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The Comrade Doctor

Dr Libertine Appolus-Amathila, SWAPO’s head of Health and Social Welfare Services, was the first black Namibian woman to qualify as a doctor. In 1986 she was given the Omgulumbashe Award by SWAPO for her outstanding contribution to the liberation struggle and to the health and well-being of the Namibian people.

SWAPO Headquarters in Windhoek is something to see. With the election just weeks away, the place is all hustle and bustle. Telephones are ringing, there are people running in all directions on their way from one meeting to another, and little groups of SWAPO comrades stand huddled over maps making plans for their party’s election campaign.

There is a sense of urgency in the air. A feeling that there is much to be done and little time to do it.

So we stand there patiently, trying not to get in the way, and doing our best to arrange an interview or two. “Excuse me comrade,” we say, whenever one of them keeps still for longer than 10 seconds, “could you get us an appointment with….” — and then before we can get a name out, they are gone.

Then, suddenly, a tired overworked comrade comes up and says: “Dr Appolus- Amathila will see you now. Follow me!”

Gulp! Dr Libertine Appolus-Amathila, SWAPO’s head of Health and Social Welfare! One of the giants of the liberation struggle!

We were taken by surprise — we were hoping to make appointments, go away and prepare for the interviews, and come back with some well-thought out questions. After all, these SWAPO comrades are busy and the last thing we felt like doing was making monkeys out of ourselves.

“Comrades, does Learn and Teach want to interview the comrade doctor or not?”

“No, wait, we mean yes, for sure, right on, lead the way,” we nervously squeak. As we follow the comrade up the stairs to the doctor’s office, we think of all we know and have read of this highly respected SWAPO leader’s life.


It was in 1951, at the tender age of 14, that Libertine Appolus- Amathila decided that she wanted to become a doctor. She remembers that time well — she had accompanied her sick mother from their home in Franstown in north-western Namibia, to a hospital in Otjiwarango. The young Libertine stayed with her mother at the hospital and helped nurse her.

During the time she was there, she watched the hospital staff go about their work. She was shocked by what she saw. The doctors and nurses at the hospital treated the patients very badly and did not look after them properly. It was then that Libertine decided to become a doctor.

Soon after, something else happened that was to make Libertine more determined then ever to study medicine. One of her teachers broke his leg in a soccer match one Friday night — and because the doctors refused to work on weekends, he died from a complication before he could be treated on Monday morning.

No-one in Libertine’s family took her very seriously when she spoke of her dream to become a doctor — except her grandmother. The old woman was the only one who believed that Libertine would be a doctor one day.


Libertine Appolus-Amathila completed her early education at a Roman Catholic mission school and later went on to study at the Augustineum College in Okahandja. It was not long before she was faced with a painful decision.

Under apartheid rule, black students in Namibia — especially women — could go so far an no further. Libertine knew that if she wanted to become a doctor, she would have to leave Namibia.

And so, in August 1962, like thousands of other Namibians, she said goodbye to her family and left the country of her birth. It was the last time that Libertine was to see her mother. She died while Libertine was in exile.

Libertine made her way — by foot and train — to Zimbabwe, and from there onto Lusaka. From Lusaka she went to Tanzania. The journey took her five months and five days.

From Tanzania, Libertine was sent by SWAPO to East Germany and from there to Poland where she was to study medicine. When she graduated seven years later, she became the first black Namibian woman to qualify as a doctor.

The first thing she did was to send her grandmother a picture of the graduation ceremony. When the old woman received it, the story goes, she said she could now lie down and rest in peace.

After becoming a doctor, Libertine went to work in Tanzania — she believed that she owed something to the people of that country because Tanzania had been her “host” country after she left Namibia.

But it was in the ranks of SWAPO that Libertine Appolus-Amathila was to make her mark. SWAPO had sent her to study and her duty lay with the Namibian people.


Dr Appolus-Amathila was to devote her life to working in the refugee camps for Namibian exiles, at first in Zambia and later in Angola.

In the early 1970’s SWAPO set up a centre for Namibian exiles at Nyango in the western province of Zambia. By 1978, it was home to over 5000 Namibians, mainly women and children.

The hospital at Nyango was run by Dr Appolus-Amathila, who was now SWAPO’s Deputy Secretary for Health and Social Welfare. In a new book about the history of the struggle in Namibia, Dr Appolus-Amathila is quoted as saying:

“I am proud of this hospital. We built it from nothing, bit by bit. This is so important for us. Even the crooked corridors give us pride, because this hospital was constructed by women who have never built a house before.”

Dr Appolus-Amathila and her comrades did great work in the camps. Much was done to educate the people about health and preventing diseases.

There were creches for the children and mothers were taught about child-care.

But it was not all struggle and no play for the doctor. She found time to fall in love and to marry Ben Amathila, SWAPO’s secretary of Economic Affairs. They have two children.

