and the friends I had made, there was no closing the chasm of difference evident at that moment. I felt completely out of place. No amount of "white solidarity" was going to change that. We were absolute strangers here.
In reality, as we later discovered, there were no ambulances unless you were knocked over outside the regional hospital. An "accident" in Ovamboland meant a collision of one of the packed mini-vans, crammed with 20 or so migrants returning from the distant south. The death toll was usually nine or more. Anything less was just a hazard of everyday life, like the drought or the murderous boers - who, during the war, killed with impunity and asked questions later. Cows, animals, children were constantly being killed on the road. And even if there was an ambulance, the girl stood little chance of survival outside a hi-tech western neurological unit. From somewhere I remembered a quote from a South African conscript describing the war in Namibia: "If you knew about the north, you would know how fucking worthless a human life can be." The absence of war did not change that truth.
I do not know what the people in the bar thought of us. Their underlying view seemed to be saying, "What are you doing, boer? Why are you doing this, unless you hurt her in the first place, unless you are guilty?" Or else it was just a dead kid that they did not know and did not care about. Or else we were too strange: crazed white Martians jabbering about something alien.
During the war, the borders of Ovamboland were guarded by soldiers and policemen to prevent Swapo guerrillas, the tribal farmers and their cheap cattle from invading the "South West Africa" of tourism, white farmers, commercial ranch, wealth. Policemen, albeit black ones now, still man what is effectively the frontier between the First and Third worlds of Namibia. It was our chance to inform authority of the dying shepherdess, 100 kilometres to the north of us now. But the scene in the bar had chastened us. It was not so clear how these events would be interpreted, if we might not be arrested. I had no faith in the bright cheerful faces of the policemen who waved us through. We were silent.
Post-independence, Namibia is the latest hotspot on the luxury tourist map. The old fortified homes of the boer farmers are being turned into game lodges to service a new set of Europeans with dreams about Africa. That night, we returned to a new five-star hotel full of European tourists who had come to see the "real wilderness" of Namibia. Actually, they had come to see the animals - lions, elephants, whatever - in a nearby game park. In the dining room that night, there were tureens of oysters, racks of Oryx chops, zebra steaks, lobster, fruits. The only black faces belonged to the regiment of waiters who serviced our every need. It was another dream of the wilderness, complete with good wines, flushing toilets and clean sheets.
The food - flown in by cargo plane - tasted like ashes in our mouths. It was hard to eat, hard to forget that a little girl was lying dead in a simple hut 150 kilometres to the north, a world away from this extravaganza.
Swapo was founded in the early Sixes, and its leaders spent almost 30 years exiled from the country they now govern. Standing before their fervent supporters at the United Nations and at west European antiapartheid conferences, Swapo and its leader Sam Nujoma were liberators, brave fighters struggling against impossible odds. Nujoma was never a great public speaker, but he was always received with the adulation usually accorded a rock star.
In private, the movement's leaders spent most of their lives engaged in vicious internal power struggles in various refugee camps in Angola and Zambia. Although it often shared the stage with the ANC, Swapo was a far narrower, more doctrinaire, tribally-based movement - overwhelmingly drawn from the majority Owambo tribe of northern Namibia. During its long exile, Swapo turned in on itself The "Old Guard" of Nujoma and his cronies, who founded the movement, placed their own political survival above all other considerations. They were politically and militarily inept, personally corrupt and intolerant of the younger waves of activists who fled into exile after them. Swapo's incursions into northern Namibia were often little more than suicide missions.
In the early Eighties, Swapo's long-term failure provoked a witch-hunt among its ranks for South African spies that soon blossomed into a full-scale, Stalinist-style purge. Under the eyes of the UN, which was basically underwriting Swapo's finances, thousands of exiled Namibians were arrested in Angola and Zambia and tortured by Swapo's security unit. Anyone who was a non-Owambo was automatically suspected, and the tentacles of suspicion reached as far as the Namibian refugee communities in Sweden, the US and Britain. It was an ethnic purge that claimed between 800 and 2,500 lives. Some of the brightest and best of Namibia's young people were among them, killed not for opposing apartheid but for dissenting from the autocratic rule of Nujoma.
