Returning home after nearly 30 years in exile
On the eve of my departure I received the sad news from Comrade Hage Geingob of the assassination of Comrade Anton Lubowski by an unknown assailant. On the morning of 14 September 1989, my wife and I, accompanied by the late Comrade Moses Garoeb, then SWAPO Administrative Secretary, and other SWAPO senior officials embarked on a chartered Ethiopian Airline Jet 767, flown by an Ethiopian captain accompanied by Namibian co-pilots whom SWAPO had trained with Ethiopian Airline. At Luanda airport, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, cabinet ministers and high-ranking officials from the MPLA Party saw us off and wished us a successful electioneering campaign. After two and half hours flight, we touched down at 12:30 p.m. at the then J.J. Strijdom Airport (now Hosea Kutako International Airport).
Immediately after we landed, I ran into conflict with the South African Colonial Administrator who was still in control, even though UNTAG military personnel and civilian components were also at the airport. He refused to allow photographers to take pictures on the runway, as I disembarked from the plane. I told the South African and UNTAG officials that I was not going to leave the plane until the press and all those who were there to witness my historic return home had gathered on the tarmac. For my part, I had not fought for nearly 30 years for the freedom of my country to return to it now as if sneaking in through the back door. I wished the event to be freely covered by the media, which would spread worldwide the words and pictures of this triumph.
After 20 minutes of delay and consultation, my demand was accepted and I stepped down from the plane, to be greeted first by the internal Acting President of SWAPO, the late Nataniel Maxuilili, the late Vice President Hendrik Witbooi and Comrade Hage Geingob. Comrade Geingob held high the same SWAPO flag that I had handed to him on 18 June 1989 as he embarked on the Zambian Airways DC10 en route to Windhoek, and then handed it back to me. Then followed by my dear late mother Helvi Mpingana Kondombolo, 89 years of age and still bright-eyed and upright at that time. I then knelt and kissed the soil of my beloved country Namibia, “The Land of the Brave”.
We were taken quickly through the airport building into a waiting motorcar to begin the 45 km drive into Windhoek. Our capital, a settlement of the Hereros, Nama and Orlams long before the Germans came, was built among hills and the nearest sufficiently flat area for an international-standard airport was at such a distance. Nevertheless, the road was lined all the way to Windhoek by cheering wellwishers and welcoming SWAPO members, supporters, fellow-countrymen and women who were yearning for freedom and independence.
I later learned that after my arrival at the airport there was a commotion when SWAPO security officials detected a South African intelligence officer with a rifle, waiting to assassinate me as I disembarked from the plane. The South African agent was forcibly removed from the airport buildings. This was one of the reasons the press was refused access during my disembarkation from the plane. Windhoek was very tense after the assassination of Comrade Anton Lubowski on 12 September. The Boers were so vicious that even after they agreed to and signed the cease-fire, they wrote on the wall of a car park in the middle of Windhoek, ‘We are waiting for murderer Nujoma.’ However, Nigeria and the Front Line States – Angola, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe – and other member states of the Organisation of African Unity who had established their offices in Windhoek (later on to become embassies and high commissions), coupled with SWAPO security officers, had foiled the assassination plan.
It is a fact that, even though I had lived for some years with the certainty of my return to Namibia on the threshold of independence, come what may, my arrival and the journey to Windhoek and to Katutura were moments of supreme joy.
By then many thousands of Namibians had returned from exile as I had, and we shared this wonderful feeling of homecoming. I had lived for ten years in Tanzania, nine in Zambia and a further ten years in Angola, and scarcely a month had passed during that whole period without travel to the four corners of the earth, or to be with our freedom fighters or refugees in the SWAPO Education and Health Centres in Angola, Cuba, the then East Germany, Congo-Brazzaville and Zambia.
Now I was to be in my own home, with my wife and family, and no longer a guest or bird of passage seeking support for Namibia’s freedom and independence. This was indeed a joyful and historic homecoming. Like all the returning exiles I had problems to face, but I was confident that none of them was insurmountable. The first of these was the apartheid policy of separate development with its inferior ‘Bantu’ education that created disunity and racial and tribal hatred in the entire Namibian society. This policy of the apartheid regime had affected all our lives.
In Katutura, straight after arriving from the airport, I made a statement at a press conference in which I appealed strongly for national unity: “The struggle has been long and bitter. My comrades and I return in a spirit of peace, love, and above all, national reconciliation. Let us from this day work in unison, forget and leave the sad chapter behind us. These memories of bitter and long years of conflict, racial hatred and deep mistrust among us Namibians must be buried forever. Let us open a new page and a new chapter based on unity, peace, human rights, patriotism, respect from one another and genuine reconciliation.”
Our earliest struggles in the Old Location had been based on the demand for human rights and an end to racial discrimination, as well as freedom from colonialism – these goals were now within our grasp. There was in my mind another comparison with those early days: elements in the police and among their friends had meant to assassinate me then but had not succeeded. The threat had been the same on my return, but again their plots had failed. I would now be able to devote myself to some of the tasks we had set ourselves in those early days.
My family and I stayed in Wanaheda, a section of Katutura black townships, in a modern house, recently bought by SWAPO. Katutura, like the sprawling town of Oshakati in the North, had not existed when I had crossed the border into Botswana in 1960. It was many times larger than the Windhoek Old Location where we had lived, but with poor facilities and with the same poverty imposed on our people by the apartheid colonial administration that was going to be our task to eradicate.
I went to bed filled with such thoughts and it was wonderful to awake early the next morning with the knowledge that I was at home, with my primary task, as set by Chief Hosea Kutako, Samuel Witbooi and SWAPO, almost complete. It was always in our minds that a part of our country, Walvis Bay and the off-shore islands, were not yet free from minority white South African occupation.
My first duty the following morning was to register as a voter and then to meet my colleagues in the Election Directorate to discuss the serious difficulties we were facing. Already the South Africans were singling me out for abuse, with an angry reaction by ‘Pik’ Botha to my press statement the day before in which I had blamed Pretoria for the carnage in the North on and after 1 April 1989, and for the assassination of Comrade Anton Lubowski.
To this day I still hold F.W.de Klerk and his military intelligence officers of the South African white minority regime responsible for the coldblooded murder of Comrade Lubowski. We mourned him the following day in a packed congregation of thousands in the Lutheran church in Katutura.
I and my colleagues sat with the deceased man’s widow, children and parents. He was a symbol of the national unity and reconciliation that the SWAPO Central Committee had decided two years earlier would be SWAPO’s chief priority. Lubowski’s life, tragically though it had ended, inspired many people, both black and white, to bury the bitterness of the past.