New Era’s founding Editor Rajah Munamava will leave office next week Tuesday after serving the newspaper for over two decades (21 years to be precise). Munamava has been editor of the newspaper since its inception in July 1991.
Goodbye, my New Era!
ONE cold winter morning in 1990, I boarded a chartered plane together with a business delegation to the north. In that same plane was Swapo propaganda chief and new Minister of Information and Broadcasting Hidipo Hamutenya.
In media circles in Namibia then, Hamutenya was highly regarded and only second to the movement’s head Sam Nujoma. But he was also seen as an enigma - a shrewd and a highly secretive fellow, one not to be trusted easily. Personalities which the media craved to interview, apart from Nujoma and Hamutenya included the suave and articulate Theo-Ben Gurirab and straight talker Moses //Garoëb.
Prior to the encounter in the plane to the north, I had met Hamutenya twice, first in New York in 1986 where I had gone to cover the UN General Assembly before a stint with a newspaper called The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachussets. My Editor, Gwen Lister had arranged with the Swapo office in New York that I work from there. They were kind enough to oblige and provided me with a typewriter and a desk in a corridor.
Hamutenya happened to be there at the time and he and Theo-Ben Gurirab avoided me. They would not grant me interviews, despite my persistent requests through Kakena Nangula. My second meeting with Hamutenya was to be in Lusaka in 1989 on my way from southern Angola where I had gone to cover the release of Swapo detainees, as well as the confinement to base of PLAN fighters along the sixteenth parallel at a place called Chibemba after the dramatic events of April 1.
On my way to Namibia, Swapo asked me to join them in Lusaka where some of the movement’s top political and military brass had gathered for a retreat to map out strategies and a roadmap for their return following the implementation of resolution 435. In Lusaka and if my memory serves me well, I went out for dinner with Hamutenya, Shapua Kaukungwa, Martin Shalli, Frans Kapofi and some fellows in dark glasses and I have never been able to put faces to their frames until today, but whom I presumed to be Swapo security agents.
Although these men introduced themselves to me, some of their names sounded surreal and improbable and I left the matter at that. The dinner turned into a long and intensive discussion about the political goings-on in Namibia and continued into the wee hours of the next morning. They wanted me to brief them about the political and military situation inside the country and we touched on almost everything from key political players, institutions and organizations, their modus operandi and some of the outcomes of their manoeuvres. My own estimation is that this is where I won the trust of Hamutenya.
Before leaving for Windhoek the next day, Hamutenya came over and gave me a brown envelope that he told me to deliver in person to Nico Bessinger with the words “If you get caught, I do not know you”. That chilling message sent my mind racing for answers – what could be in the envelope and why would he deny knowing me if I am caught. Should I accept the envelope? I was already in a Swapo vehicle on my way to the airport. Something in me told me to open the envelope, but not in the presence of the Swapo driver I thought to myself.
A while later, when I was inside the airport building, I opened the envelope because I could not risk carrying a ‘dangerous’ item without knowing what it was – only to discover that it was in fact an unmarked video cassette. But all the same, I knew there had to be sensitive stuff in the video, hence Hamutenya’s statement. After some soul searching, I gathered my courage and decided to take the mysterious cassette to Windhoek come what may. As cover and in case the South Africans became naughty, I bought a new Zambian music video that was clearly marked. And as fate would have it, my journey to Windhoek was smooth and thankfully, uneventful. I arrived safely with the mysterious video.
Back in Windhoek, I asked myself whether to deliver the cassette without knowing the content that could have delivered me into the jaws of the ‘boers’. I decided to view the video and I leave that to Hamutenya to reveal in his memoirs if he so wishes. Later that day I gave the cassette to Bessinger in person. Back to the trip to the north, Hamutenya asked me to sit next to him and half way through the journey, he gave me his assessment of the media landscape in Namibia, its mindset and pre-occupation before telling me about the new government’s plans to set up a newspaper that would have as its main focus, development journalism and the wider coverage of rural areas.
He assured me in a very frank manner that this would not be another propaganda publication, but a serious professional newspaper that would seek to re-focus the agenda of the media, while promoting nation-building through development reporting. In the end, he asked me to consider becoming the paper’s editor. I gave him the assurance that I would think about his proposition.
The question of trust popped up. Could I trust Hamutenya’s word and my mind went back to our first meeting in New York where he avoided me and later Lusaka where he had said he would deny knowing me if I was caught with his envelope.
