Kerina, The Unsung Hero


By Catherine Sasman WINDHOEK Perhaps not known to all is that Professor Mburumba Kerina was the first person to have petitioned the United Nations for the liberation of Namibia. And perhaps even less known is that he reportedly coined the term SWAPO, as well as Namibia. During his years of petitioning at the UN, he travelled all four corners of the world, and has befriended and hobnobbed with the world’s leaders and Hollywood celebrities since a very early age. Now, at almost 75, he looks back with contentment at a life peppered with dramatic – and heroic – events. “I want to be remembered as someone who has tried his best for this country; as someone who has done the best he could do for the best of this country.” He comes from a family whose lives have been intricately intertwined with the history of the Namibia. His great-grandmother, Kaera Getzen, was the sister of the first Herero Paramount Chief Kahitjene. She later married an Englishman, Frederick Green. He used to purchase guns and cattle for the Herero during the Herero-Nama war. The surname Kerina was mistakenly bestowed upon the family because the Hereros could reportedly not pronounce the surname “Green”. His great-grandmother later remarried a German national, named Getzen. His great-grandmother, says Kerina now, was the first black woman to have purchased land under the German occupation. She bought the farm Okauua – now Berg Auchas – where she nursed wounded Herero soldiers during the 1904 to 1908 war. During this period, says Kerina, she was also an interpreter for the Germans. She was reportedly offered citizenship in Germany, but she declined this overture. From the start of his political involvement, Kerina would find himself in the thick of things. Almost 67 years ago he found himself as the first and a lone petitioner before international delegates of the United Nations General Assembly to expose the travesties of South Africa’s administration in the country. “I never thought I was the spokesperson of my country. I was sent to do a job, and I simply did it,” he now says of his role as a 19-year-old youth. His first contact with political activism was while he was a student in South Africa at the Wilbur Force Institute at Everton, which was established by the AME Church and run by black American bishops, in the early 1950s. He befriended Joe Mathews, son of the first black professor at Fort Hare University and a member of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League. He was later taken under the wing of G.M. Pietje, who was to later become a prominent ANC legal adviser. “It was the first time I was exposed to politics in the true sense of the word,” he recalls. While studying in South Africa, he was granted a scholarship to study at the Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in the United States of America. At that time, Chief Hosea Kutako and his Herero chief’s council were refused passports by the South African apartheid regime to travel to the UN, where they intended to take their petitions. “When I received my scholarship, they decided to use me to do that,” says Kerina, who was granted a passport. “Members of the chief’s council of Kutako decided to write petitions on white handkerchiefs which were sewn onto my underpants.” He boarded a ship from Walvis Bay’s Pelican Point, and started off on his month-long journey, first to London, where he was to meet Reverend Michael Scott. “With the help of God I was able to make the trip. When we were about to arrive in London, the captain of the ship came looking for me and sat at my table. After we chatted for a while, the captain told me he had received a message from my parents. He said that when we disembark, I should not respond to my name – Getzen – and that I should say that I was a crew member.” When he entered the English port, that was exactly what he did, says Kerina. Following the captain’s instructions, he made a beeline for a taxi at the far end of the port where the Reverend Scott was waiting for him. “As soon as I landed, Michael Scott decided that we should go to the St. Paul’s Cathedral for a short prayer.” After that, the two men went to the African Bureau where Scott is reported to have said, “Where is my property?” “You should imagine,” laughs Kerina now. “I have not washed for weeks on the ship although Scott did have some clean clothes for me on my arrival.” After handing over Chief Kutako’s petitions to Scott, Kerina had to take another ship – the Queen Elizabeth II – that same night from Southampton to New York. “That evening when I reached Southampton, I found that Louis Armstrong’s band that was touring Europe was on the same ship on their way back to the USA.” A leading lady in the band took quite an interest in him, he grins. He devoted his first two years solely to his studies in America. And then a letter from Chief Kutako arrived, imploring him to take up the petitioning with the UN. “It took me a little while before I could show that letter to my president of the university, Horracehan Bond. Eventually I showed it to him, and hesaid, ‘I don’t know what is to become of that’, but he took me and introduced me to Dr Ralph Bunch who showed us around the UN and also where the case of German South-West Africa was being discussed.” That was in 1955. Kerina then sent an application for an oral hearing before the General Assembly. When the South African Government found out about it, all “hell broke loose”. The South Africans withdrew his passport in an attempt to render him stateless, upon which the American government would be obliged to deport him. But his adopted family there took him to John F. Kennedy, then a senator. “When I met Kennedy, he asked, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ When the situation was explained to him, he said, ‘What are they afraid of? If they’re afraid of a child of this age then something bad must be happening down there’.” Kennedy then wrote a letter to the immigration department to say that he would take full responsibility of Kerina while in the USA. The South African Government in return challenged Kerina’s application for a hearing with the UN General Assembly to the International Court of Justice, but the court decided in favour of Kerina. He eventually started his petitioning in 1956 with Reverend Scott by his side. “I was often alone there. I would travel back and forth between the