The work of Dr Libertine Appolus-Amathila was recognised by SWAPO. In 1986 she was awarded the Omgulubashe Award for her committment to the Namibian people. This is SWAPO’s highest award, and it is only given to those who have made a great contribution to the liberation struggle.


Dr Appolus-Amathila came back to Namibia on 18 June, after 27 years in exile. On the first Friday after she got back, she went back home to Franstown to visit her mother’s grave. And then it was back to work.

That is where we found her. She was sitting behind her desk when we entered her office at SWAPO Headquarters. She put out her hand to greet us.

We were immediately taken by the youthful looking doctor. Dr Appolus- Amathila is a truly beautiful woman — she has big round eyes, high cheek bones and a warm friendly smile to match.

We shyly asked her if she could give us a few minutes to prepare some questions. No problem, she said, but still, we could not help feeling like monkeys.

Just then a comrade came into the office to remind the doctor of an appointment. “I’ll be with you now,” she said, “just as soon as I’ve finished with these comrades from Learn and Teach.”

There was no time to waste and we kicked off with our first question. What kind of health system does Namibia have at the moment, and what does SWAPO plan to do about it?


“SWAPO will inherit a health system where people are taken to big hospitals with expensive equipment for treatment,” says Dr Appolus-Amathila. “It is a system that aims at curing people, rather than trying to prevent people from getting sick in the first place.”

She said that expensive hospitals are important in certain situations — like when people needed special treatment — but they do not serve the needs of the Namibian people.

“It is the people in the rural areas that are most in need of health care,” said the doctor. “These people — who suffer from many health problems, such as diarrhoea, measles, malaria and malnutrition — cannot see doctors very often.”

The only way to improve the health of the people in the rural areas — who are the majority of the population — is to start primary health services. This means building small clinics and health centres, and the training of health workers. These health workers will be trained to deal with emergencies and to educate the people about preventing sickness and disease.

“People must be taught safe methods of drinking water, sanitation, mother and child care and the use of drugs to treat common diseases,” said Dr Appolus- Amathila.

She said that SWAPO started primary health services in the refugee camps in Zambia and Angola. These were very successful, and the death rate of young children went right down compared to the death rate in Namibia. “We will use our experiences — as well as experiences from other countries — and adapt it to our situation in Namibia.”

But improving the health care system alone will not be enough, said the doctor. Health care must go hand in hand with raising the standard of living for all the people in Namibia. This SWAPO will try to do — for example, by building more houses for those people who live in overcrowded conditions and creating jobs for the unemployed.


We asked the doctor about her views on family planning: “Family planning has two meanings — a negative meaning when you talk only of population control; and a positive meaning when you encourage women to think of spacing the years between one pregnancy and the next. Positive family planning helps women avoid abortions and unwanted children.”

Her views on abortion? “I am opposed to abortion on health grounds. Abortions damage women’s bodies — I would rather educate women about spacing their children properly and how to prevent unwanted children rather than encouraging abortion.

“I accept that accidents happen when abortion becomes necessary — but I do not support the granting of abortion on demand.”

Her views on AIDS? “Aids is a problem in the world and I believe that Namibia is no exception. In Namibia not much has been done to educate the people about AIDS. SWAPO will launch an AIDS education campaign immediately. There are people who play down AIDS — but if we do nothing about it, AIDS will talk by itself.”

Her views on women in Namibia? “The position of women in Namibia is very poor. Women are still found in very poor jobs. The position of women has not changed since 1 left Namibia.

“In exile SWAPO has done a lot to upgrade the position of women, but discrimination against women still exists. Women deserve to run the country alongside men. They contributed to the struggle. In exile women showed they are capable — they ran health services, the communications systems, refugee camps and educational institutions.”

She said that she supported the idea of having a quota system in Namibia so that certain jobs, as well as a certain number of seats in parliament, are reserved for women.

SWAPO would build creches and day care centres to take care of the children of working women. Women should also get up to a years maternity leave so that mothers can spend time with their newly born babies.


There was a knock on the door. A comrade had come to fetch Dr Appolus-Amathila for her next appointment. Our time was up. We thanked the good doctor for speaking to us.

On the way out, one more thought came to mind. Dr Libertine Appolus-Amathila reminded us very much of our own Dr Mamphela Ramphela. They are very much alike — they are both so brave, so bright, so committed, and so beautiful.

“Have you heard of Dr Ramphela in South Africa?” we asked her as we parted. “Oh yes,” she said, “I once met her at conference overseas. Please send her my love!”

NEW WORDS to accompany someone – to go with someone to graduate – to pass your university or college studies to inherit – when you get something from someone who dies, or when you are left with something from a time before malnutrition – a disease from not eating enough healthy food abortion – when a woman has an operation to end a pregnancy


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