What about the stuff I had read about him in the media. I told myself that the man was not to be trusted and decided not to revert back to him. For almost two months, he kept nagging me and once he invited me to his office where he impressed upon me that the newspaper would have editorial independence and would be manned by professionals. He gave me the names of two of these professionals – Fred Mule from Zambia and William Nkuruh from Rwanda who was based in Kenya. Finally, I gave in and decided to try Hidipo. I left The Namibian newspaper in October1990 and was put under Mocks Shivute as Associate Editor of Nampa.
This was just an arrangement to get me into the system, while preparing for the launch of the newspaper. A Canadian fellow Hugh McCullum came over from Zimbabwe and preparations started in earnest the next year. Reporters were recruited and went through an intensive training programme at the Gammams Centre while I, Mule and Nkuruh were dispatched to all corners of the country for two months to acquaint these fellows with the country, while compiling a bank of features that we would use when the paper finally got off the ground.
Around March 1991, we began with test runs until the official launch of New Era on July 11, 1991. Since then, I have never looked back. Neither do I have any regrets about my move. And I must say Hidipo kept his word during the period he was Minister of Information and Broadcasting. Today, New Era is a fully-fledged professional publication that has won the trust of thousands of readers and advertisers, despite its uneviable position of being state-owned. It has proven many of its detractors wrong and has gone on to become a credible and reliable source of information.
Among the host of media practitioners that vehemently de-campaigned the newspaper during the initial stages, only the late Hannes Smith was brave enough to phone me and confess that New Era was indeed a good publication. He offered to take along our reporters during trips or to share photos with them. The rest continue to live in denial to this day. There was also opposition from within. There were those politicians in Swapo who distrusted Hamutenya and saw the newspaper as one of his projects that was meant to bolster his image.
Of course none of them would say so openly, but they nevertheless played along and piled pressure on the paper whenever the opportunity arose. I was called in many times, sometimes with unreasonable demands. I remember one politician who once asked me why I had more than one story about another minister. “What would the president say about the others and if there are no stories about them, why not just put their pictures to show that they are still around.”
Outrageous and preposterous isn’t it? Another asked me recently why I was publishing ugly pictures of her in the paper. She accused me of pursuing some agenda against her. Ugly pictures? How was I to know that the pictures were ugly? Why should I look for beauty in a picture as if the newspaper business is about beauty contests. For over 20 years, I have borne these types of demands and others with a dogged stoicism. But I must say these were fewer compared to some reasonable demands from some politicians, although the demands tended to be about the person making the demand. In other words they were self-centred demands.
I have worked under successive information ministers from Hidipo himself, Ben Amathila, Theo Ben Gurirab and even Tatekulu albeit briefly, Nangolo Mbumba, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah and lastly Joël Kaapanda. Their style of leadership and management of government information are worth stories of their own.
Apart from the tremendous pressure that was placed upon me, I was sometimes personally castigated and suspected of harbouring some so-called hidden agenda. This notwithstanding, I persisted and insisted that I would do what I think is right. New Era’s successes are many. Following independence, it was the first national newspaper to be edited and managed by black people.
It was and remains a significant development given the country’s lopsided history in almost all areas of human endeavour. We charted the waters and blazed a new trail! Today, it has become fashionable for white-owned newspapers to recruit blacks as editors and managers. This newspaper sometimes deliberately went out of its way to recruit staff based on regional and language representation. I cannot remember anyone from a particular language group that has not worked for New Era at one time or another except for a San person, and to me this is an important achievement. Our white compatriots had and continue to have a place at New Era. Our first News Editor was white – Duncan Guy. Others like Peter Mietzner, Jan Poolman, Estelle de Bruin, Eve Black have come and gone. This truly is a rainbow institution.
This newspaper has come of age. It has shown growth both in terms of readership and revenue. I am proud of these achievements that largely are owed to the newspaper’s staff. They are my stars and as I leave this post that I have held for the past 20 years, I thank them sincerely and wish each and everyone of them continued success. I also wish to thank the government for its commitment to press freedom although there are some hotheads who when given a chance, could rock the boat.
New Era must be the only state owned newspaper in Africa that can publish damning stuff about government without being damned, although it is inevitable that you will find some people cringing, groaning and snarling, because of our bold and courageous representation of the facts and the truth. To all intents and purposes, I have tried to be myself in the discharge of my duties as editor of this publication. I am glad that I leave this post with my reputation and integrity intact.
Long live and prosper, happy trails to you!