After many years of struggle, the Namibian people have at last elected their own representatives to decide on a constitution for an independent Namibia. SWAPO won these elections hands down. In this story two comrades – one of whom works at Learn and Teach – tell of the South African volunteers who went to Namibia to help SWAPO during the election campaign.
As the sun began to rise over Johannesburg on Saturday, 4th November, a long line of over 300 combis made its way west out of Johannesburg. This was freedom’s convoy, bound for Namibia.
Inside the combis were taxi drivers and comrades from every corner of South Africa. All of us were volunteers, answering the call of the Namibia Solidarity Committee to offer our services to SWAPO during its election campaign. Our task was to help transport SWAPO supporters to the voting stations.
In the convoy, there were comrades from COSATU and the unions, from the UDF and many other progressive organisations. There were also many drivers from the South African Long Distance Taxi Association (SALDTA).
We all shared one aim – to make sure that SWAPO won the elections and so prove to all those who doubted it, that SWAPO is the true representative of the majority of the Namibian people.
Some hours earlier, while most of Johannesburg was still fast asleep, we had met in the offices of COSATU for a final briefing from the organisers. They told us that in Namibia we would be accountable to SWAPO. We would be told by SWAPO comrades where to go and what to do. And in case we had any problems, the Namibia Solidarity Committee had set up an office in Windhoek for us. Help would be only a telephone call away.
Namibia is a long, long drive from Johannesburg. Our convoy passed through Klerksdorp, Vryburg, Kuruman, Upington and finally across the border into Namibia. We reached Keetmanshoop, our first stop at midnight on Saturday. SWAPO comrades were there to welcome us and to organise food for hundreds of hungry mouths.
The next morning we got our first orders. About 40 taxis were to remain in Keetmanshoop to help transport SWAPO supporters in the southern region of Namibia. The rest of us were to carry on to Windhoek where we would be given further instructions. And so we were soon back on the road and it was to be another long, hot, dry day before we reached Windhoek late on Sunday night.
MEETING THE HEROES
The SWAPO and National Union of Namibian Workers’ offices in Katutura were the headquarters of our operation. Here we met meet many comrades from all over Namibia.
One comrade had left the country 15 years ago and had fought with the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) for three years. His leg was shot off by SADF forces in a battle in Ovambo. He managed to get across the border into Angola where he was given emergency medical treatment before being flown to Cuba for specialist care.
After that he went to East Germany, where he was given an artificial leg, and then to Yugoslavia where he trained as an orthopedic surgeon. Now he was back home and ready to serve his people.
Another comrade told us how he too had been wounded in the war and had lost his arm. He had spent time in Cuba, East Germany, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. He had also trained as a doctor.
Both these comrades had only praise for the socialist block countries: “In Namibia there were very few opportunities for the people to get a good education. When we left the country there were no black doctors here. The socialist countries have trained a lot of Namibian exiles with skills that our society will need. They have trained doctors, engineers and teachers.”
As we spoke to the comrades – and many others – we were surprised that they showed no bitterness for the suffering they had experienced. They had used their time in exile well and their main aim now was to build the new Namibia with the skills and knowledge they had brought back with them.
In Windhoek we were divided up again. Some of the combis were to stay in Windhoek to work in the Midlands and the rest of us would be sent up north to Ovambo and Kavango. But before we left, we had our first experience of the dirty tricks of the anti-SWAPO forces.
We were about to leave the SWAPO offices early on Monday morning when we saw sharp metal spikes in front of our tyres. Later, in a hotel in Windhoek, some die-hard colonials shouted angrily when they saw our SWAPO T -shirts. “Sies, julle SWAPO se bobbejane!” one hissed.
When went to fetch our combis in the parking lot, we again found that sharp metal spikes were put in front of our wheels. Other drivers found that their tyres had been slashed with knives.
We soon realised that we were being watched closely by the enemies of the people and that not everyone in Namibia shared SWAPO’s vision of freedom. We began to wonder just how “free and fair” these elections would be.
INTO THE WAR ZONE
We left Windhoek later in the morning and travelled up to Ovambo. Ovambo is in the north of Namibia, next to the Angolan border. We could see clearly that this was SWAPO territory. There were SWAPO flags and posters on almost every building – even on top of the tallest palm trees!
It is not surprising that SWAPO has so much support in Ovambo. This is where the war was heaviest. This is where the SADF had most of its troops. And this is where the people suffered most at the hands of the occupying forces.
The town of Oshikati was to be our main base in the north. We went straight to the SWAPO offices where we got our orders. Some of us were sent eastwards and the rest of us were sent to smaller villages in Ovambo.
At this point we were separated. One of us, Cde Justin, went with six combis to a town called Oshigambo. The other, Cde Phis from Learn and Teach, went with ten kombis to Okongo.
COMRADE JUSTIN’S STORY
I was sent to a small village called Onamukulo, about 60 kilometres from the Angolan border. Cde Sacky Nehari of SWAPO travelled with us. He was to be our commander during the operation.
At Onamukulo we stayed with a priest and his family. This is a very poor place. There has hardly been any rain for three years and it is very difficult to grow food. Also, there are very few young men to do the work here because many died in the war. Many others have been forced to travel south to the mines and the big white-owned farms to find work.
So the women and the older men work very hard to make ends meet. But our hosts showed us the very warmest hospitality. They made us feel at home immediately.