university and the UN until 1959 when riots took place in Namibia.” In that year, he says, the responsibilities became too much for him to carry on his own. He wrote a letter to Chief Kutako requesting help, suggesting that the late Advocate Fanuel Kozonguizi join him. “When he arrived, we experienced the difficulties of travelling around all over the place, and I said to him, ‘Kozo, we are two Hereros. It doesn’t make sense. We must ask them to send somebody from the north (of Namibia)’.” Again he appealed for help from home, and the leadership decided to send the former president Sam Nujoma in 1960, tells Kerina. Nujoma, then the acting president of OPC – the Owambo People’s Congress – joined them. “I then suggested to the leadership to consolidate the seven tribes in the north. “The Owambo People’s Organization (OPO) was then formed, relates Kerina. “I capitalized on the problem of the contract labourers,” he says. Before he left for the USA, he worked as the assistant to the Secretary-General of the Namibian branch of the South African Railway Workers’ Association, Reverend B.G. Karuaera, and was in close and steady contact with the contract labourers. Kerina, apparently, was also the one to suggest that Nujoma be the president of SWAPO. “One morning we were sitting down and discussed our daily duties. Nujoma said to me: ‘why don’t you become the president of this thing?’ I said: ‘No, you are fresh from home and you are the latest material, the Mercedes Benz, and that is what is needed.’ I was very happy to serve as the chairperson, but the travelling commitments had to be taken over by a president.” While in the USA, Kerina reportedly then suggested a name change for OPO. “I said to him we should change the name of the organization to encompass everyone in the country. I then suggested that we should change the name to SWAPO. He agreed, and cables were sent to Toivo ya Toivo and Paul Helmuth and other leaders. And that is how SWAPO was born.” And the leaders back home did not have a problem with these changes either, he says. The structures of the organization were still very flexible. “Ours was a simplified country politics of foot soldiers and our people had confidence in us. They thought we were doing a good job at the UN, and we were rubbing shoulders with the great leaders of the world. The people at home thought we would be making the right decisions for the organization,” says Kerina. Kerina was, however, to leave SWAPO in 1963. “I had a different strategy from Nujoma,” he tells. “I believed that the petitioning should continue; I believed in the rule of law and that we should take South Africa to the International Court of Justice. Nujoma came up with the idea that we should also enter the phase of military engagement.” Another difference, says Kerina, was that he sensed a “form of tribalism” developing within SWAPO. “I do not think it came from Nujoma, but rather from other members of the party who were fighting over positions. Coming from Walvis Bay, tribalism didn’t make any sense to me. This disheartened me, and I left. Tribalism in the organization came to the fore very early in the history of that organization, and it has been simmering like a volcano. We shouldn’t forget the power of tribalism in Africa. It is a very serious and dangerous power,” he puts forward. Kerina has since then gone his own way. “I went into the academic field. I taught at the University of New York, lecturing in International Financing and African histories.” He returned to Namibia in 1976 due to his mother’s illness, under special arrangements between the UN and South Africa. In Namibia, he formed the Namibia Foundation, an organization promoting “activities of the new politics that were developing before independence”. He served as an adviser to Clemence Kapuuo and other nascent political groupings. But at the end of that same year he returned to the USA, and got involved in Wall Street where he was engaged in oil and gas development in Namibia. “I was the first one to bring in Chinese clients to see if there was any gas and oil potential at Etosha,” he says gleefully. But nothing came of these exploratory trips. In 1989, Kerina returned to Namibia for good. He was party to the compilation of the country’s constitution. He then also became known as the person who coined the name for the country, Namibia. Telling how the name happened to him, Kerina says: “Towards the end of the 1950s I was at the UN petitioning one day with Reverend Scott who brought the Sunday Times (a South African newspaper). There was an article written by a Texan, John Collins, who wanted to be involved in diamond mining in Namibia. There we also learnt of South Africa’s plans to have Namibia annexed as a fifth province. We thought it likely that South Africa would decide to take the entire coastline, leaving the rest of the country landlocked. We thought we should do something. At another occasion I was granted a scholarship to complete my doctorate in Indonesia. President Sukarno suggested I write an article about the naming of the country and, at that, I wrote about this fictional country called Namibia.” When he returned to the UN, he immediately started to petition for the use of the new name after it was adopted by SWAPO. And so it came to pass. He would later join NUDO, describing this period of his life as ‘a very interesting honeymoon’. He left the party after the niggling business of N$80ÃÆ’Æ‘ÀÃ…ÃÆ”šÃ‚ 000 that disappeared from the party’s kitty. He blames the party leaders for the disappearance of the money, and claims that there were incontrovertible differences with these party leaders. “I’ve worked with money from the Middle East to the USA, and you will never find a blemish on my name,” he protests. He currently serves as a senior parliamentary adviser for the DTA. Today, says Kerina, Namibia finds itself in the best of times, and the worst of times. “There is an imminent split in the SWAPO Party,” he predicts. “People come to me for advice, and all I can tell them is that our constitution provides for every Namibian to belong to any group. The only serious advice I’d like to give is not to touch the Namibian constitution. That will be the last nail in our coffin considering African conditions, where political splits are very dangerous because it does not cultivate fruits that can be eaten by future generations; they cultivate fruits that are bitter.”