‘Comrade Editor’: When the pen is mightier than the sword

BOOK REVIEW

08 October 2021 | Art and Entertainment

CINDY VAN WYK

WINDHOEK

Condensing a lifetime of journalism on the frontlines of Namibia’s liberation struggle and the years that followed into just 388 pages is no mean feat, and – as such – Gwen Lister’s memoir ‘Comrade Editor’ is not an easy read.

It’s weighty with the words that spoke truth to power, bloated with bombings and bloodshed, massive with memories of a revolution.

The memoir is a selfish one. It wants all of you – your time, your attention; won’t settle for being a book you skim for a few minutes here and there.

And by the time I read the last page, I was struck by the realisation that that’s exactly what a life in journalism has been like for Lister herself.

Good times, bad old days

Dedicated to her children, Shane and Liberty; good and brave journalists, and fallen comrades, Lister writes: “There were… some good times in the bad old days”. The book opens with a black and white photo of a five-year-old Lister, and along with the others littering the pages, it lends the memoir an incredible intimacy.

Born in December 1953 in East London, South Africa, to a banker father and a homemaker mother, Lister spent much of her formative years moving from one town to the next. This upbringing would form her into the kind of woman who, at just 22, left behind everything she knew in Cape Town to start a career in journalism at the Windhoek Advertiser under Hannes ‘Smittie’ Smith.

An absolute newb at the time, Lister faced a baptism of fire under Smith, who she would later start the Windhoek Observer with, with just a desk, an electric typewriter, a camera and a “rudimentary darkroom with a sheet hung over the doorframe”.

She cut her journalistic teeth writing mostly politics and a column, but sometimes even wrote horoscopes when the ones meant to arrive by mail didn’t, and it’s little titbits like these that really enthral, especially if you’ve followed her career or consider yourself a fan.

It was also during these early years that she fell in love with Namibia.

“When I travelled back to South Africa a few times in the early years, I found I had become a stranger in the country of my birth. Namibia had claimed my heart, and – in line with the promise to myself during my first trip up from Cape Town – I never looked back.”

Lister and Smith ran the Observer from May 1978 until she was practically forced out in 1984, with a large number of staff members following her.

Arrests and death threats

Lister faced arrest a few times, the first in 1983 right after meeting the man who would become an independent Namibia’s first president - Sam Nujoma - for the first time. Several brushes with the law would follow, but she always managed to land on her feet, with a little help from friends in high places.

From having tea with a ‘terrorist’, as Nujoma was once upon a time known, to close friendships with Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, Dan Tjongarero and Anton Lubowski, amongst others, Lister spent a lot of time firmly in the spotlight both by association and from her own endeavours.

Reading accounts of her rubbing shoulders with the people who would later become Namibia’s political who’s who, it’s ironic to see just how deep the fissure between government and the media has grown since.

She also recounts receiving death threats, mostly via phone call to her home’s landline, and some were even – alarmingly - answered by her then young son. The memoir includes a copy of a pamphlet distributed by a far-right group, the ‘Wit Wolwe’, calling for Lister’s death, along with that of Dave Smuts and John Liebenberg.

On her third arrest in June 1988, this time while pregnant with Liberty, she writes: “When, years later, an interviewer asked me how I got through it all, I replied that ‘most of the time, I had to forget I was a woman’.”

Fighting tooth and nail through trials, government blackballing and a lack of funding, Lister starts her life’s greatest work on 30 August 1985 when the first edition of The Namibian hits Windhoek’s streets. This high was, however, soon followed by several lows: Bans, arson attacks on the newspaper’s offices, bricks thrown through her car’s rear window, a grenade bombing…

Later, it would even come to light that the man who very likely killed – or was involved in the killing of - Lubowski was sent to kill Lister herself.

It seems like the bad news just kept on coming in those days, and at times it becomes hard to take it all in for what it was – absolute atrocities – rather than just empty words on a page.

Lister also saw death up close several times, losing many friends and acquaintances – both during the struggle and after.

Hardly ever woman

A life so intrinsically linked to the Namibian media landscape and Namibia’s liberation struggle, there’s no way to tell Lister’s story without telling The Namibian’s story, but there were quite a few moments the memoir’s intense focus on the struggle and the founding of the newspaper overshadowed Lister herself.

Always journalist, always editor, always activist; hardly ever woman, mother, lover.

Despite laying so much bare, Lister keeps her cards close to her chest on so much too.

I finished reading ‘Comrade Editor’, essentially her life story, and still felt like I didn’t know her at all. And in that, I believe she did her readers a great disservice.

There are very brief mentions of Lister’s two marriages, to JJ Snyman and Mark Verbaan, which both ended in divorce, and her relationships with artist Jo Rogge and others, but these are written about as a matter of fact, instead of showing the reader a glimpse into the true heart of a woman who fell in love while speaking truth to power during the most tumultuous of times.

At the heart of the toughened journalist, there’s a romantic, as evidenced when she writes “I also could not help but hope that somewhere along the way in my eagerly anticipated adventure, I would meet my soulmate”, but the reader doesn’t get to see much of that side of her.

The intimacy the inclusion of the photos brings is one Lister doesn’t quite reach otherwise, and that was what I found lacking most of all.

Ironically, but not at all surprisingly, she shows the most emotion of the entire memoir when writing about stepping down as editor of The Namibian in 2011.

And her upbringing goes a long way to explain her lack of emotional vulnerability, I wish she would have opened up more.

Mandatory reading

The narrative flashes backwards and forwards and sometimes hurtles from side to side in an attempt to paint a complete picture, and as a result, there’s quite a bit of repetition.

There’s also so much information and though it’s clear that Lister tried to be as thorough as possible, it can be hard to take it all in.

While some parts of the book could have done with a tighter edit, and a few gremlins slipped through proof-reading, it’s a truly incredible read.

The story is as much Lister’s as it is Namibia’s, and on that basis alone, it should be mandatory reading for every citizen.

Being born and bred Namibian, I knew – at least I thought I knew – most of what Lister would write about, but the memoir filled in so many gaps of memory I didn’t even know I had.

It’s not often one reads history through the eyes of a woman, let alone a journalist who dedicated her entire life to telling the stories that desperately needed to be told, and Lister says as much when she writes: “It struck me anew that unless Namibia’s history was properly told, they would never know the truth about some of the figures regarded as icons of the anticolonial struggle”.

And with ‘Comrade Editor’, she does just that – tells it like it is, and does it properly.

* Published by NB Publishers, Lister’s memoir is available at Windhoek Book Den and Exclusive Books for N$325 and N$338 respectively.

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