The current debate about SWAPO-CANU merger negates several factors: how was the merger going to function after independence? How were leadership positions going to be contested by other tribal groupings other than those signatory to the merger?
For one, would it have been possible to reserve the position of Vice President of SWAPO to the leader of CANU in a post-independent Namibia without undermining the democratic processes of contestation of positions by other qualified Namibians who are neither from SWAPO nor CANU of the time of the merger? Similarly, would it have been possible to apportion positions in parliament given the nature of our electoral system where candidates should make themselves available for primaries within the party but also the election itself?
Further to that point, would it have been possible to appoint members of cabinet equally between SWAPO and CANU since cabinet ministers must necessarily come from the national assembly except those appointed by the president because of their expertise and skill?
Because an historic overview is an instructive beginning, let us start from there, therefore. The Caprivi African National Union (CANU) existed for most part as an underground movement owing to strict and harsh clampdown from the South African Authorities in South West Africa in general, that included the then Eastern Caprivi Strip where it was formed. Before it was officially launched, its President, Brendan Simbwaye, made contacts with the SWAPO leadership in Lusaka where the idea of the merger was discussed.
Simbwaye returned to the Eastern Caprivi Strip to inform his followers and discuss further this idea of merging with SWAPO, and also to formally launch CANU at a public rally. As fate would have it, he was arrested at this first ever CANU public rally and effectively banished from the Eastern Caprivi Strip through a Ministerial Banishment Order issued by the then South African Minister of Bantu Administration and Development (BAD). The rest is history.
Most CANU activists and supporters were dispersed in a harsh police clampdown that ensued after the arrest of Brendan Simbwaye, Tongo Nalishuwa and Vernet Maswahu. The majority of them re-grouped at Mwandi in the then Northern Rhodesia. It was here where they decided to send a delegation to Lusaka in September 1964 headed by Albert Mishake Muyongo, CANU Vice-President, to follow up with the SWAPO leadership on the idea of the merger mooted by Brendan Simbwaye.
The now famous merger ‘agreement’ was signed on 05 November of 1964. It exists in the form of a press release announcing the agreement between the two parties. It provides that the two parties merge in order to fight a common enemy impeding the independence of South West Africa.
There is agreement on the fact that SWAPO and CANU merged, and that the purpose of the merger was to fight a common enemy to attain independence of South West Africa. The source of disagreement was on the functioning of the merger. Some CANU activists believed that CANU existed as a separate entity within SWAPO and while some within CANU believed that the two organizations were supposed to dissolve and unite under one different name.
We should hasten to mention that neither of the two perceptions is provided for in the signed merger agreement. What happened in reality is that CANU dissolved into SWAPO. Writing from his detention in Welwitchia (Khorixas) in 1968, Brendan Simbwaye says that we (CANU) are now part of a powerful Organization, in fact my whole Cabinet is now in SWAPO. What does this tell us about his views on the merger? It can be argued that because he was in detention and hence cut off from his comrades he was not fully aware of what was finally agreed as part of the merger.
Therein lies the problem and source of different interpretations as to what was agreed and the functioning of the merger.
It is our view that SWAPO and CANU – the real CANU that is, merged into a larger political grouping because of a common agenda and interests without necessarily resting on a common and exclusive ethnic identities. It is easy to unlock the puzzle of identity politics by identifying which of these myriad of potential identities “work”, in the sense of being accepted by sufficient people to establish a functioning political organization capable of mobilizing votes and win elections in order to form a state that includes even those groupings that were not part of the merger.
There is no doubt that the people of Caprivi region, through CANU, contributed greatly to the liberation of Namibia. That contribution continues to be recognized by successive leaders of both the SWAPO Party and Namibia.
We submit that the majority of the rank and file of CANU was not fully briefed as to what was agreed, and even aware of the contents of the merger agreement. It does not appear that the CANU delegation to the merger talks had proper terms of reference or at best they ignored the terms of reference, which they were given. The fact of the matter is that none of the CANU claims as to how the merger should function is provided for or included in the Merger Agreement.
We are aware that there were misunderstandings and meetings were called to resolve them. We are also aware that there were detentions as a result of these misunderstandings. But we contend that the signed agreement between the two parties does not include these claims. Perhaps there exist ‘other’ agreements, maybe verbal, which state otherwise, but the signed one points to the contrary, which is the view held by SWAPO. It remains to be seen how you can enforce a verbal agreement - if there is any.
Thus contrary to many views out there, the signed document does not mention anything about discussing the special status of the Caprivi upon attainment of independence, whether self autonomy or complete secession. It does not mention anything regarding the 50/50 representation as purported by the new group. If cabinet were to be appointed solely within the framework of others understand to be the thesis of the merger, does that mean therefore that non-signatory groups should have been excluded from cabinet appointment?
What is intriguing is how in the present some people abuse the history of CANU and appropriate its heritage for their different personal agendas. We have seen this starting with the issue of secession where the UDP is hard at work to convince the rest of the world that it inherited CANU and thus can lay claim to what CANU signed with SWAPO. This is very unfortunate since we all know that UDP was formed when its President, Albert Mishake Muyongo, was expelled from the ‘revived’ CANU of the mid 1980s and with the purpose to join the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) of like-minded Parties. CANU is never the forerunner to the UDP.
It is wrong for the UDP to use CANU to mislead the world on the issue of secession, and especially mislead innocent people in the Caprivi Region of Namibia and use them as pawns in this whole treacherous game. Some of these colleagues have never seen in their life a CANU Constitution or Membership Card. Some of them have never seen a copy of the CANU-SWAPO Agreement (others claim the agreement document is in a briefcase, let us hope nothing happens to the briefcase).
As far as we know, these different groups making noise in the present have never been CANU members. Some of them went to exile in the mid 1970s under the banner of SWAPO. We have not seen them publicly renounce their SWAPO membership.
The South African clampdown on CANU in the mid 1960s was so successful that it was wiped out in the Caprivi, so much that only those who left for exile at that time (mid 1960s) can claim to have left under the banner of CANU.
We hold that overt opportunism tends to be understated as the main basis for political mobilization. The blend of opportunism and misinformation is likely to attract those who are most desperate to be included in an agenda that perpetuates regionalism at the expense of nationalism. Fortunately enough, the very many good people from Caprivi region and indeed the entire Namibia - are not willing to be misled and misinformed about the legacy of the founders of CANU.
We know that the most extreme players in regional politics are not genuine members of the groups they purport to lead. But failed politicians whose perception of reward has not resulted in what they wanted. The debate about SWAPO-CANU merger and the secessionist movement in Caprivi region should be seen in that context.
Because of the above, therefore, we submit that we should be honest and honor the memories of the founders of CANU by not misusing the history of an organization they have suffered for, and some of them paid for with their blood. We urge our elders, the few still surviving, who took CANU into SWAPO, the ones who really are in the know - to speak out and clarify issues than watch the rape of CANU from distant quarters.
Dr Audrin Mathe
Dr Bennett Kangumu
NB: This article carries our personal views and thus not commissioned by any individual, organization or our employers.