THERE was a new spirit taking hold in the 1950s, especially among the young men and women with whom I associated in Windhoek. The same spirit was also taking root in other regions, in factories and mines, and in the rural areas where people were even more strictly controlled by the apartheid South African colonial regime and its puppet chiefs than they were in the urban locations. This was true not only in our own country but also in South Africa, where some of our compatriots were working.
To us, the most important international political development after the end of the Second World War was the struggle for the independence of Ghana, which was finally celebrated on 6 March 1957. Ghana’s fight for freedom inspired and influenced us all, and the greatest contribution to our political awareness at that time came from the achievements of Ghana after its independence. It was from Ghana that we got the idea that we must do more than petition the United Nations to bring about our own independence, and so on 19th April 1959 we formed our own liberation movement, the Ovamboland People’s Organization.
As we were stimulated by the political developments in Ghana, we learned that Julius Nyerere and Sylvanus Olympio, later to become the founding Prime Minister and President of Tanganyika and Togo respectively, were also petitioning at the United Nations. The UN Trusteeship System had taken over the work of the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations, which had supervised the mandate given to Britain and France to rule over Tanganyika. By 1945, Rwanda-Burundi, Cameroon and Togoland had also, like what was called German South West Africa, all become United Nations Trust territories. Julius Nyerere and Sylvanus Olympio were both petitioning directly at the Fourth Committee hearings in New York in 1958 and 1959.
Stirred by these events and by an awareness that we must achieve our inalienable rights – over which World War II had apparently been fought – we, the youth, set out to break the system of ethnic segregation, even by inter-marriages, and by the close alliance we from the north had formed with the Herero Chiefs’ Council, and with the Damaras and Namas United Front.
It was our generation who first effectively attacked the tribal system to destroy tribalism and to get rid of white colonial rule, following a successful inspiring struggle by the people of Ghana under the leadership of President Kwame Nkrumah.
The Boers often described South West Africa as a large country with relatively few people but with many ethnic groups and different cultures, languages and traditions. To build a nation from this diversity – which the South Africans had tried to emphasise and exploit so that they could keep control – we had first to form a national organization. We started to do this in Windhoek in the middle of the 1950s.
We encouraged the youngsters to see that tribes, ethnic groups and cultural differences did not matter. We spread the idea that the liberation of Africa and of our own country was more important. We simply took no notice of these differences in our social lives, political work and even our marriages. The idea of African liberation was spread also by publications like Ghana Today, which we read and passed around, and it politically enlightened us. We all gathered together to read it, and usually memorable issues contained a picture of Kwame Nkrumah dancing with the Duchess of Kent who was representing Britain at the celebrations of Ghana’s Independence on 6 March 1957. Angry Boers noticed this and shouted at us, using abusive language, but we just ignored them and continued with our political mobilization.
The leader who above all inspired us to make our way in modern politics in South West Africa was Chief Hosea Kutako, already a very old man. He was a Namibian who had stood up with his stick and opposed the white oppressors. He had led his people in their war against the Germans from 1904 to 1907. He was wounded in one of the battles and bore the scars of his wounds until his death. He had confronted the white South Africans from the days of General Smuts, through Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd. To us he was unquestionably our leader. Although he was the Chief of the Hereros, he had followers among all the other ethnic groups, and he was a strong advocate of unity among them. Many who should have known better were afraid to be seen supporting him for fear of attracting the attention of the Special Branch police. He himself was fearless and continued leading the struggle.
With him, of course, there were others, like the principal of St Barnabas School, Batholomeus Himumuine, who was really the man behind Chief Hosea Kutako. Himumuine was our teacher and he encouraged us. He had completed his own matriculation through private study. Through the efforts of the Reverend Michael Scott, he was offered a scholarship to study at Oxford University. But the Boers refused him a passport to travel to England. He was very frustrated by this, his health broke down and he died not many years later while still young and brilliant. Himumuine was fearless too. There were times when he could physically fight back against the Boers. One such instance was at the police station in Windhoek when he was asked to produce a night pass – a demand which he considered to be an insult to his integrity.
Now we know that he could have just walked across the border into the then British Bechuanaland and got himself into Southern Rhodesia for a scholarship. And with his scholarship he could have boarded a plane to England. South Africa was still a member of the Commonwealth and he could have entered Britain without any problem. We thought at the time that one could not travel without a passport.
I myself had first become aware of the United Nations through Chief Hosea Kutako. I came to meet him through such friends as Gabriel Mbuende (the father of the first Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Water and Rural Development later to become Executive Secretary for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Dr Kaire Mbuende), and the late Clemens Kapuuo, a teacher trained in South Africa, then acting as Secretary to Chief Kutako. They not only brought us to Chief Kutako Katjikururume – ’wise elder’ as we called him – they were also, along with Himumuine, our teachers. Around Chief Hosea Kutako, we were able to talk about how we would achieve our first objective, the ending of the slave contract system. We also discussed the repressive pass laws, and how we could obtain our freedom with the assistance of the United Nations, which we then thought was possible.
It was the cruelty of the contract system and other oppressive laws that convinced me that we absolutely had to do something, that we could not allow this oppression to continue unchallenged. It was that situation which motivated me to embark upon a political campaign.
Again Chief Hosea Kutako, paramount Chief of the Hereros, was the man who politically influenced me and my friends and colleagues from the start of our campaign. With him, we took our first steps of petitioning the United Nations, as he and Chief Samuel Witbooi had been doing since their first encounter with the Reverend Michael Scott in 1947. Since that time Chief Hosea Kutako continued to send petitions, and now we joined him. I was also busy organizing the workers underground, but in the open our work was focused on the activities of Chief Hosea Kutako and petitioning the United Nations.