It was a terrible crime, and the blood on the hands of the current Swapo leadership is still unacknowledged. It is the great taboo of contemporary politics in Namibia. In May, the Namibian government refused to allow the South African Truth Commission, headed by the former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to hold hearings in Namibia about the crimes of the apartheid era for fear that the atrocities of their own prison camps would feature on the agenda.
Swapo's chief torturer, Salomon "Jesus" Hawala, is now head of the Namibian Armed Forces. The chief public apologists for the treatment of the "dissidents" are Hidipo Hamutenya, the current trade minister, and Theo-Ben Gutirab, the current foreign minister. And, of course, Sam Nujoma himself.
Word of these purges began to reach the outside world in 1985
through the testimony of the parents of the refugees who had been killed or
tortured by Swapo. I was in Namibia when the Namibian carried the first stories,
and the leadership's thin explanation for them as the rooting out of "South
African spies". I remember not believing Swapo, but I also remember disbelieving
the parents, whom I regarded as creatures of the Transitional Government. In
reality, the parents were telling the truth and Swapo was lying through its
teeth. But I was on the side of Swapo and, like Swapo's sponsors in the churches
and at the UN, refused to believe that our heroes were capable of such
cruelties. And because it challenged that simple axiom we had: Black equals
Good, White equals Bad. We wanted our simple dream.
In power, Nujoma is not much different than in exile. Probably because of his insecurity, he travels in a cavalcade of four black armoured Mercedes with screaming sirens and motorcycle outriders, regardless of how short the journey. He is fond of presenting himself as an important African potentate. And fond, too, of expensive presidential jets that his impoverished country can ill-afford. A squad of goons clad in Hawaiian shirts, with guns in their waistbands, follow his every move. His hero is not Nelson Mandela but the increasingly dictatorial Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe.
But because Namibia is so small, and everyone knows everyone else, it is perfectly possible to find yourself in the company of President Nuioma and his goons.
My own encounter arose from an all-day drinking session in the black township Katutura. We moved from bar to bar and house to house until finally one of our hosts suggested going to a funeral later that afternoon, where the President - who to the township residents still has the aura of a pop star - was expected.
This funeral was of a returnee, a former bodyguard for Nujoma. We waited and waited, as one does for self-aggrandizing VIPs. And then screaming sirens, still ten minutes away, told us he had left the State House and was on his way to this comfortable middle-class home in the township. I was happy to be just an onlooker at the proceedings, but it was difficult to blend in, as the only white within three square miles. I was called forward for an audience that was as formal as an investiture. Nujoma was sitting down, as if on a throne. I was ushered to a waiting stool. He opened the proceedings magisterially.
"We are grateful for your presence here at the funeral of Comrade Manga."
"You are from Britain?"
"Yes, the Queen."
"She came to visit us in 1991, in Windhoek."
"Ah, ha." Small-talk has never been my forte, and being a republican, I was a bit lost for words by this point. But, staring around at the 30 faces concentrated on my every breath in this tight sitting room, I knew I had to say something.
"I hear she is very small." The crowd tittered their approval.
I looked at Nujoma, who stared back almost angrily from his chair.
Silently I thought: "Fuck, he must be small too."
"No, no she is medium," he replied.
"Yes," I answered, echoing him. "Medium." The room broke out in smiles and embarrassed delight.
Our conversation about the British monarchy, the Labour Party
and independence continued in the same stilted vein for the next five minutes,
and then Nujoma stood up - he was easily six foot and proceeded regally into
another room. Nujoma had gone out of his way to be charming, and in my twenties
I would have revered him for it. But now I saw an uneasy manipulator of power -
a killer. I was still in my seat when one of his goons from the security detail
came over and tried to pump me for information about who I was and what was I
doing in Namibia.
Nujoma's natural authoritarianism is currently reined in by a democratic constitution, bills of rights and the best legal formulas that the UN lawyers could contrive. But Swapo is the ruling party and there is no credible opposition. Nor is there any tradition of democratic opposition within Swapo. The Government has been plagued by embarrassing corruption stories that reach all the way into the president's office. It is easy to be cynical and say that, in comparison with other African governments, Swapo is not that bad, but the people who suffer from Swapo's corruption are the Namibian poor.