We soon found that these poor people living far from South Africa knew a lot about our struggle and were very pleased that we had travelled so far to help them in their struggle. For them our struggle and their struggle is one and the same thing.
The next morning we began our work. Each day we drove to collect people from the smaller villages. We carried mainly the older people and the disabled – those who could not walk the long distances to the polling stations and then stand for many hours under the blazing sun waiting to vote. The queues were so long that sometimes people had to go back the next day.
We made many trips to and from the polling station each day. By Thursday morning the polling stations in our area had run out of voting papers. We asked ourselves if this was on purpose. We were suspicious because the officials at the polling stations were mostly white employees of the South African imposed Administrator General’s government.
Or, even worse, some were former members of Koevoet – the special operations unit set up by the SADF to try to defeat SWAPO by all possible means. How could the people trust men who had driven Casspirs into their villages and run people down? The list of atrocities committed by Koevoet against innocent Namibians is endless.
Luckily, there were also UNTAG members at the polling stations and the people had grown to trust them. So we just had to wait for the new papers to arrive – and finally they did. By the end of the week we were sure that just about everyone had been to vote and we knew that this would mean a huge victory for SWAPO in Ovambo.
COMRADE PHIS’ STORY
When I was separated from Cde Justin at Oshakati, I was sent with nine other combis to a small town called Okongo, about 50 kilometres from Angola. Okongo is very close to where the April 1 massacre took place.
The we arrived at Okongo, we left our few belongings at the SWAPO offices. The SWAPO comrades then took us to see the place where so many young comrades had been killed on the eve of independence. We stood there in silence, with heavy hearts.
Cde Amos Paulos was the SWAPO comrade in charge of our operation in Okongo and he sent other SWAPO comrades to travel with us eac day. We left early each morning for Eenana, stopping at small villages along the way. The roads are very poor in this area and there is no public transport. So we knew that our task was an important one.
The drive from Okongo to Eenana takes four and a half hours and we made this journey several times each day, taking many voters to the polling station at Okongo and the mobile polling station in Omunu. Like Comrade Justin, we knew that SWAPO’s victory in this area would be total.
But even though almost everyone in the area was a SWAPO supporter, this did not stop SWAPO’s enemies from trying to cause trouble. The small group of DTA supporters in Okongo were always trying to provoke us. They would always come and harass SWAPO members, trying to get them to fight. But the SWAPO comrades were very disciplined and refused to react.
Every day there was a SWAPOL helicopter flying low over the SWAPO office, trying to threaten us. And a plane flew over regularly dropping pamphlets from the sky like rain. These pamphlets were telling lies about SWAPO.
One of them said that after the election Sam Nujoma was going to give R6000 and a new house to everyone in his home town. Another pamphlet pretended to come from SWAPO itself, calling on supporters to vote on only two days instead of all seven days. SWAPO’s enemies were full of these kind of tricks. But we knew that in the end the people would not be fooled by their trickery. They had stood by SWAPO for years and they were not about to be fooled by a few bits of paper.
At the end of the week, when the voting was over, we packed up and said farewell to the SWAPO comrades and drove back to Oshakati where we rejoined our comrades from South Africa.
Everyone had many stories to tell, much like the ones we have told. We heard for example, that the comrades who went to Katimo Mulilo in Caprivi had driven over spikes in the road which had been put there to stop them reaching their destination.
We heard from comrades who had stayed in the Midlands how rich farmowners had tried to stop their workers from voting by threatening them with dismissal or even with beatings.
We heard how mine workers on the copper mines in Tsumeb had been told by the bosses that they could not leave the compound to go and vote and how they had ignored the bosses threats and had gone to vote for SWAPO.
We all knew that this election had not been truly free and fair, but that SWAPO members at least had at all times behaved with discipline and patience. We also knew that SWAPO would win, despite all the dirty tricks.
Our spirits were high as we drove across the South African border on our way back to Johannesburg. We felt happy and proud to have helped SWAPO at this historic time.
But it was not long before we were brought down to earth. Soon after we entered into South Africa, we hit a roadblock. Our boys in blue – wearing DTA caps – were waiting to give us their own special kind of “welcome home”!
And so we were reminded that, for us in South Africa, there is still a long way to go before we are to win our freedom. But that day will surely come and it is for that day we must begin to prepare.
We must build on our many years of struggle -and we must learn from the struggles of others. There is, for example, a lesson to be learnt from the final result of the election in Namibia.
While it is true that SWAPO got the majority of votes – it won 41 out of the 72 seats for the Constituent Assembly – it did not get enough votes to be able to implement its own constitution for an independent Namibia. It was denied this opportunity mainly by the South African supported DTA which won 20 seats.
The lesson is clear. If we, like the people of Namibia, will one day have to go the path of the ballot box to get our freedom, it is important for us to continually organise our people. We must draw all freedom-loving people into the progressive camp, so when the time comes, they will know who to vote for. It is only in this way that our victory will be total and complete!
convoy – a long line of vehicles going to the same place orthopedic surgeon – a doctor who deals with bones a die-hard colonial – somebody who still believes that whites should rule everyone else hospitality – if you are friendly and welcoming to strangers or visitors, you will be know for your hospitality Constituent Assembly – a group of people who are elected to write a constitution to be denied an opportunity – not to be given a chance SWAPOL – South West African Police UNTAG – United Nations Transitional Assistance Group