This article is in response to one that was co-authored by Shaun Whittaker, Harry Boesak and Mitchell van Wyk, titled ‘Statues and Nation Building’ (The Namibian, 10 July 2020).
History should be a neutral account of historic facts but is often not so. It is rather a collection of events influenced by frequent biases, prejudices and false narratives infused by the storytellers and writers. History should be taught or debated on facts but the narrator’s perspective determines what people record in written documents, cultural artefacts or oral traditions, at a time.
That is the reason why historians from time to time disagree over what the facts are as well as over how they should be interpreted. The problem becomes more complicated for major events or battles that produce winners and losers since we are more likely to have history written by the winners or their akin, designed to show why they were heroic in their victories. Think of colonial history and why colonial statues and portraits are being dislodged or confined to libraries in many countries today on account of the Black Lives Matter movement.
It is for these reasons that historians should intuitively turn to primary sources that were relevant at the time of the event. These would be the firsthand accounts. But this is not possible for ancient or ‘aged history’ unless all relevant accounts are used as reference points by neutral historians or persons. Historians should then use these sources to make arguments, which could be refuted by different interpretations of the same evidence or discovery of new ones. Therefore, to write successfully in any area, it is important to support one’s thesis or argument with concrete evidence. Unfortunately, history is, for the most part, taught by those who never experienced the events.Although Namibians are of diverse ethnic background, they have unquestionable love and pride for their country. Therefore, sharing stories allows us to understand human experience and find ways to relate to and connect. To write effective history, one should avoid casting aspersions or demeaning identities and roles of others, and all contributions and sacrifices made by sons and daughters of the soil in the cause of our liberation must be equally valued and honoured, without exception.
The history of Namibia has passed through several distinct stages since even before the formal establishment of the German colonial rule in 1884, following the Berlin Conference. It then passed through the racist South African colonial administrations in July 1915 until independence. Through these times we have witnessed the repercussions of the great resistance movements against colonial rule. Several fierce battles were heroically fought across the savannas of northern, central and southern parts of Namibia during the Great War of Resistance. Eventually, this led to the near extinction of the OvaHerero and Nama people in the first genocide of the 20th century perpetrated by German Schutztruppe. Almost 62 years after the genocide of our people, the gallant fighters of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), the military wing of Swapo, waged guerrilla warfare against the racist South African colonial troops on 26 August, 1966. During the war of liberation that spanned 23 years, about 30 000 lives were lost and others maimed before Namibia could attain her independence on 21 March 1990. It was no mean feat with tremendous sacrifices.
Only pacifists can downplay the effects of war and make comedy and follies of the society they live in today. In battles, there are always setbacks. You don’t need to win every battle to win the war, but you must remain determined to fight on.
The participation of PLAN combatants in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is not a myth. It was the largest engagement of the Angolan conflict and the biggest conventional battle on the African continent, fought intermittently between 14 August 1987 and 23 March 1988, South and East of the town of Cuito Cuanavale, in Southern Angola, by FAPLA, Cuban Internationalist Forces and PLAN (Swapo military wing) combatants on one side, against the racist South African troops and UNITA rebels on the other side.
The Contingent Commander of PLAN Specialised Battalion (350 in size) was commanded by Commander Alpo Shipahu. Their mission was to operate in the rear of the enemy. The mission was accomplished with heavy casualties on enemy forces of the racist South African government that disabled their movements until the eventually negotiated surrender and their hasty retreat from the Angolan territory.
In Namibia, we have a mixed bag of history: one is a heritage that carries pain (colonial remnants); two is the heritage that comforts (nationalism). Monuments, statues and heroes acres are Namibia’s national heritage sites. Heroes Acres are places where the remains of the heroes of our struggle are interred, which sites are preserved for historic purposes into perpetuity. Our national heritage is a celebration of courage, bravery, compassion, generosity, faith, fidelity, tolerance, love and honour to our departed heroes for their sacrifices and for the freedom and independence we enjoy today. This is in fact in our “DNA.” Indeed, as proud Namibians, we all strongly should aim to reach an equilibrium point in terms of replacing the colonial leftovers with post-independence monuments and our heroes’ street names.
The bitterness engendered by war (in which some of us participated), and the diabolic practices of racist apartheid rule, presented real threats to the new Namibian government in 1990, to create a peaceful post-independence society. As such, for the new government, the perpetual wartime experiences of Angola and Mozambique were ample evidence of the consequences of a society unreconciled with itself.
As a result, it was thought an imperative to promote a policy of national reconciliation as envisioned in the Preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of Namibia, reading as follows: “Whereas these rights have long been denied to the people of Namibia by colonialism, racism and apartheid; will strive to achieve national reconciliation and to foster peace, unity and common loyalty to the state”. These are heralded as admirable milestones.
Yet, after thirty years of independence, we are still a divided nation grappling with manifested cancerous racism, division, ethnicity and self-serving privilege, with our unity in diversity almost lost in a labyrinth of selfishness.
The article referred to above tells us that we are a nation hardly agreeing on past unresolved issues. The battle of the violent and divisive past, intolerance, anxiety and deep-seated mistrust among Namibians can only be won through reconciliation. As such, the ability and willingness to forgive one another are important for nations struggling to overcome internal divisions and hatred.
We shall give due regard and respect to individual accounts and national statues if we reconcile our differences and accept each other for who we are and what our heroes stood for. Let’s all embrace one another for our beautiful Republic.