Namibia, SA mourns anti-apartheid icon

Magreth Nunuhe

Windhoek – The death of revered Namibian liberation icon, Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo, has drawn unparalleled attention and emotion especially among Namibians and South Africans, with an outpouring of condolences to bid farewell to an anti-apartheid activist and political prisoner who was incarcerated on Robben Island together with the late Nelson Mandela and many others.

Ya Toivo died on 9 June 2017 at his home in Windhoek. He was 92.

Born on 22 August 1924, in Omangundu near Ondangwa in the Oshikoto Region in northern Namibia, he was one of the co-founders of Ovamboland People’s Congress (OPC) in 1957, which was later renamed South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) in 1960.

Ya Toivo was charged with the Terrorism Act (no.83 of 1967), which was a security law of the apartheid government in South Africa.

Before sentencing, he made the famous speech, which caught world attention when he said, “We are Namibians, and not South Africans. We do not now, and will not in the future, recognise your right to govern us; to make laws for us, in which we had no say; to treat our country as if it was your property and us as if you are our masters. We have always regarded South Africa as an intruder in our country. This is how we have always felt and this is how we feel now and it is on this basis that we have faced this trial”.

He served 16 years on Robben Island prison, of a 20 year sentence and was released from prison in 1984, after which he rejoined Swapo in exile in Lusaka, Zambia and was elected as secretary-general of Swapo.

He returned to Namibia in 1989 when the country gained its independence and served as a Member of Parliament where he held several cabinet ministerial positions before he retired from active politics in 2006.

South African ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe said in an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) that Namibia and South Africa are now free, thanks to the contributions of people like Ya Toivo to the struggle.

The ANC said it would continue to celebrate his legacy and sustain it.

“Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo is an internationalist. He is not just a national leader. He spent a lot of time on Robben Island. So, he is part of us. We are passing our condolences to the people of Namibia, to Swapo in particular and to the Toivo family. We should celebrate the life of Toivo. He has made his contribution. We are free, Namibia is free,” said Mantashe.

Professor Denis Goldberg, a South African social campaigner, who was active in the struggle against apartheid and was also imprisoned along with other key members of the anti-apartheid movement, said that he met Ya Toivo during his involvement in the Modern Youth Society, a student movement in Cape Town.

In an interview with the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC), he said that although Ya Toivo was slightly older than most of them, he was keen to take part in discussions about world events, “about apartheid, about occupation of Namibia, we had so many arguments about the future”.

“Was it (government) going to be socialist, was it going to be capitalist, how were we going to get rid of racism? He just not only became a comrade but a close family friend,” said Goldberg.

He described Ya Toivo as a man who would never concede to ideas that he did not support and added that Ya Toivo was determined to free Namibia.

Goldberg related how during the time when another pioneer of the struggle, Chief Hosea Kutako, was invited by the Special Committee of Namibia of the United Nations in New York, the apartheid South African regime administrator refused to give Ya Toivo permission to go there.

“Andimba came to me to help me make a tape recording to send to the United Nations Special Committee on Namibia to protest the occupation, the illegality of the occupation, the right of the Namibian people to self-determination and the end of the illegal occupation,” recalled Goldberg, citing that fortunately the recorded message reached Professor Mburumba Kerina in New York who presented it to the United Nations.

The tape described the widespread human rights violations in Namibia as a colony of South Africa.

While attending the state celebration of Ya Toivo’s 90th birthday in Windhoek in 2014, Goldberg reminisced on his reunion with his old friend and comrade.

“He was in the wilderness for too long; he was distressed about corruption; he was distressed about enrichment; he was distressed about people claiming to have been in the movement and being heroes and awarding themselves medals when they have never been near the struggle at all,” stressed Goldberg.

He praised Ya Toivo for being a man of tremendous integrity and political principles.

“The key to our success was that we succeeded to unite the peoples of our land in a common vision. Out of the darkest era emerged the beautiful idea that we are all Namibians. Inspired by this idea, we reached the first goal of our struggle: an independent and sovereign Namibia. This is the foundation on which we must build in order to achieve the well-being of our people,” said Ya Toivo in a transcript from his 90th birthday speech.

Mpho Masemola, deputy secretary of the Ex-Political Prisoner Association of South Africa (EPPA) and convener of Robben Island Reunion, said Ya Toivo was a nationalist, a great outstanding leader, a tried and tested revolutionary and one of the rarest leaders one could find.

Talking on SABC, Masemola remembered that when he arrived on Robben Island as a political prisoner in 1985, Ya Toivo had been already released in 1984, but they learned a lot about his legacy.

He described Ya Toivo as a militant.

During his incarceration, Masemola said he learned of Ya Toivo’s leadership trades and his passion for the liberation of Namibia.

