• August 4th, 2020

Theo-Ben Gurirab: In his own words

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Special Focus, Features, Focus, Featured

This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview with the late Theo-Ben Gurirab, conducted for the United Nations in 1999. Gurirab had just become president of the UN General Assembly when the interview took place. Jean Krasno: First, President Gurirab, for background purposes could you please explain where you were born and educated and when you were first involved in the independence of Namibia? Theo-Ben Gurirab: My biographical data is readily available and I’ll give you a folio on that, but I was born 23 January 1939, in a small railway town 142 kilometers east from Swakopmund, our coastal town. Actually, in my language the name of the place is generally !mown as Usakos. At the time of my growing up, it was the main railway conjunction in the whole of the country. As I was growing up, I felt that I was actually living in a paradise. Little did I know that I was living in the headquarters of racism. The communities were divided along racial lines not only between the whites and the blacks but also among the different black communities. But it was a fun place at that to have been growing up in. That is where I started my schooling. Unlike a much larger number of my siblings and cousins, I was one of the fortunate ones who did not go through the rigors of looking after cattle and doing household chores that they were required to do in the village and many settlements in and around Usakos. I was fortunate in the sense that I had early education at a missionary school where I had my primary education. I did my secondary education and teacher’s training at Okahandja which is about 75 kilometers northwest of Windhoek, the capital city, at a place called Augustinium. It’s a place that links in so many different ways the history of Namibia to the reformation led by Martin Luther in Germany many centuries earlier. The people who were associated with setting up that educational and training facility in Namibia were Lutherans to begin with and some money had been made available to those missionaries to set this school. Its importance for me, more than the connection with the church is that it was at that time the point of convergence of all the African students, those who were eligible or who had an opportunity one way or another to attend schooling and to have come together. It was not the intention of the colonial administration nor was it the intention of the school administration, for that matter; it was the economic situation. It was cheaper to bring all of us together at one place rather than to set up schools and training facilities in different parts of the country. What initially we did not realize ourselves was that by this an arrangement, it was possible to bring together at one place the future leaders of Namibia from all parts of the country. It was there that most of us met. It became the hub of the political consciousness raising in the fullness of time. It was that school and the one next to it, not far from there, a catholic school at Dobra. To come back to my early education, it was there that I did my secondary education and teacher’s training. I qualified as a teacher in 1960 but chose to go to Walvis Bay, our harbour town, to work in fishing factories. They paid a little more than other job opp01tunities that were open for blacks. My intention was, while I qualified as a teacher, that I wanted to further my studies. I had not thought that it would have been possible for me to have gone abroad, but I had plans that if I had enough money saved that I would find a way to further my studies in South Africa. But politics came into being in the mid- 50s as far as my own participation from 1957 onwards. Actually, the political consciousness raising sta1ted while I was at Augustinium between the years 1958 and 1960. The African political resistance movements were being formed, including SWAPO now the ruling party, as well as SWANU and others. From time to time, some of the initial leaders of that process, that movement, would come discretely at night from Windhoek to the school and provide political education classes and gatherings for us. But that is where it started. Africm1 teachers were not allowed by law to participate as, if one is generous, as civil servants in any political activity. But pressure was mounting and we became responsive to the demand because we were the educated lot among the people and we should also take a lead in the political mobilization of the people, to talk to the people about the problems there were ai1d what they could do to demonstrate and to protest and so on. That is how my political activities started. I had to be discrete; that was the requirement by law while I was a teacher. But I nevertheless got myself involved in political activities until 1962 when I decided to clandestinely leave the country and found my way to newly self-governing Tanganyika which I reached in October 1962. JK: When you talked about many of the leaders of Namibia started gathering at the secondary school where you were, did that include Sam Nujoma and Hage Geingob and some of these people? TG: Not Sam Nujoma, but Hage Geingob and myself, Hidipo Hamutenya. We came at different times. Hage Geingob and I came together. But there were others ahead of us. Not necessarily in the previous generation but I am talking about when the political activism started. There were people who were older than us but the same generation as we were. They were older than us significantly. They would be of Nujoma’s age group. But he was a worker; he was not at that school. Our Deputy Prime Minister, Hendrik Witbooi is older than us and was also a teacher there. He got his training there. Eventually, my generation of Namibian leaders in the government and parliament, even in the private sector, come from Augustinium, the majority of them. JK: So, then you left in 1962. Where did you go from there? You went to Tanganyika? TG: Yes, but it was a long, long journey. I left the country under a false pretence. I cooked up a story, which succeeded and helped me to where I am today. The story being that I and my friend who left with me, Jan Bamba Uirab who lives now in Sweden and shuttles between Sweden and Namibia, was that we were actually natives, native meaning nationals our countries were not independent and we were not citizens from now Malawi, then Nyasaland. The story was that we had been in South West Africa (Namibia) under contract, working in the local factories in