Few young Namibians know in any greater details about the ‘Terrorism Trial’ that saw many Namibians languish under immense hardships and suffering in South African jails, mainly in the Pretoria Central Prison, and those that were convicted, on Robben Island Maximum Security Prison off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.
Still, even fewer Namibians of all ages know that there were prisoners from the then Eastern Caprivi Strip who were charged under the newly proclaimed Terrorism Act (1967 Terrorism Act, No. 83 of 1967) that was passed by the then apartheid minority South African parliament and made retrogressively to apply to South West Africa/Namibia. Though the Act’s stated purpose was to facilitate the minority government’s fight against the so-called “terrorists”, the law was used against anyone who resisted state control and seemingly gave the security apparatuses sweeping powers to detain, abuse and even kill their prisoners in detention. According to Law professor John Dugard’s writing in 1978: ‘Although designed to combat terrorism, the Terrorism Act has itself become an instrument of terror.’ (Dugard, 1978: 136).
This article mourns the death and celebrates the life of a war veteran, Reuben Chata Chibati, who died in the Zambezi region on Saturday 6th March 2021 and was buried on Thursday 11th March 2021. A devout Christian of Adventist faith, a family man, a traditional leader, an advisor to many, and a friend to both young and old who relished and cherished his seemingly never ending jokes (for he usually had one for each person and each occasion), he was born on 27th February 1918, sharing the birth year with Nelson Mandela (18th July 1918) whom as fate would have it, their paths crossed in life when they found themselves in the same Pretoria Central Prison. He was thus 103 years old when he died. In the year 2006, he was bestowed the status of War Veteran of the Namibian liberation struggle. By using a narrative historical approach, this article tells a wider story of ‘’terrorism trialists’’ like him from this part of Namibia whose story of their arrest, detention and time in the Pretoria Central Prison is yet to be fully told.
Disappointed in the ruling or failure to rule of the International Court of Justice on 18th July 1966 that favoured South Africa, Swapo released a policy and directional statement that stated: “We have no alternative but to rise in arms and bring our own liberation. The supreme test must be faced and we must at once begin to cross the many rivers of blood on our march towards freedom….” With the 26th August 1966 encounter at Omugulugwobashe exposing the vulnerability of large and permanent bases inside South West Africa at the time, the South West Africa Liberation Army (SWALA), later People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) resolved to adopt insurgency or ‘hit and run’ tactics especially on military installations to inflict pain and damage on the South African armed forces in the formative years of the armed liberation struggle.
The then Caprivi Strip would form a key strategic operational area in this strategy. As a result, SWALA’s first commander, Tobias Hainyeko, would be killed on the Zambezi River on 18th May 1967 near Namwi Island while on a mission to investigate conditions in the Caprivi Strip in order to determine how to improve communications between the operational headquarters at Kongwa, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and SWALA’s (PLAN) fighting units in South West Africa. PLAN vowed to avenge Hainyeko’s death and infiltrated two fighting units into Caprivi. We follow the exploits of one that entered Caprivi at Singalamwe near where the museum is located on 18th June 1968, led by their commanders the likes of Kapelwa, Manowa, Haiduwa, Katongolo, Davison Matengu, etc.
Avenging Hainyeko’s death
To announce its arrival and perhaps to create panic, the group reportedly fired at the baobab tree with one of their ‘big guns’, which caused deafening loud sound in Singalamwe. Although a police station was under construction, a temporary one existed. There they asked one policeman, Jonathan Silubanga to show them directions to Finaughty’s shop. William (Bill) Finaughty hailed from Petersburg in the then Northern Transvaal of South Africa and came to the Caprivi in the early 1940s being posted first to Kazungula in Bechuanaland Protectorate (Botswana) and then to Katima Mulilo by the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WNLA, or WENELA as it is locally known). Hardly a year after arriving in Katima Mulilo he had developed interest in trading and was granted an extensive general dealer’s site at Katima Mulilo rapids where Finaughty informal settlement is today near the Wenela border post. His businesses included a large shop, butchery, workshop for repairing motor vehicles since he was a mechanic by profession, carpentry workshop and owned other stores across the eastern Caprivi and also in Bechuanaland Protectorate.
At Finaughty’s shop, the PLAN fighters made Daniel Maswahu Sankasi, the Kapitao (storekeeper) to open for them and the rest is history. After one week, the group ransacked another Finaughty shop at Sibbinda and after another week they attacked a South African military convoy between Mpacha and Katima Mulilo.
The months of September and October 1968 witnessed excessively heavy police clampdown and brutality on the local population in search of collaborators and those assisting and harbouring PLAN combatants. This resulted in scores of villagers crossing into Zambia some to remain there until after independence and others joining the liberation struggle. In other instances, it resulted in deaths, such as that of Benjamin Bebi and Maxwell Kulibabika who died in police detention. Kulibabika’s only crime was because he used his employer’s truck to transport PLAN fighters around Caprivi. He was employed by WENELA as a driver. Police brutality during this period is best exemplified by the story of Dixon Masida Chatambula who was ‘roasted’ alive on an open fire.
The police clampdown also resulted in the arrest of Reuben Chata Chibati, and his colleagues, among others: Judea Lyaboloma, Ingenda Masiye, Dixon Masida Chatambula, Manowa Mulibe, Weeklyson Muluti Lukonga, Bernard Matomola Malapo, Haizaya Muhupulo, Alfred Siloiso Lukonga, Charles Sampati Lutokwa, Daniel Mutanimiye, Chrispin Mutwa, Amon Mutonga Mwiya, Nelson Zambwe, Joel Mwilima, Boswell Mwita Mwilima, Richard Lutombi Sushiku, Sosayati Limbo, and David Babusa.
This group was taken to the Pretoria Central Prison charged under the Terrorism Act, where they joined other heavyweights and liberation struggle icons such as Brendan Kangongolo Simbwaye, Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, Nelson Mandela, Daniel Uutoni Nujoma (1893 – 1968) – whose only crime was that he was the father of Sam Nujoma whom the apartheid minority regime considered as the ‘terrorist-in-chief’ of the Namibian liberation cause, and many others. Of this group, Judea Lyaboloma was killed there in the Pretoria Central Prison and the official version is that he committed suicide. His body was brought back to the Caprivi for burial. Some of the group members were released in 1969 and others only in 1970. Further research is required around issues of their time in Pretoria, especially whether they were tried or not, that is, if the police archives would have such details if it was not destroyed.
As for Reuben Chata Chibati, he was released in October 1969. He would continue to play an underground role in Swapo activities in the Caprivi. He is indeed a befitting honour of ‘Veteran of the Liberation Struggle’.