Today the curtain on my mind opened as it did when we celebrated his 80th birthday, with Comrade Theo-Ben standing next to George Houser, founder and director of the American Committee on Africa, in Manhattan, New York, at an anti-apartheid rally.
This was at the peak of the struggle for decolonisation. During this era, apartheid South Africa was riding high and Namibia’s liberation movement was under the gun. Swapo had to walk as if running but watch their back all the time. This must have impelled Chester Crocker to conclude his diplomatic career with a book titled “High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood”.
These are among the challenges that groomed Sam Nujoma’s chief diplomat as he shuttled between European capitals in the daunting task to implore London, Paris, Ottawa, and Berlin that the cause upon which Washington had landed was on slippery ground and leading to nowhere.
In the end his efforts paid off – the liberation movement was vindicated and the struggle for Namibia’s liberation culminated in the implementation of the United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 435 (UNSCR435), the plan that ushered in Namibia’s independence. At the meeting in Manhattan New York, Gurirab took the stage to an audience of predominantly African students and diplomats, mixed in with the African American sisters and brothers who were single-minded in their resolve to support Namibia’s liberation movement. Gurirab gave a rundown of how Namibians became the responsibility of the UN and what had impelled Swapo to take up arms against the mighty South African army with its backing from the major European capitals. He concluded by saying: “Ours is a struggle for the liberation of humanity and one day when Namibia is free and independent, Washington will appreciate that we fought for the liberation of the American people too.”
The story of Theo-Ben Gurirab is necessarily the story of Swapo. I remember him as a tireless campaigner for the decolonisation of Namibia. In several of his speeches his context was painted by the wisdom of Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, who held that Africa’s liberation will remain a misnomer for as long as a single African country was struggling in the periphery of imperial colonisation.
Along the way there was a reshuffle in the leadership of Swapo and Gurirab was elevated to the position of party secretary for international relations and he had to move to Luanda. I did not see him until when the process of implementing UNSCR 435 arrived on the cards.
In the summer of 1988 Nikko Bessinger and I travelled from Namibia to Bonn, West Germany, to participate in a conference on decolonisation and human rights. Bessinger was deputy secretary for international relations for Swapo and I was envoy for the Council of Churches in Namibia (CCN), the organisation I was privileged to serve as associate general secretary.
During this time, Theo-Ben and Nikko compared notes on developments on the international arena. Nikko briefed me on our return journey. The big powers at the United Nations had resolved that Namibia had to be independent and the friends of the liberation movement advised Swapo to prepare for the repatriation of refugees.
We returned and reported to our respective constituencies. The mood in Namibia remained at best ambivalent, while preparations on the international arena intensified.
In time the UN pulled together the United Nations Transitional Assistance Group (UNTAG), whose task was to oversee the implementation of the UNSCR 435. Then a snag presented itself as a potential hurdle to the process.
There was a move at the UN to reduce the budget of UNTAG. By then the momentum for progress had taken shape and nations of the world were resolute that no effort should be spared in attempts to safe the process. CCN dispatched me to New York to augment the lobby at the UN for the retention of the UNTAG force. Gurirab had arrived in New York from Luanda for the same purpose and we crafted a joint strategy. We would meet each evening to compare notes and to draw a strategy for the following day.
Gurirab’s campaign was intense. He had met virtually all ambassadors at the UN, including for the first time, South Africa’s chargé d’affaires, along with Martti Ahtisaari. These interactions culminated into a happy ending. Two days later, Gurirab and I had our last consultations. Gurirab confirmed having met the South African chargé d’affaires and he was of the view that the South Africans could be on their way to cooperate after all. A day later I left for Windhoek, confident that the process was back on track. Later I was dispatched to Luanda to facilitate repatriation with Swapo and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This was no easy task as there were simmering tensions between Swapo and UNHCR, particularly with regard to the numbers of the refugees to be repatriated. I was relieved to find Gurirab already in Luanda and we consulted before I engaged the key players on the repatriation of Namibia’s refugees. Gurirab’s view was that, now that we had unlocked the process in New York, we could not allow this situation to present a stumbling block. He gave me a rundown of the historical relationship between the UNHCR and Swapo and he advised that I manage the exercise tenderly but firmly.
The Swapo repatriation committee was headed by Hifikepunye Pohamba and had as members such as Nickey Iyambo, Vitalis Ankama, Mzee Kaukungwa and Festus Naholo. The group was resolved and we agreed on the process for repatriation, the modus operandi for managing services for returnees and security aspects. I returned to report the good news to my boss, Dr Abisai Sheyavali, then secretary-general of CCN, whom I deputized.
I advised the church leaders that while my collective experience in New York and Luanda respectively spoke to the potential for good news leading to a happy ending, there was need to be guardedly optimistic as the situation remained complex.
This proved to be a realistic assessment because, on the 1st of April 1989, Namibia was entertained to a mixture of good news of the arrival of UNTAG in Windhoek, juxtaposed with the resumption of a shooting war between the South African troops and the Swapo fighters in the north of Namibia. But in the end there was a happy ending and, Theo-Ben leaves behind a free unitary state of Namibia, albeit confounded by economic and other development challenges. The life and times of Theo-Ben Gurirab are intrinsically linked to the life and times of Swapo and these pages are limiting to deal with a review of this expansive life. Go well my brother, our relationship will endure.