It is with a profound sense of sadness that I learnt of the loss of a dear friend and Comrade, Ferdinand Meroro, during the early morning hours of 1st May 2020.
I knew Ferdinand since our early childhood days in Ovitoto and later in Windhoek as we attended our respective schools. His mother was Else. His father, notably, was David Meroro, a leading business personality who was actively involved in nationalist politics in the country and later on became the chairman of Swapo from the 1960s until the early 1990s.
My political consciousness and that of Ferdinand, or Fere as he was fondly known, developed around the same time during the 1950s to early 1960s and eventually culminated in both of us joining the Swapo Party at the same time, along with many young people of our generation. We became active in the activities of Swapo and jointly plotted our departure from the country. In this undertaking, we were joined by Brian Bassingthwaighte, who was by the time, already, a Swapo official, working full-time for the party.
We made our exit in September 1962, driven from Windhoek to Gobabis by one of the senior party leaders in the country, a teacher by profession, Mr Levy Nganjone. Levy handed us over to a network that was well established in Gobabis. Soon, we departed for Bechuanaland (the current Botswana) in an over-lander truck with a businessman who was a groceries distributor between Gobabis and Maun in Botswana. While in Botswana, we connected with the Swapo network in Francistown led by Maxton Joseph Mutongulume and Peter Nanyemba. It was a joy to meet them during the first phase of our trip. Here, we also met up with two other comrades of ours who had arrived there before us, and they were Theo-Ben Gurirab and Jan Uirab. Because they had been working in Walvis Bay, they had been able to obtain identity documents, which identified them as Malawian fishermen returning home to Malawi.
However, the plan was that they would use these documents to make their way to Tanganyika. Unfortunately, Fere, Brian and I did not have such a sophisticated plan!
Soon after arriving in Francistown, we were escorted by Peter Nanyemba to the train for Bulawayo, with clear instructions to disembark before the border of Southern Rhodesia so we could walk and cross on foot to Plumtree. The plan was to wait at Plumtree train station so that Gurirab and Uirab could come along with our bags and join us for the onward trip to Bulawayo and beyond. We crossed safely, however due to hunger and thirst from our long walk, we were tempted to ask for water to drink from a nearby farmer.
While he helped us with water, he phoned the police, who came with dogs and arrested the three of us. This was our first detention and our first baptism of tasting the hurdles of the struggle. We were brought before the court and charged for having entered Southern Rhodesia without valid documents, and were informed that we would soon be handed over to the South African government.
In the meantime, during the few moments we were taken outside prison to work, we connected with someone from the Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAPU) who we requested to alert the leadership of Swapo in Dar es Salaam. They mobilised the international community through United Nations, with regard to our plight. In particular, the British Government was urged to intervene.
The Southern Rhodesian authorities had considerable autonomy and were not prepared to listen to the British government, so the British authorities quietly kept an eye on our deportation train. The British government waited until we arrived back in Francistown and informed our escorts that we would overnight in Gaborone. On reaching Gaborone, the British authorities took us from the train. They set us free and rescued us from being handed over to the South African authorities. This drew a strong protest from the South African Prime Minister, John Vorster, to the British. He demanded that we be handed over to the South African government because they were waiting to deal with us.
During all these ups and downs, Fere was extremely calm and earnest in our joint planning and focused on finding the best possible way of surviving under the dire circumstances.
One striking incident was when after labouring as prisoners in the fields we were being taken to the hospital for a routine check-up. Our feet were dusty and he suggested we stop and make ourselves look neat before we entered the hospital. Brian and I were amazed and asked Fere what was the importance of bothering about looking neat when we had bigger problems to worry about? Indeed, this was a question of preserving one’s dignity even under unbearable harsh conditions.
We left Francistown a second time, heading for Dar es Salaam once more. Brian got a place on an ANC chartered plane to Dar. He went on to study in the USA and is currently residing in New York. Fere and I joined an ANC group going through Kazungula to Northern Rhodesia – now Zambia. We ended up in different transports and unfortunately, Fere and his ANC group were returned to Botswana. I made it to Livingstone and arrived in Dar es Salaam in December 1962, together with two ANC comrades. Fere finally made it to Dar and went on to study in Romania. He later returned to Africa and was based in Somalia for some years.
While in the process of being released from prison in Plumtree, though it appeared like a dream, Brian, Fere and I vowed that whoever survived would seek out those who were responsible for our rescue and convey our thanks and appreciation on behalf of all the three of us.
As I bid farewell to my dear friend, I am pleased to acknowledge that indeed, during my days as a student in Oxford University, I sought to interview Lord J. Radcliffe-Maud for my academic work. He had served in the 1960s as the British High Commissioner in South Africa, and was also responsible for Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. During the interview, I used the opportunity to convey our thanks and appreciation for that timely move that to us was the difference between life and death.
I extend sincere condolences to Fere’s dear wife, Edla Tjizembua Meroro and the entire Meroro family.
My dear friend Fere, may your soul rest in eternal peace.