Walvis Bay and that we had overstayed the terms of our contract. We were good people; we did not violate any laws but we were advised that we should leave the country. We had a friend in the magistrate’s office who was very skilful and helpful, indeed, who issued us with two sets of documents to that effect. One was a voluntary deportation order with all the appropriate quotations on it and one a traveling pass which blacks were required to be in possession of. So, on that basis, we left Walvis Bay by train and travelled through the rest of the country, through South Africa, through Botswanaland- Botswana was not independent then - through Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, through N01ihern Rhodesia which is now Zambia, up to Tanganyika which is now Tanzania. JK: When did you become a member Of SWAPO? TG: SWAPO was formed in 1960 and I officially became a member in 1961. JK: When did you first become involved in the United Nations? TG: In 1963, while I was in Tanganyika. I won a UN fellowship. It was a UN fellowship that brought me to the United States in June 1963 as a student at Temple University in Philadelphia. English was not our official language nor was it spoken widely in Namibia at that time. We were required, therefore, initially to do some brushing up of the language and science and math courses. Then I eventually became a student at Temple University where I did my undergraduate studies in political science and graduate studies in international relations. My personal association with the country started in 1963 and continues, I should think. JK: SWAPO achieved a very unusual status at the UN. It became an official observer of the UN. How was that established and what were the forces that came together to actually establish that status for SWAPO? TG: Yes, there were a number of forces. First was that when the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was founded on the 25th of May 1963, just shortly before I left Dar es Salaam , Tanzania . Perhaps within a year of its founding, one of the committees set up by the Organization of African Unity was called the Liberation Committee. The full title is The Coordinating Committee for the Liberation of Africa, but it is briefly called the Liberation Committee, which was headquartered in Dar es Salaam. It called together the leaders and representatives of all the existing national liberation movements of Africa, of Mozambique, Angola , of Rhodesia, even Kenya and Uganda, that were not independent, Guinea Bissau , all the countries that were not independent. They were mostly from eastern, central, and southern Africa. The question was for these leaders to indicate to the Liberation Committee the ways and means by which they as the people from the countries consent , propose to proceed to find freedom, to achieve freedom and independence for their countries and their people. They were, therefore, asked after that initial meeting to go back and prepare so-called programs of action, setting out their objectives and goals. This was done in order for the Liberation Committee to not only recognize those movements that in their judgment deserved to be recognized and supported, but secondly, and more importantly, to go out throughout the world, the independent African countries, and other countries of the third world to mobilize support for those movements. We did so. SWANU, the part y of our compatriot that you mentioned, Moses Katjiuongua, who was one of the prominent members, were the two movements. Both of us presented our programs of action. In our case, SWAPO, we said in addition to the United Nations mobilizing the international community for supportive assistance, we would also organize a milita1y resistance body. We specifically asked the Liberation Committee and the OAU member states to assist us to train our combatants to launch the armed struggle. SWANU felt that the objective conditions in Namibia and the practicalities of how to get from whatever to Namibia was such that they did not thin the time was right for launching the armed struggle. Others like Guinea Bissau opted for armed struggle in addition to political campaigns and diplomatic activities. But the long and the short of it is that both SWAPO and SWANU were recognized as befitting support and were supported until finally, the OAU decided that it was SWAPO that was doing most of tI1e campaigning and had gained recognition and support beyond the OAU member states internationally, including by the UN. So, that was how the UN and the OAU worked together. So, that was one thing. Secondly, on that basis, in 1 972, at a summit held in Rabat, Morocco, the OAU decided to actually recognize those liberation movements that in their judgment (of the OAU member states) and as recommended by the Liberation Committee, should be supp1ied. Resources were scarce and therefore, it didn’t want to waste money on organizations that did not have a chance to make a difference. In the case of Namibia, SWANU was not de-recognized, per se, but they somehow were not present and did not do what was expected of the m. After that exercise, the OAU, in 1972, recognized liberation movements as the sole and authentic representatives of their people. They campaigned for recognition and support and assistance in the international community. The OAU member states, therefore, when they came to the UN, in the resolutions in the General Assembly, inserted the action taken by the OAU and initiated a similar action here within the UN and gained support. So, it was on the basis that in 1972, SWAPO was recognized as the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people. And step-by-step I was directly involved from that point onwards. We reached a point where in the late 70s; SWAPO was recognized as the Permanent Observer, as opposed to an observer in 1972, a Permanent Observer. There is a difference in quality between the two. I was eventually provided with a seat in the General Assembly. JK: So, you became the representative. TG: I became the representative here. JK: About what year was that? TG: The initial recognition came in 1972, but this recognition that elevated SWAPO at the level similar to countries like Switzerland, the Holy See that represents the Vatican, intergovernmental organizations like the Organization of American States [OAS], the Organization of African Unity [OAU], and so on. It was only SWAPO and the PLO, for Palestine, of the liberation movements who enjoyed that status. (to be continued)
New Era Reporter
2018-07-20 09:55:09 | 2 years ago

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