• August 9th, 2020

Theo-Ben Gurirab: In his own words (Part II)

Special Focus, Features, Focus, Featured
Special Focus, Features, Focus, Featured

This is the second instalment of an edited 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 (JK): During 1988, there was a lot of negotiation going on outside of Namibia to try to bring about the agreement on the removal of the Cuban troops which had been linked to the whole process under the Reagan Administration. While that was proceeding and proceeding in a very positive way, inside Namibia it seemed to be quite different. There was a tremendous amount of turmoil. The students had boycotted, starting in the north and that had spread throughout the country, and not only students, but workers, and everybody. What was the connection or disconnection between what was going on on the outside and what was going on on the inside? Theo-Ben Gurirab (TG): There was always a connection between what was going on on the outside. Freedom is one. The people had clearly come out not only as self-liberators by doing some of the things that you were saying in spite of the repression and militarization of the country by the Apartheid forces. In spite of all the attempts made by the Apartheid regime and its apologists abroad to say that Moscow controls SWAPO and Sam Nujoma is outside. They are the bad guys. There are other SWAPO people inside the country and they are the good guys. In spite of that, SWAPO was one. The Namibian people on each occasion where public attempts were being made to drive a wedge between those of us outside and those inside, demonstrated that we were one people. Attempts included the installation of bogus internal governments. The last one was installed in 1985 during the period that you are talking about, from 1985 until 1989 when we started going back. That was the government in Namibia ostensibly run by blacks, by Namibians, some of them who were former freedom fighters like the friend you mentioned and others who had become part of that government. It was a way to confront the international community and the UN with a fait a complit, i.e., the Namibian people internally have decided to opt for this. If SWAPO and those who were outside wanted to come and join this thing that is accepted by the Namibian people, they are welcome to do so, but the days of armed struggle, a military solution, are over. In a way, to lend some legitimacy to that bogus effort by South Africa, the Reagan Administration in the 1980s through Chester Crocker tried to link Namibia’s independence with the presence of Cubans in Angola, a dual policy of so-called constructive engagement. “ You don’t have to hit the South Africans over the head, you should talk to them,” not a stick, but only a carrot, and a bigger carrot at that. In the meantime, to get the Cubans out, there would be a dialogue with South Africa, constructive engagement with South Africa. If the Cubans leave, it would expose the weakness of the Angolan government which is supp01iing SWAPO. It would also expose and weaken SWAPO. That was the strategy but it did not work. There was never a division on the question of freedom, self-determination, and independence between the Namibians at home and the Namibians in exile. JK: OK, let me see if I can understand this correctly. There needed to be shown that inside Namibia there was solidarity with SWAPO and no matter what negotiations were going on on the outside. Because while they were going on, it was not absolutely clear how they would get resolved. So, was there coordination by the SW APO leadership to maintain this pressure inside Namibia? TG: Yes, but actually, it was not only the SWAPO leaders. The resistance at home, which we used to call the first front, the natural resistance of the Namibian people, we linked that with the German occupation earlier. This was actually church leaders who had publicly taken a stance against South Africa’s illegal occupation and condemned the Western countries for aiding and abetting South Africa or turning their backs on us. It involved youth and students who were boycotting schools and others were confronting the army and the police. It included women, women’s organizations. We had different ways in which women inside the country would assist. We had a SWAPO women’s council outside. Those had leaders inside. When they were victimizing these people, we had ways in which we were sending in money for them. Particularly the church leaders had opportunities to come outside to attend church meetings that were held in the United States, Geneva, and elsewhere. And so we used to arrange to meet them. JK: The Shejavalis. TG: Before him also, Shejavali was one of them. Dumeni was another. There was the Bishop, the old man who resembled in a curious way Dr. Martin Luther King’s father. JK: Was he the Bishop before Dumeni? TG: Yes, Bishop Auala. His students used to come out and we would meet them, Reverend Kameeta, who is now our Deputy Speaker. So these people were able to come out. Occasionally, a student came out. There were various ways in which we were able to communicate. We also we had our friends from outside in Europe and the U.S., Canada, people who were not necessarily visible as leaders of liberation support groups, the anti- Apartheid movement and so forth, people who were behind us. They would go in as academics, say all the right things to reporters that the regime would want them to say. They were able to go and stay two or three weeks, go around and play ball with the army and the police and bring out information and we would in turn send in information. There are so many examples that I could site of people that we used that way. JK: The boycotts in 1988, if I am correct, started spontaneously with the rape of a young girl in a school. TG: Yes, but actually, it was something that had been going on since the 1970s, a whole generation of people. The first mass student uprising started in 1974-75, with the collapse of the fascist regime in Portugal and the independence of Angola. That started a