Black men were boys during apartheid: Tjiriange
By Anna Salkeus
WINDHOEK – “Give this boy a rack of lamb, an ounce of meat and a gallon of milk.”
This was the unusual instruction given to a shopkeeper in reference to the carrier of the note, a grown black man. It was regardless of whether the note carrier had a name. They were only known as a boy, because black people were only useful to the extent of giving their labour to whites.
Liberation struggle icon and author of the book ‘To Hell and Back’, Ngarikutuke Tjiriange shared these bitter memories of racial segregation that stung like a wasp with the Namibia Press Agency (Nampa), ahead of Namibia’s 27th Independence anniversary celebration on 21 March.
Although his recollection is dotted with humour, Tjiriange describes the former South African apartheid regime as one of the most gut-wrenching notorious regimes on the African continent, citing brutal killings of the innocent and terrible treatment of black people.
There were a few shops where black people could enter while white people were inside. These were food markets, which had a counter reserved for blacks, selling products that were not popular among white people, like brown bread.
The only way to access the luxury foods for whites was with a letter that was written by the white employer. They would say: “give this boy this type of meat”.
“We were sold parts of meat that they (white people) did not eat, like bones.”
But with that letter they would go to the butchery and get the meat for their boss.
Eventually, the oppressed cunningly started copying the letters to access the same foods white people ate, like meat and alcohol, for themselves.
Tjiriange was born in 1943 but grew up in Klein Windhoek, an area which was known as Okongova.
He says areas like these were only reserved for whites. The only way a black person entered such areas was if they were providing cheap labour for the white employers.
By the 9PM curfew, any person found in a “whites only” area was arrested and imprisoned. Similarly, having to go from one place to another was only possible with passes.
There were various passes that were used, such as the day pass and night pass.
“I personally was arrested three times because I did not leave the white area after 9PM and was beaten up at the police station.”
Tjiriange also highlighted a spirited impartial and patriotic road in politics, which started at a young age of 19.
The SWANU Party was the first political party started in Namibia in 1959.
The formation of the Owambo People’s Organisation (OPO) followed later the same year and was renamed the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) in 1960.
Despite being Otjiherero-speaking, Tjiriange joined SWAPO instead of the SWANU Party, which enjoyed more support among Ovaherero people.
“SWAPO was the tool we used to liberate ourselves. As young people, we thought it was better to die fighting than to die as servants of these people in our country.”
The SWAPO Party, he explains, was organised into two structures: the national headquarters and the lower structure which was divided into sections.
Windhoek was one section and other towns like Walvis Bay were sections.
Tjiriange became a section leader for SWAPO in 1962, two years after the party’s formation, at the age of 19, preceding the late Joseph Ithana, husband to current Minister of Home Affairs and Immigration, Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana.
Today, these sections are known as districts.
In 1964, he left for Bechuanaland Protectorate (Botswana), which at the time was a colony of Great Britain.
He and several others were arrested and detained in Bechuanaland for several weeks.
Together they managed to sneak out a letter to Britain informing the British that they had been imprisoned in the Queen’s colony for no reason.
“You must wonder how we got the letter out of prison. People were bringing us food from outside. So, we placed the letter between the plates and sent it off to Britain. A few weeks later, we were released,” he smiled in triumph, like a man who had just been exonerated and released from prison.
Looking back at how Namibia has transformed in the past 27 years, Tjiriange says the country is not yet free as it now has to be liberated from hunger, poverty, desperation and ignorance.
“The struggle for independence was not by the barrel of the mouth, but by the barrel of the gun.”
He adds that a battle of the mind, which does not require weapons, is now required to fight the scourge of poverty.
He also notes that those in positions of power should remember that they are not bosses, but servants of the people.
“Don’t be intoxicated with your own power. You must serve the people to the best of your ability.
“There is no substitute for respect and commitment to the well-being of the people if you are a leader.”
Tjiriange was the first Minister of Justice in independent Namibia in March 1990, having served as Swapo Secretary for Legal and Economic Affairs. He also held the portfolio of Swapo Secretary General before he retired in 2006. Tjiriange is the current chairperson of the Swapo disciplinary committee. – Nampa