Thinking about a nation without Toivo ya Toivo

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Herman Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, a martyr leader in our fight for freedom departed earth a few days ago – surely content but also exasperated about the state of our nation. For a man who was ‘cut out of the same rock as Mandela’ as the Robben Island prison guard Christo Brand would say, his departure sharpens nostalgia.

But more important, it should be a hiatus to reflect about our nation. When I think about a nation, what I have in mind is the idea the French philosopher Ernst Renan championed at the Sorbonne in his treatise ‘Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?’ (What is a nation?): a heroic past, extraordinary individuals, including a common desire in the present of wanting to do great deeds together.

We have a past of glory, defeats and courageous individuals. Preceded by the January 1904 Herero Revolt, the Battle of Hamakari on 11 August 1904, 20 km south of the Waterberg plateau, the Herero warriors under Chief Samuel Maharero fought against the German Schutztruppe where many perished in the Omaheke. In the same vein, Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi rallied his people to free his land from the German imperialists. He died in combat in 1905.

In their desire to defend their ancestral lands, the blood of the Herero and Nama people had been spilled across the vast expanse of central and southern Namibia, with the first seeking under Chief Samuel Maharero asylum in Bechuanaland (now Botswana). The first genocide and holocaust of the 20th century was minted here in our land during that phase of primary resistance.

Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, Sam Nujoma with the latter under the tutelage of Chief Hosea Kutako, Gabriel Mbuende, Aaron Hamutenya were to lead the second phase for the emancipation of our people. Toivo ya Toivo and Sam Nujoma were competently assisted by Hage Geingob, Hidipo Hamutenya, Ngarikutuke Tjiriange, Libertina Amadhila, Nahas Angula, Peter Hitjitevi Katjavivi, Moses Makue Garoeb, Mosé Penaani Tjitendero, Anton Lubowski and others.

The Mo-Ibrahim Laureate, Hifikepunye Pohamba would ensure that order prevailed. Under the command of John Ya Otto Nankudhu, the 1966 Battle of Omugulugwombashe in the Tsandi constituency of our country constituted the culmination of a people united and purposeful in their diversity to end South Africa’s occupation of Namibia.

We ended that occupation in 1990. Our independence illuminates a history made of glory, defeats and courageous individuals. As the natural tenth in a line of nine, Toivo ya Toivo stands tall in the pantheon of Namibian heroes.

The genocide of 1904-08, Omugulugwombashe, and what the Geingob presidency represents in firming up the foundations of a people united in diversity should disinfect our national conversation of the philistine petty-politics of ‘what is in it for me’. The nonsense about the Geingob presidency lacking vision validates a lack of far-sightedness and historical deliberation!

In our attempts to build a nation we have to fight against the mind-numbing brute within us, pay closer attention to the tones of our past, interpret the meaning of our rich trove of memories, shared harm and heritage, and use these to mobilise for a nation. The battles of Hamakari and Omugulugwombashe as plural moments in our history ought not to divide, but harness the soul and principle of one nation.

What we have been able to achieve together since independence has been significant. But certainly, not sufficient to lift the majority of our people out of poverty. The powerlessness of our public policies and inaction against the structural legacy of apartheid are certainly to blame. Still, when we think about a century of imperial and apartheid misrule and the blame it should shoulder, Toivo Ya Toivo’s caution about the waning integrity of our politics deserves serious interogation and action.

There is hubris of which the consequences Ben Amadhila warned about a few weeks ago. Moreover, Nahas Angula has in recent weeks been counselling wisely about the potential decay of SWAPO in the absence of ideological clarity and a community of values.

Angula is right when he argues that a ruling party whose elites are interested in access to state tenders and material accumulation, and not service to the vulnerable is bound to fail. He is also right when he says that we should allow President Geingob to serve a full two-terms if he so wishes.

A feckless attachment to accumulation is certainly not what Toivo ya Toivo had in mind when he spoke before the court that would send him to prison in 1968: ‘Progress is something we shall have to struggle and work for.

And I believe that the only way in which we shall be able to secure that progress is to learn from our own experience and mistakes’. What Toivo ya Toivo the teacher had in mind were genuine mistakes, and not of the sort that we manufacture by inflating tenders, allocating resources meant for the poor to ourselves, engineering efforts to demean and undermine the State President.

Such rancorous conduct is thoughtless and could create a deficit of confidence in the ability of state institutions to deliver on their strategic mandate – sustainable development for all. The appeal of Toivo ya Toivo is for every day to be a referendum of what we should do together in building a stronger nation.

As we marshal Toivo ya Toivo to a Heroes Acre filled with a rich trove of memories, we have learned from a humble master-teacher. It is the opportune moment to reflect on the ruptures that we must set in motion in order to build on the ideal of the nation – one for which he was stubbornly prepared to die.

* Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is a visiting fellow at Sciences Po Paris. He holds a PhD in political science from the Sorbonne.

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