large wave; thousands of young people had gone out of the c0tmtry, but that tradition had remained. The more the country was being militarized, the more the students were refusing. Because schools were taken over across the country; also in the north they were taken over by the army. It was the soldiers who became teachers and were teaching the children armed with AK-47s and other machine guns wearing uniforms, military fatigues. They were teaching the children and the students refused. Some were killed. It was not spontaneous in the sense that it just happened. These were manifestations of political education and campaign that had been going on since the formation of SWAPO. It was spontaneous in the sense that students expressed their opposition to the South African presence across the country. JK: Did the students understand the negotiations that were going on outside? TG: Very clearly, very clearly. JK: They knew that what they were doing put additional pressure to the outside negotiations. TG: They understood that we defined the struggle on three fronts. We called the first front political resistance or national resistance as the first front. That is the Namibian people themselves rejecting colonialism and Apartheid ai1d demanding freedom and independence. We were a contingent of those people outside. Peoples’ resistance was the first front. The second front was the diplomatic front. The pursuit of the second front was making connections with the UN, with international organizations, sympathetic parliamentarians, church leaders, liberation support groups. That is the second front altogether is by explaining the aspirations of our people to our friends -- the internationalist forces we called them - that we were able to get assistance, including weapons. With that we launched the third front, that is the armed struggle. The focus was always the people. However many were outside, we were a small fraction of those inside. The real resistance was inside the country. JK: Now we are going to pick up where we left off. There are three more areas that I wanted to talk to you about. I will name the three now so that we can kind of think about them. I would like your interpretation of what happened on April first in the north. I’d also like to talk to you about security issues during 1989 within Namibia in general. And the other part that I would like to talk to you about is that many people say that once UNTAG was established in Namibia, it was basically a piece of cake. Independence was going to happen and it wasn’t a difficult operation. I just wanted to get your interpretation of that, whether that is really a fair assessment. Let’s start with your point of view on April first; what happened on April first? TG: A combination of things, everybody is in one way or another responsible for the tragedy of April first. First, all throughout the 435 negotiations which preceded the adoption of 435, but we call them 435 negotiations, there was this one issue that was controversial and could not be resolved and really touched the very core of the conflict between the two to the conflict and the two parties that signed the cease-fire agreement at the end, namely South Africa and SWAPO. The issue is confinement of forces. The language is “confinement of forces to base.” South Africa maintained that the SWAPO terrorists do not have military bases inside the country. They were doing that deliberately. That is what that really meant. “They do not have military bases and you people should not say to the negotiators, the Western Five, the Front-Line States and so on, you should not try to accord SWAPO an advantage to erect military bases inside the country which they do not have presently. They come into Namibia and carry out terrorist activities and they run back. They are not really present here.” OK, that was their contention. Therefore, South Africa was opposed to SWAPO being given military bases inside the country. That was South Africa’s contention. We were saying, “We are a guerrilla army. We are not a conventional army. We do not operate out of structures. A guerrilla army operates in small units and we are everywhere in the country.” The South African government itself virtually on a weekly basis, through the signature of the Foreign Minister of South Africa, would write - and this is something that is on the record; you can check as a part of this study - and complained about activities carried out by SWAPO inside the country, about incidents carried out inside the country. Therefore, South Africa knew our presence. Guerrilla armies do not operate from bases. It was therefore necessary for the United Nations, the Western Contact Group, and the Front-Line States to insure that those SWAPO military units that were inside the country, in their country, in Namibia, once the cease-fire is made, hopefully y prior to the date of the announcement of the cease-fire, should be informed through channels that we knew to gather at two or three, depending on how many we had, locations and be confined to base. That argument had not been resolved. Now 435 was adopted in 1978. It wasn’t implemented until 1989. So, during that intervening period so many things had changed. Actually, we had more people inside the country than we had in 1978 . The Western countries felt, and wrongly so, that they had solved that problem . How? One was as part of the negotiations on linkage, the Angolans and the Cubans and South Africans agreed to sign a protocol, the Brazzaville Protocol , which was alter updated by the Geneva Protocol in August 1988 , under which the Angolan government with the compliance of the Cubans and their friends the Soviets undertook to clear an area at the 16th parallel. South of that there would be no military activities of SWAPO. That having been done, the UN and the Western countries wrongly interpreted that situation to mean that Angolans and the Cubans and the Soviets would take care of SW APO. They bought the South African argument that we were not inside the country. From time to time, we would