The 26th of August is a national day with a historical basis on which the heroes and heroines of Namibia are commemorated. It was on the 26th of August 1966 that one of the groups of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) clashed with the South African colonial troops at Ongulumbashe (or Omugulugwombashe) in former Ovamboland (Nujoma, 2001). There was a skirmish between the South African police and another PLAN fighter group at Rundu earlier on the 23rd of March the same year 1966 (Shetyuwete, 1990), but 26 August represents the day on which SWAPO took a conscious decision to officially launch the armed struggle for independence. The day has thus become nationalised for Namibians from all walks of life to commemorate the heroes and heroines of Namibia.
This year 2020 will be the 30th time that Namibians celebrate hero’s day since 1990. But unlike other years, 2020 will probably not see the gathering of large numbers of Namibians due to the dangers now currently posed by the global deadly Covid-19 pandemic.
The meaning of a hero and heroism
In a translated Rukwangali story of H Kloppers by the late Damian Nakare, a child asked his father a very important question: ‘father, what is a hero?’ (Kloppers, 1981). The father responded from his perspective that a hero is a person with the character like that of a game ranger. Despite the eminent threats from wild animals and poachers, a game ranger sacrifices his/her own life to protect the lives of the helpless animals in the jungle because of a conviction that “since the future youths are also human beings, they should be accorded an equal opportunity to see the protected ‘Nokoroka’ the giraffe” (Likuwa F. , 1993, p. 113).
From my personal background and perspective, “lipenda” (hero/heroine) refers to a person who displays ‘upenda’ (heroism). Heroism is an action of sacrificing one’s life against all possible odds to remove evil and replace it with good, to shine light and remove the darkness, to replace sadness with happiness, replace cries with laughter and poverty with wealth, etc., for the good and benefit of other people without expecting rewards. Any one who displays the above character fits into the category of a hero and heroism.
When various Bantu communities migrated from Central Africa around the 15th Century to Namibia (Kose, 2016), various individuals sacrificed their energy and power to lead and defend their communities against opportunistic invading groups who targeted to capture slaves for trading purposes to the Portuguese (Dias, 1992). Equally, there existed great elephant hunters such Shimwemwe, Ngara, Mulyata Kangumbe who, put their lives at risk of attacks from wild animals as they hunted to provide food for their migrating communities (Kamwanga & Haushiku, 1996). Further, royal heirs amongst the Kavango groups such as Mate, Kapango, Mushinga, Kashivi, Rukonga, etc. provided strong leadership and military defence against attacks from adversaries during the migration and settlement period (Kampungu, 1965).
As early as the 1850s, Namibia experienced a wave of European hunters and explorers from Walvis Bay, through Otjimbingwe into northern Namibia who exploited the wildlife resources (Stals, 1990). Some traditional leaders defended their territories by engaging in war with the invading European intruders. By the 1870s, for example, King Nyangana wa Mukuve of Vagciriku fought and killed Chas Thomas in the river, while attempting to cross on a horseback in opposition to the wishes of the king on 27 July 1878 (Serton, 1954). Eventually, King Nyangana fought off a joint revengeful attack of the re-organised European hunters and the migrating Boer trekkers in 1878. During the demarcation of international boundaries in Namibia after 1885, traditional leaders such as Himarwa Ithete, Nampadi za Simbenda, Nyangana waMukuve and Diyeve dya Rukonga resisted the division of their kingdoms between the German and Portuguese powers (Hangula, 1993).
The contract labour system in Namibia became institutionalised in 1925 (Cooper, 1999), and by the late 1950s, political activists such as Sam Nujoma, Hifikepunye Pohamba, Nathanael Maxthulili, John ya Otto, David Ausiku (Lyangurungunda) etc. mobilised the contract workers to eventually join the protracted armed liberation struggle of Namibia (Likuwa, 2020).
Later in the 1960s onward, countless Namibians joined the armed liberation struggle as PLAN combatants and they were supported materially and morally by countless civilians in the warzone areas of the former Ovambo and Kavango lands (Karapo, 2008). All Namibians who contributed selflessly to the struggle against colonial oppression and the armed liberation of Namibia are heroes and heroines.
Namibia’s heroes and heroines’ tremendous contributions to the armed struggle appeal differently to different generations. For example, while the post-colonial generation shows passionate empathy with the previous generation for the valuable contribution of the heroes and heroines of yesteryear, their lack of personal experiences of the armed struggle means their level of interest and appreciation remains unequal.
Seemingly, each generation regards the heroes and heroines of their particular times as the last of the best and expects that subsequent generations accord the same recognition and appreciation. But the eventually unfulfilled expectation from the new generation to the previous one is partly the cause for what McKittrick termed as “generational conflict” (McKittrick, 1996).
In 2003, an 88-year-old interviewee at Guma village in Kavango east, for example, questioned: “Are there still heroes around, where are they? We used to have heroes but they have all died” (Weka Theresia Shidona, 2003).
Means to commemorate heroes/heroines
How we should commemorate our heroes and heroines is a very important topic in post-colonial Namibia. Heroes/heroines should not be hidden, they must be seen and celebrated publicly within their communities. For example, when Nelson Mandela of South Africa was sentenced to 27 years in Robben Island prison in 1967, South Africans began to sing and ask for his whereabouts, “Asimbonanga, Mandela” We are not seeing you, Mandela (Clegg & Savuka, 1987). Akuupa observed that the Namibian government since the 1990s have used national cultural festivals as a central medium to celebrate Namibia’s national culture of unity in diversity (Akuupa, 2015).
Apart from organising national events such as Heroes Day, Namibians commemorate their heroes through established national monuments and statues. There is a debate on what heroes should be celebrated in Namibia’s post-colonial public spaces. For example, should statues that represent figures of German or South African colonial oppressors remain in the public spaces or should they be removed and hidden from the public eye. Should Namibians inscribe new meaning to the existing colonial monuments and statues to reflect the Namibian victory against colonialism alongside those existing colonial constructed statues?
Shiweda and Likuwa show that old colonial statues have and continue to take on new unintended meaning amongst people contrary to the original intentions for the monuments’ establishment (Shiweda & Likuwa, 2020). For example, the Mandume memorial in Windhoek, which was built to celebrate the South African victory over King Mandume, was later appropriated with new meaning by Namibians to represent a constant reminder of Mandume’s heroic acts against the South African forces at the battle at Oihole in 1917. So, there will always be divergent contested debates around monuments as means towards representing and commemorating the history of Namibia’s heroes and heroines.
As Namibians celebrate the 30th hero’s day on 26 August 2020, let us keep in mind that this commemoration now than ever before, comes at a time when Namibia faces a universal pandemic threat of Covid-19. Namibia requires individuals who commit strongly towards leading the fight against the spread of Covid-19. One day in the future if a Namibian child will ask his parents about Namibia’s heroes and heroines of the years starting 2020, parents and historians should have a larger number to show.