Many people consider the director of the National Society for Human Rights Phil ya Nangoloh as a vindictive troublemaker and an agitator with a hidden political agenda, who masquerades as a human rights activist.
Others see him as a fearless man with an unsaturated and extreme sense of justice and fairness. Frederick Philander had this one-on-one interview with him.
NE: Where are you from ?
I was born in Northern Namibia, Owamboland on September 22, 1954. I am now 52 years old after spending the greater part of my life there. At the age of 18, I left this country in search of education.
NE: Where did you study ?
I set out for higher tertiary entry at the University of Astrahan in a town on the northern shore of the Caspian Sea in the former Soviet Union and I was admitted. I studied radio engineering with specific reference to electronic detection of marine-going crafts, submerged or above sea level. I am married and a father of three girls of my own, an adopted daughter and two boys.
NE: What do you do to relax and socialize?
Most of the time I read history, especially military history and also various war materials as well as criminal and human rights law. I also like to jog. I socialize by going to a pub and enjoy a beer or two with friends. I am not a ‘good’ drinker.
NE: Who are your real heroes and who inspires you?
I have various heroes, who all amount to one thing: perseverance and consistency. My heroes are Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Jonas Savimbi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and Herman ya Toivo. These are the types of heroes that really inspire me because these people believe in certain principles on which they thrived and persevered regardless of what other people are saying.
NE: What languages do you speak?
After graduating in radio engineering in Russia, I also took up studies in America in 1982 with a UN scholarship. In 1986, I graduated as an electrical engineer. These are my formal studies with two BA degrees. I speak English, French, Russian, Portuguese, Spanish, Estonian, Afrikaans and I have a very good command of Ki-Swahili.
NE: What is your philosophy?
Honesty and perseverance.
NE: Why did you choose this career, human rights?
Let me you take me back to my childhood to give you an insight into why I am committed to human rights, dating back to 1954.
Both my parents are Owambos from an ethnic group consisting of at least seven tribes. My parents were from the second largest tribe, Ondonga.
Due to necessity in search of economic survival, they decided to move into the area of the Kwambi tribe where we were literally treated as foreigners.
That is where everything started.
As school-going children, we were very often despised, insulted, humiliated and assaulted by the ‘locals’ then in an area where we did not belong. My parents encouraged us to study and work hard on our mahangu fields to be self-sustainable and not beg from others.
These tribal hostilities remain until today. First, we were regarded as DTA supporters and when the DTA lost favour, we were then associated with the CoD. Before independence, the enemies of our family told Swapo leaders in 1966 that my family unpatriotically collaborated with the South Africans. My father, working in Water Affairs at the time, was almost killed because of those lies. My father passed away in 1970. At one stage in my life, I was expelled from junior secondary school as a Swapo terrorist because of my outspokenness.
NE: Are you a vindictive person by nature?
I am a person who loves truth and honesty.
NE: Can you be considered as too extreme in your pursuit for justice and fairness?
No. When we started this human rights organization it was said “this is just an anti-Government organization” and we were ostracized when we started our work. During that time, I was forced to carry a pistol for my own protection. I never dared set foot in Owambo without my pistol. When the Namibian people finally found out the truth, what we stood for, the majority of them turned to our side. Since 1996, I have not carried around a pistol because it was no longer necessary. I have been walking anywhere in the country as a free man. That is how much confidence I have in the country’s people after they accepted the fact that my colleagues and I stand for the truth, nothing else.
NE: Do you have any personal political aspirations?
Absolutely not. I was a Swapo member, but walked out of that party to join the then Swapo-Democrats under Andreas Shipanga. I later also resigned from that party in order to start a human rights organization.
I do not belong to any political party nor am I interested in joining any one.
NE: What was your role as a former Swapo fighter?
I was an intelligence officer, part of a small group assigned to do reconnaissance on enemy positions in the Caprivi Region from 1974 to 1975. I was then recalled for further military training in north-east Angola.
Eventually, I went to Russia where I studied both civil and military sciences.
NE: Do you bear malice against any individual or the ruling party of this country?
No, I don’t bear any malice against anyone. I hate injustices of any kind irrespective of where it comes from. I will speak out with honesty against any such wrongs. I do not recognize any force from preventing me speaking out.
NE: What are your milestone achievements with regard to human rights abuses in Namibia over the years?
The acceptance of the fact that the NSHR stands for human rights. This recognition is not only from our own population. We were hated, but from 1996 our organization was accepted as such by the populace.
In 1996, despite opposition from our own Government, we received international recognition from the United Nations as a legitimate human rights organization. Three years prior to that we received similar recognition from the then Organization of African Unity, for human and peoples’ rights.
Today we enjoy worldwide recognition as a true bona fide human rights organization.
NE: How do you see Namibian democracy?
Namibia is only a democratic country on paper. In practice, it is not because of what is happening today simply because this organization decided in accordance with our constitutional principles to take people to court considered to be national heroes. We are now being vilified by certain people and threatened with being thrown out of the country
NE: Do you respect the rule of law in Namibia?
Absolutely and most definitely. In fact, one of the objectives of our organization is to promote the principles of democracy, the rule of law, justice for all and the independence of the Judiciary. We cannot work against our own principles.
NE: What do you think of the Namibian justice system?
I say significant changes should be made. We must have well trained, well paid, well qualified and well equipped police officers with respect to crime.
We must also appoint well-trained and well-intentioned magistrates and judges.
These conditions have not been met yet in our country. That’s why various ministers and even judges will tell you that our judicial system is in a shambles. Look at our prisons; they are overcrowded and in appalling conditions, in direct violation of our Constitution.
Then there is the system of acting judges on the bench.
This causes a lot of damage to the independence of the Judiciary. It actually says you are an acting judge, but the Government has the option to appoint you a permanent judge if you behave in accordance with its wishes.
Such judges stand a chance of being re-appointed depending on behaviour.
This state of affairs is devastating and damaging to the system and those judges who are not Namibian nationals.
NE: Are you running a one-man show with the NSHR?
No, we are working as a team, unfortunately dubbed by certain elements as being unpatriotic collaborators.
NE: What are your political hopes and dreams for the future of Namibia?
I would like to see the future Namibia as a truly democratic country, behaving more democratically and in a more effective way, that is the Government, the Cabinet, Parliament and the Judiciary. The Government should behave according to the wishes of the electorate.
It cannot be a democratic country when 90 percent of the country’s people are subjected to poverty, homelessness and unemployment. Crime is up, homelessness is up, murder and robbery are all up.
Presently, our country is not behaving in accordance with the provisions of our Constitution. That is why we have problems such as the Judiciary not working. I do understand that there is no society which does not have problems. I am not saying Namibia will be a Utopia tomorrow. It takes time because Rome was not built in one day.
NE: Do you ever fear for your own life and those of your family?
I do fear to a certain extent, but I have pre-read that fear. I have been living under fear, be it veiled or open threats, since we started the National Society for Human Rights.
I experienced more fear previously, when it appeared that the majority of the population were against us, but now the majority seems to be on our side – that I know for a fact based on the huge number of telephonic support messages I daily receive as well as the many messages one reads in the local newspapers.
This encourages me to go on.
However, I am vigilant at all times, taking precautions against my adversaries, who might encourage others to hurt me.
I try to avoid this situation coming to fruition, though this is absolutely out of my hands. Death threats will not deter or will never stop me from what I do.