Since 1966, August 26th is commemorated as Namibian Heroes Day in recognition of the first bullets fired at Omugulu-wo-mbashe which heralded the start of a protracted armed liberation struggle in Namibia, spearheaded by the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) under the leadership of Swapo. It is a day that reflects on the road travelled to independence and pays homage to gallant fighters who lost their lives and shed their blood for Namibia to be free. That day in 1966 announced to all and sundry, friend and foe, that Namibians were ready to reclaim their freedom by all means necessary.
Making his first Heroes Day Speech since taking office, President Hage Geingob quoted an African proverb which says, “Tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today,” and said the occasion is meant for all Namibians to remember and pay tribute to the valiant sons and daughters of our soil, whose blood waters our freedom.
These words of wisdom brought back memories of a young man from the Omusati Region who died in an intense battle on 19th February, 1978 at a place popularly known as Dairy on the main road between Katima Mulilo and Mphacha airport in the Zambezi Region. Cde Henrich Shikongo, whose combat name was “Shikongo shaBazooka”, because of the manner in which he could manipulate the recoilless antitank rocket launcher, was killed by shrapnel from an armored personnel carrier (APC), which he shot at close range as we attacked a convoy comprising of four APCs and one station wagon travelling from Mpacha to Katima Mulilo base at about 21:25 on that day. All the APCs and the station wagon were destroyed and the occupants killed on the spot. Even at the moment of death, Cde Shikongo shaBazooka kept urging all those around not to give up the struggle. Apart from the author, the crew on the scene of that attack included among others, comrades Harris Salionga, Colonel Shingwalulu, Shikarova (Nicky Alwendo) and Lawrence Sampofu.
Prior to the attack, four of us from the Detachment A reconnaissance crew were dispatched to investigate intelligence reports that the SADF was planning to attack PLAN camps in Zambia. After infiltrating the military bases at Mpacha, Katima Mulilo, Wenela and Katounyana, we established that indeed maps outlining all PLAN bases in Zambia were kept at Mpacha military base. The convoy was not on a routine patrol, it was in fact transporting the maps to Katima Mulilo base. The top-secret aerial map depicting PLAN camps at Detachments A, B, C, Morning Star and Commanding Center were captured from the convoy.
The attack enabled us to strengthen our reconnaissance activities inside the Katima Mulilo and Mpacha bases. Two weeks later, we gathered information that the SADF had been given the go-ahead to bomb our bases on 26th August, 1978 as revenge for their losses, using the aerial maps of our camps. Coincidentally, we also wanted to avenge the death of Cde Shikongo shaBazooka. Our camps were evacuated and our troops established new bases much closer to the border. Using the 16-character formula for guerrilla warfare, our commanders decided to attack first before the planned SADF attacks of August 26th. In early August, 1978, the PLAN Commander-in-Chief, Cde Sam Nujoma, visited the Commanding Headquarters near Senjembela to, among others, receive a detailed briefing of our planned attack on Katima Mulilo. Detachment A was to lead the attack, reinforced by the others. Zambian authorities in Sesheke were alerted of our plans. At 01:00 on 23rd August, 1978, Radio Zambia carried a news report stating that “the war against South Africa was about to intensify”. This was intended to forewarn the civilian population on both sides of the Zambezi River in case South Africa retaliated. At this time, Detachment A’s artillery platoon had taken position in Sesheke, directly across the Zambezi overlooking the Katima Mulilo military base. Other platoons were near the Wenela military base. Six of us were laying landmines around the Katima Mulilo military base. At exactly 01:15 on 23rd August, 1978, Katyusha rocket launchers and B-10 recoilless mortars started bombarding Katima Mulilo and Wenela military bases followed by a staccato of gunfire. The attack lasted for more than 3 hours 20 minutes. The following day, while we were regrouping near Mpacha and others had retreated, General Viljoen, General Gleeson Geldenhuys, and the then Administrator General, Judge Marthinus Steyn, flew into Mpacha en-route to assess their losses in Katima Mulilo. Their Super Falcon narrowly escaped our anti-aircraft shells.
Two significant events are associated with these two attacks. Firstly, the 19th February attack played a big role in persuading the South African regime to accept proposals tabled by the Western Contact Group on 25th April, 1978.
The 23rd August attack is credited as having been a major factor in the adoption of Resolution 435 by the United Nations Security Council on 29th September, 1978.
One wishes that Cde Shikongo shaBazooka and other martyrs of our struggle were alive today to enjoy the freedom we so bitterly fought for.
• Dr Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California.