There is an African saying that when a male elephant dies, every villager can claim his/her “pound of flesh” without depriving the others because the male elephant is big enough. A lot of tributes have been pouring in on the legacy of Jason Angula since his passing last Monday (13th July 2020). I too want to “claim” my “pound of flesh” from this great elephant (by way of a tribute and not in the negative sense that this phrase is often employed for).
In 1978, on a mild December morning – one week before Christmas – I walked into the Swapo office which was then housed in the city centre. My mission was a simple one, the workers at Rossing Uranium Mine were on strike and I needed some advice. By then most of the Swapo-affiliated trade unions had not been created and as activists, we were dealing directly with the workers’ grievances. Asser Kapere (then Arandis Swapo branch deputy chairperson), Maria Dax (branch treasurer) and a few other comrades had been arrested in the wake of the strike. I was then Swapo branch chairperson at Arandis and somehow had escaped the police net because I happened to be in Windhoek during my annual leave. However, word had reached me that the police were looking for me.
Jason Angula happened to be in the Swapo office that particular morning. He was Swapo Secretary for Labour, but also doubling as the Swapo National Coordinator for the then Western region, a region where he hailed from and under which Arandis fell. In short, given that a strike was a matter of labour dispute and he was the Secretary for Labour and this was in a region that fell under his jurisdiction, I felt that he was just the right person to talk. I was a twenty-four-year-old militant, a militancy that bordered on naivety. After we had discussed the strike, I told him that I wanted to go back to Arandis to stand with my comrades in that difficult hour; and if need be I was prepared to be arrested. After I had put my case, he looked me squarely in the eye and asked me in a very calm tone: “Don’t you think that it is stupid to go back to Arandis, knowing very well that you would be arrested on arrival?” It was that ten-minute conversation that propelled me to go into political exile in December 1978, and the rest is history.
I think it is good, but not enough, to talk about the heroic exploits of Jason Angula. For me, the burning question is, what can we learn and build from that rich legacy? Jason Angula suffered a great deal at the hands of the then most brutal police force in Southern Africa at that point in time, the South African Police. To spend six months in solitary confinement at the hands of the Apartheid South African Police was not a walk in the park; it was “a road less travelled.”
Jason Angula’s activism should be understood within the socio-historical context of time and space. Human beings are social products of their historical times and social environment, but how they react to change or not to change their social environment is a conscious decision. In other words, being a social product is a given, but being a socio-historical agent of change is a matter of choice. That is why Fidel Castro was to remark that: “Objective conditions are created by history, but subjective conditions are created by man.” Being a social agent of change has everything to do with creating subjective conditions. In very simple terms, the oppressive Apartheid colonial system in Namibia created certain objective conditions, but to change that system required conscious political activism to mobilise the masses of the people for action. The latter was where the creation of subjective conditions came into play and where the likes of Jason Angula played an instrumental role. Colonial Namibia produced a Jason Angula as a social product, but he chose to become a socio-historical agent of change when he became an activist.
In colonial Namibia, being a political activist was a matter of hard choice. During that period of our history, political activism required total and selfless sacrifice because you could lose your life, and many did lose their lives. It was “a road less-travelled” because the choice not to be an activist was less demanding and thus an easier road to travel.
Jason Angula grew up in cosmopolitan Swakopmund and was thus a product of what I call, for a lack of a better word, Eembwiti culture. These are those Ovambos who grew up in towns and over the years developed a unique culture and an urban slang which is a mixture of Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Afrikaans and even English. I think sociologists and anthropologists are yet to research that rich urban culture. Instead of ridiculing Eembwiti as people who have lost touch with their original culture, we should celebrate that unique tapestry of cultures and use it as an instrument to build a new Namibia. About two weeks ago I was listening on NBC Radio how various speakers were weighing in on the life of the late Meester Shipanga, who, just like Jason Angula, was also a product of the same cultural mosaic. As a political activist, Jason Angula brought the Eembwiti cultural dimension to the table, and we need to allow space for different cultural dimensions to play themselves out in the process of building a new Namibia.
Jason Angula was at home in his native Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Afrikaans and English; and to some extent, also conversant with Damara-Nama and German. He could seamlessly, and with relative ease, shuttle across a few cultures. He was so cosmopolitan so much so that it was not easy to peg him to a specific culture. When you are with certain people you just forget that they belong to a specific ethnic group, Jason Angula was one of them. When we were burying Daniel Tjongarero, the late Theo-Ben Gurirab remarked: “Dan could easily move in and out of almost any culture in Namibia.” I think the same can be said about Jason Angula.
Metaphorically speaking, in his formative years in his native Swakopmund, the generosity of his spirit and the largeness of his heart were shaped by the dunes of the great Namib Desert and the waves of the gigantic Atlantic Ocean. You needed a generous spirit and a large heart to walk “the road less travelled” of freedom-fighting because it was not for the faint-hearted.
In trying to shun away from being hero-worshipped, Amilcar Cabral, former revolutionary leader of the struggle in Guinea-Bissau, once referred to himself as “…a simple African trying to do his duty for his country in the context of his times.” I believe this is how Jason Angula would like us to remember him. The legendary reggae singer Bob Marley was to sing: “…Tribute, tribute to the martyrs.” I pay tribute to a martyr. Rest in peace, great elephant!