Ironically, the Namibian is still the leading opposition newspaper, but now it is being castigated for its "foreign values" and its editor, still Gwen Lister, is bitterly criticized by her one-time political allies. Despite all the struggle and sacrifices by Namibians, Swapo in power is a disappointment.
The last man I went to visit in Namibia was Brigadier Tomas Tomasse, one-time head of the security police and the man ultimately responsible for throwing me out. A black colleague and me had interviewed him in 1986 in an attempt to find out the names of men such as Severmus Siteketa who were being held in detention. Tomasse had toyed with us, trying to out-stare us, trying to blackmail my workmate into becoming an informer. At the time, he was genuinely frightening.
On one level, I now wanted to see him to discover more about my expulsion, but the real reason was that I wanted to see if he was diminished.
Tomasse is notorious in Namibia as the personal interrogator/torturer of the current Namibian ambassador to Zimbabwe, Thomas Kamati. In one of the ironies of political revolution, Tomasse later reported to Kamati just after majority rule was established. Their first encounter is legendary.
Kamati: "Do you remember me?"
Tomasse: "Of course, I remember you." And then Tomasse was silent.
Tomasse gives the lie to the idea that bad guys are cowards. When I asked him about the Kamati incident he did not flinch.
"It was my profession. There were the laws laid down. That is
what I did. I personally interrogated him." He reminded me of the
torturer-priest Father Beron in Conrad's Nostromo, who was always personally
disappointed in the refusal of his charges to give a complete confession. Those
with a "bad disposition" would be taken outside to be beaten senseless and then
Beron, in a pitiless, monotonous tone, would ask: "Will you confess now? "
Unlike most of his underlings, Tomasse did not flee. The incoming government made it clear that there would be no retribution. Tomasse, who was born in Namibia, stayed. He was even briefly promoted to major-general of the Namibian Police the top police position in the country. I met him in his house. He had retired but there was something in his manner, the way he obsessively and meticulously smoothed and stretched a cloth on the desk in front of him, that remained frightening even though his powers to interrogate had long since disappeared. The wall of his den was littered with his awards for meritorious conduct against the enemies of apartheid.
Physically, he remained impressive, but his answers to my
questions were wearily predictable. Independence was terrible, Swapo did nothing
right, the country was going to the dogs, corruption was everywhere. His main
grievance seemed to be that the cutlery from the luxurious chalets built for
white campers in the country's National Parks had been stolen. Less than five
miles from where we sat, 2,000 black squatters were living in cardboard hovels
devoid of water or sanitation.
I asked point blank what did he think he had been fighting for. But there were no answers. "I believed that the war would come to an end and that South Africa would win the war and that the South West (Namibia) would be independent but not under black rule." But blacks outnumbered whites 15:1 - how could he not see that the whites were always going to lose? I left no wiser.
Namibia had changed. Despite the blood on its hands, the non-racist Swapo government did offer hope of a better future for the Namibian people. And there is no alternative. But I had changed too. I am 38 now and it was no longer possible to believe so unconditionally in a cause, in heroes and absolute human goodness. My dreams have changed irrevocably. The days I enjoyed the most on this journey of return were when we drove alone through the endless Namibian landscape of desert and mountains. The purple, yellow earth, the shimmering iron mountains in the distance, were untouched by these human hatreds, these human failures, and it was easier to believe that it was possible to start anew and leave the bitter past behind.
We were right: apartheid was slavery, but my generation's dream of an easy freedom in southern Africa was impossible. Its absolute colour scheme - Black = Good, White = Bad - was too simple for the real world and the real flawed human beings who inhabit it. It was just that, a dream.
Kevin Toolis' book on the IRA, Rebel Hearts, is published by Picador at £6.99.
@ A Forgotten War
@ What happened to the boys on the border?
@ In conflict
@ Death in the Desert: The
Namibian Tragedy Chapter 6
@ Chapter 7
@ Chapter 12
@ Chapter 13
@ Chapter 14
@ Chapter 15
@ Chapter 16
@ Chapter 18
@ Chapter 19
@ Chapter 20
@ Chapter 21
@ Civil supremacy of the military in Namibia
@ NO MEAN SOLDIER
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