top of page

Tribalism is a disease

It was a big day for the people of Usakos. Theo-Ben Gurirab was coming home!

The small, sun-swept town of Usakos lies three hours north-west of Windhoek, on the road to Luderitz. It was here where Gurirab, SWAPO’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, was born.

He had last seen his hometown 26 years ago, before he went into exile. Hundreds of people, young and old, all dressed from head to foot in SWAPO’s blue, red and green, came from far and wide to the rally to welcome home their leader — and to hear what he had to say.

There was a loud roar as Gurirab stepped onto the stage. He did not look like your typical statesman who has spoken at the United Nations and met face to face with the world’s leaders. His weather-beaten face, together with his outfit — a well-worn leather suit, with cap to match — made him look rugged and tough, not unlike the dry hills that surround Usakos.


The meeting began with prayers and the singing of SWAPO’s national anthem, “Alert Namibia” — a moving song of struggle, sung to the tune of Nkosi Sikelel1 iAfrika.

Gurirab sat smiling as he watched the singing and dancing and joined the crowd in their battlecries: “SWAPO must win!”, “One Namibia, One Nation!”, “A Luta Continual” and “Victoria e Certa!”. Gurirab was clearly pleased to be home — but when he got up to address the people, he was in a serious mood. First he explained why he was speaking in English:

“When I was growing up here, the majority of people spoke my language, Damara… let me say that I am still a proud Damara and I assure you that I can still speak my mother tongue…but I speak in English because SWAPO has decided to propose English as the official language for an independent Namibia.

But, said Gurirab, this does not mean that SWAPO would not respect all the languages spoken in Namibia. “We are proud to have all these languages in Namibia. And not only that. A SWAPO government will see to it that money is spent by the state to develop these languages.”

He said that the colonialists had spent money to develop Afrikaans and German — but had done nothing to develop the African languages. This is an injustice, said Gurirab, and it must change.


Then Gurirab got to the main point of his talk — answering those who accuse SWAPO of being an “Ovambo” organisation and attacking the evils of tribalism.

“My friends and even my enemies say I am a smart guy. If that is the case, how come a smart guy like me is in an Ovambo organisation?” asked Gurirab.

He said that nobody had bribed him to join SWAPO. “Sam Nujoma is a poor man — if he came to me with some money to bribe me to join SWAPO, it would not be enough for my tastes. I am in SWAPO out of my own personal conviction.”

Gurirab said that when he was growing up in Usakos, he had lived side by side with people from different tribes: “From the time I opened my eyes around me were Ovambos, Hereros, Namas, even people from as far afield as what used to be known as Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland and Tanganyika.

“In the days that I went to school at the old church — the one that has now been destroyed — I was in school with little boys and girls that belonged to all tribes —except whites, of course. That is my background.”

Gurirab said that throughout the centuries the oppressor has used the policy of divide and rule, and that it was still happening in Namibia. He said that independence was around the corner — but the racists were still trying to divide the people by talking about tribalism.


“Let me repeat myself,” said Gurirab. “I am a proud Damara, proud of my customs and the language I speak. But I am totally, without compromise, opposed to tribalism. I am a Namibian. I am a SWAPO leader. What I stand for is the unity of all our people and the need for us to always stand together in the struggle for freedom.”

Gurirab said he did not only represent Damaras in SWAPO. “I want you to look at me, Damaras and Hereros — all of you Namibians — as a SWAPO leader who represents the interests of all Namibian people, including whites.”

He said that people must not let themselves be divided by tribal politics. He did not want to see the name of SWAPO pulled down to that level. “Tribalism is a disease, a crippling disease. A person who suffers from it requires sympathy and a cure — like the political education that I am giving now.”

Gurirab said that he hated speaking about tribalism, and he hoped that this would be the last time that he would do so. He then turned to the election, and told people to make sure that they registered so that they could vote.

“Voting will be about freedom, nothing else,” he said. “You have got the opportunity now at last, through your blood sweat and tears, and through the blood of those who died for our noble cause. Don’t miss this opportunity — in November, you go and vote — not for me, not for Sam Nujoma, but for your own freedom.”

“Vote for that flag,” he said pointing to the SWAPO flag that was blowing in the cool early evening breeze. “The flag of liberation which upholds the ideals of freedom, solidarity and justice.”

Theo-Ben Gurirab had come back and he had spoken. As the people made their way home from the rally an old man was heard to say: “Our son knows of what he speaks — and it will be wise of us to listen!”

NEW WORDS typical — something that is what you expect, not unusual or different statesman — an important and experienced politician who is widely known and respected personal conviction — a strong belief that a person holds


If you would like to print or save this article as a PDF, press ctrl + p on your keyboard (cmd + p on mac).

bottom of page