go through there and carry out activities and come back. JK: Were SWAPO representatives to the agreement? TG: No, we were not. I will come to that. We were not participating. We had rejected linkage and we were not participating. Even though we were hanging around to talk to our friends. It was part of a package and rising out of that was a specific aspect that related to Namibia. It was a larger package that led to an agreement on the fate of the Cubans and certain things the Angolans would do and South Africa would do, and so on. That issue had remained suspended. We had discussions with the Angolans and the Cubans asking, “What does this mean? You have signed this; you are a sovereign state, but what do you mean? And you are saying that we should withdraw our troops that are inside Namibia across this area which has now been accepted as a no-go area into Angola. That we cannot do. We have forces as you know inside, in the country. What do we do with them? We cannot walk through with those forces.” So, that thing remained unresolved. But once the agreement was signed by these countries, setting the date here for December 22nd in 1988, which unfortunately is linked with the tragic plane crash over Lockerbie, Scotland. The Commissioner for Namibia, a Swedish fellow, Karlsson Bernt was also on that plane. He was on his way over here to attend that meeting. Somehow, mysteriously, the South African foreign minister, defense minister, and delegation coming for that meeting who were supposed to be on that plane changed their plane. It is a mystery why they changed it. Anyway, there was a euphoria, a big ceremony, here just next door [to the president of the GA’s office] in the ECOSOC chamber. The agreement was signed and that fixed the date of the first of April as the “D” day for the commencement of the implementation. In that excitement UN people started sending in their officials and we signed the cease-fire . We had our troops inside in the country. It was the fault of the United Nations and those who were advising them that they should have made sure that either SWAPO and South Africa had reached an agreement and had assumed the responsibility that they were not going to violate the terms of the cease-fire or whether they were going to work out something that even if SWAPO forces were not given a place where they could go. They didn’t have to call them bases, we were saying. In Zimbabwe they were called assembly points. Someplace where we could call our fellows-who were armed people. You don’t want to have that situation when you are going to have elections. We simply said that you should provide us with a place where we are going to instruct our fellows to gather without the fear of being attacked by the South Africans. That had not been done. So, when people assumed the problem had been solved, it was not solved. We also stand to be blamed because we did not do enough, SWAPO that is, in informing not only the people inside the country - there were a lot of people inside the country and they knew how to take care of themselves as they had been doing over the years - but those who were in the southern part of Angola, who had retreated because of combat who were on their way; the message did not reach them properly. Some of them ended up, unfortunately, in that tragedy. So, everyone has a responsibility. Nothing happened that you could say it was this party or the other. Unfortunately, when the event took place, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, was in Zimbabwe. She went over to Namibia. I think it was arranged that the South African foreign minister came up to Windhoek and the two of them met with the now President of Finland, President Ahtisaari, who in a way, some people felt, panicked because the mission was going to collapse . He asked for advice, or authorization, whether he could ask the South Africans, because the UN didn’t have troops then there, to take care of the situation . The Security Council said yes. The South Africans said , “Halaluya,” and unleashed their armory. That is the tragedy of April first. JK: I understand that Manacle Goulding had had a meeting with Sam Nujoma about a couple of weeks before April first in which they had had a discussion on this issue. Marrack Goulding had explained to Sam Nujoma the interpretation that the UN had of the agreement that assembly areas were not going to be set up inside Namibia. TG: Yes, that’s true. I know that Goulding is a wonderful professional. But that issue was never resolved. It was never resolved. There is not a UN person that can look you in the face and say that that issue had been resolved. It was never resolved . It was simply left suspended. The commitment that we had made which I had neglected to mention is that after these countries had signed the agreement at Brazzaville, and the Geneva Protocol, the Angolan government asked SWAPO, in the light of that agreement or protocol, that we would accept that protocol and would therefore not undertake new initiatives across that area that was announced, as I said, the no-go area. To that extent, we had accepted the Brazzaville-Geneva Protocol. It is a revisionist explanation. I myself had a discuss ion with the first Commander Prem Chand in the delegates lounge a couple of days before he left. And I raised that issue, and that the issue remained unresolved. “How are you going to do it? You are going now to Namibia; you are going to start setting up your mission. That issue remains unresolved. How are you going to do it?” He said, “Well, I was not here when negotiations were taking place. I was told that the issue was resolved.” I said, “I am telling you that it has not been resolved.” I think that the UN people misled themselves that the indirect negotiations on linkage and our acceptance of the Brazzaville Protocol had somehow resolved that issue. But as far as the negotiations that I was involved with, that issue had never been resolved.
New Era Reporter
2018-07-23 09:22:55 | 2 years ago

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