Petrus Iilonga, a Namibian politician, former trade unionist, who served in several capacities as a deputy minister in government, also spent eight years on the notorious island for political prisoners.

Iilonga said he first learned about Ya Toivo by reading about him.

“I grew up in the west of Namibia and he was in the north of Namibia. I went abroad, but came back as an underground activist for Swapo,” he stated.

He said that he, together with others, were arrested and sentenced on 4 July 1978 to 18 years in prison under the Terrorism Act.

Iilonga and others arrived on 1 January 1979 on Robben Island.

“We found the situation not as harsh as when Ya Toivo, Mandela, Sizulu and the other comrades who were sentenced before us,” he added, saying that by that time, the international community had started putting pressure on South Africa to release political prisoners.

Iilonga said that they found Ya Toivo in solitary confinement with Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada and many others.

“I was one of the lucky prisoners who met these icons in the notorious Section B,” he said, adding that as a tailor for about 4000 inmates, he could have personal interaction with these revered leaders.

He recalled how he would purposely make the clothes a size smaller or too big so that he could meet them time and again for measurements.

“Toivo inspired us; he was a visionary. He saw the future. He told the South African minority white government that we were Namibians and not South Africans. ‘We don’t recognise your laws and you cannot make laws for us’. It was one of his strongest statements that made international headlines,” said Iilonga.

“Toivo imitated the footsteps of our forefathers like Hendrik Witbooi who said ‘let’s die fighting’ and Mandume Ndemufayo who said ‘to die or be colonised is the same’.

“Toivo was a man of principle. You can negotiate with him but you cannot negotiate on principle. If he saw something wrong, he didn’t beat around the bush. We mourn but also celebrate his life – the life of a hero, a father, a family member and an international icon. We salute our hero, an icon of the liberation struggle,” said Iilonga.

Speaker of the National Assembly, Professor Peter Katjavivi described the late struggle stalwart Andimba Toivo ya Toivo as a selfless and dedicated leader who defended social and economic justice for all in the face of trying times of apartheid.

The Speaker said that Ya Toivo’s ultimate goal throughout his political activism was to pursue Namibia’s self-determination even at the expense of his own incarceration.

He noted that despite Ya Toivo facing inhuman and sometimes life threatening treatment from his South African jailers, he remained steadfast and resolutely believed that independence would once be achieved.

“Comrade Andimba dedicated his long and active life to the cause of the people of Namibia. He had a vision that Namibia would be a country whose proud people can determine their own destiny. He was committed to social and economic justice for all, anchored on the improvement of the lives of ordinary people to which Swapo has been committed since its foundation”, said Katjavivi.

Katjavivi further related his first encounter with the fallen hero which emanated from the setting up of Swapo representation in UK to raise awareness on the plight Namibian liberation fighters who had been put on trial in South Africa following the introduction of the Terrorism Act.

Katjavivi then spearheaded the Swapo foreign relations office covering the rest of Western Europe on instructions of founding President Sam Nujoma.

The Speaker further said that Ya Toivo was a unifying force who fiercely advocated for the downtrodden as his own early life as a farm worker who was once subjected to exploitation and abuse.

Ya Toivo was trained as a teacher at St Mary’s Mission School at Odibo, northern Namibia.

He later left for Cape Town where he worked as a railway police officer, but it was also during that time that he came into contact with members of various political organisations involved in the liberation struggle, where he joined political movements, such as the Modern Youth Society (MYS), formed by university students and trade unionists.

Together with other liberation stalwarts, like Emil Appolus, Fanuel Kozonguizi, Andreas Shipanga, Maxton Joseph Mutonguleme, Jacob Kuhanga, Solomon Mifima, Otillie Schimming Abrahams, Kenneth Abrahams, many other Namibian students in the diaspora and migrant workers they founded the Ovamboland People’s Congress (OPC) on 2 August 1957 in Cape Town.

The Ovamboland People’s Congress (OPC) fought for the rights of migrant workers, and rejected the annexation of Namibia into South Africa, sharing a common vision with the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Congress of Democrats (COD) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).

With a nationalist view, the OPC, was renamed to the Ovamboland People’s Organisation (OPO) and later the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), formed in Namibia between 1959-60 by former Namibian President Sam Nujoma, Louis Nelengani and Andreas Shipanga, among others.

President Hage Geingob formally conferred the honour of national hero status on the late Andimba Toivo ya Toivo and directed that a state funeral be held in his honour.

As is customary with this announcement, the remains of Ya Toivo will be interred at the Heroes Acre and all flags in Namibia will be flown at half-mast with effect from Wednesday, June 21, 2017 until Saturday, June 24th 2017, the date of the official State Funeral.

• Additional source reporting – and

June 2017
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