An interview with Ignatius Shihwameni, the president of the Namibian Students organisation, NANSO
Can you please tell us when and why NANSO was formed?
Early in 1982 students began to feel strongly that they needed an organisation to represent them. At that time there was total repression — members of SWAPO and the SWAPO Youth League were harassed, detained and imprisoned. There were no SRC’s in the schools, only the undemocratic prefect system.
Later in the year, students gathered at the Roman Catholic Church’s Dobra School near Windhoek to talk about forming a students’ organisation. In June 1983 there was a follow-up meeting. This time students from the private schools and the Academy in Windhoek were included. An ad hoc committee was formed where a constitution and so on was discussed. Finally NANSO was formed on 2 July 1984. The membership was mostly students from secondary schools, as well as from the Academy in Windhoek.
How big is NANSO today?
There are 110 regional branches of Nanso in nine regions. We have about 47 000 members.
One of NANSO’s first campaigns was for the right for students to elect their own SRC’s. Can you tell us about it? Was the campaign successful?
The aim of the SRC campaign was to get democratic structures into the schools. Students wanted to elect their own leaders.
But I must make one thing clear — we did not see the SRC campaign as separate from the struggle for liberation in Namibia. The struggle for democratic structures in the schools was part of the broader struggle for democracy in the whole of Namibian society. There were successes — at the moment many schools have SRC’s. The Academy got its own democratic SRC in 1987. Students can elect their own leaders and the consciousness of the students was raised.
What issue did NANSO get involved in next?
The English medium campaign — most government schools used Afrikaans as a medium of instruction. NANSO demanded the replacement of Afrikaans with English. The campaign was taken up mainly at local and regional level. In 1985, as a result of student pressure, the interim government started to make promises about making English the medium of instruction.
Some schools now have English as the medium of instruction. In certain schools some subjects are given in English.
The Academy refused to change the medium of instruction to English. But in 1988, after a three week boycott, the Academy gave in. Now English is the medium of instruction — most lecturers speak English for 80% of their lecture and only use Afrikaans when Afrikaans students can’t understand. Some lecturers are now only using English. This was a major victory.
We also had a campaign to raise the consciousness of women comrades in NANSO. The aim was to give women members a proper revolutionary understanding. Today we can boast that a lot of our women comrades in the schools are participating in SWAPO’s Women’s Council.
Last year, Namibian students boycotted classes for almost the whole year. What were the reasons for the boycott?
The boycott was aimed against the militarisation of our society. The army was targeting schools and trying to recruit schools kids. They took them to veldschools and camps where they tried to indoctrinate them. The students were taught to be “patriots of SWA” and to think about ethnicity.
Another issue was the army teachers in the schools, many of whom came to class with guns. We were also very angry about the army building bases close to schools. They thought that if the bases were close to the schools, PLAN (SWAPO’s armed wing) would not attack them.
At our annual consultative conference at the beginning of last year, we decided to launch a total onslaught against militarisation. We wanted to point out that we believed that the army was not here to protect Namibians but to murder them. This led to discussions at regional level and the decision to boycott classes.
What were the main demands of the boycott?
The main demand of the boycott was the removal of army bases away from the schools and the withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia.
When did the boycott start and when did it end? Was it successful?
The boycott started in the North in March — by June it had spread all over the country and it continued up to September.
There was an exodus of students into exile. SWAPO estimates that 7000 students landed up in Angola. In September NANSO decided that the boycott should continue because students were not in a position to write exams because they were in hiding, in detention, or in exile.
In October students came to report at another consultative conference where the “No Exam Campaign” was endorsed — even by those students who were at school.
The boycott lasted until the school year ended in December. The boycott was a huge success. The Education Department said that 70% of students didn’t write exams — we say that 82% didn’t write. There were exceptions — some students at a few schools in the east did write exams. The Education Department tried everything to get the students back. In the South they even leaked exams to try and get students to write.
Does NANSO work closely with teachers and parents?
Yes, most definitely. Last year we had seminars to speak about the need for a good understanding between teachers and parents. Parent structures were launched in the schools and we met and consulted with progressive teachers.
By December last year an ad hoc structure was formed with the aim of forming a progressive teachers association. In March, the Namibian National Teachers’ Union was launched and became the sixth affiliate of the National Union of Namibian Workers. This was another major victory — we can now see the ethnic teachers’ associations vanishing.
What is NANSO’s role in the election campaign?
At our last congress we resolved that NANSO would be involved in the election campaign and that students should be prepared to leave their studies and help the party. NANSO will have its own programme to see that all students are registered and vote for SWAPO. Fieldworkers will be assigned tasks to go to regions to explain the issues to the students and to make sure that they vote. They will go for up to 15 days to work with the party in the area.
Then we have Operation Day Work for students who are still at school. They will come to the NANSO office and be assigned field work in the location for the whole day. By field work I mean going from house to house encourraging people to register before 15 September and to check voters’ registration card.
What is the relationship between NANSO and the SWAPO Youth League?
At the last Congress we passed a resolution cementing the relationship. NANSO would be an affiliate of SWAPO and will concentrate on student and educational issues. The SWAPO Youth League will still remain supreme. But there is no difference, really. I am President of NANSO and an executive member of the SWAPO Youth League. Our struggle is one and the same.