Namibia's long road to national reconciliation

03 July 2020 | Opinion



For the past two weeks, Namibia's National Assembly has been embroiled in a dramatic, sometimes bitter, debate about national reconciliation.

This is not the first such debate since independence in 1990. Namibia seems to be burdened with a lingering wound of its past with some sections of society still crying for reconciliation, social integration and national healing.

The great hope of a society based on social cohesion as promised at independence appears elusive for some Namibians.

As survivor of Swapo's Lubango prison camps, Tangeni Mureko (49) needs no reminder of how painful it was to live, how terrible to die.

Mureko was detained by Swapo shortly after his arrival in Lubango, southern Angola, when he was 15. His jailers accused him of being a South African spy.

“The tiny dungeon in which I was caged was eerie enough to give you chills – even if you do not hear the clanking of military boots and detainees' screams,” he recalls.

“I felt bored, lonely, upset, angry, and helpless and did not believe that I would be harmed by my comrades.”

Brutal questioning

He was subjected to brutal questioning by the Swapo security agents, during which he was constantly beaten with sticks, deprived of sleep, and tied upside down, and subjected to other torture methods to cause him serious bodily or mental harm.

“Worst of all were the lashes,” Mureko says.

“For three and a half years, imagine being bare feet, wearing flappy shorts and a telniashka vest - Soviet army underwear—and nothing else. And a diet of porridge or rice. So we all soon were suffering from a host of diseases: asthma, malaria, dysentery, beriberi—that was a real killer. And depression.”

As he recalls those terrible years and finally the day of homecoming on 4 July 1989, together with 152 fellow dungeons survivors, Mureko gasps, exhales, and stops breathing for a few seconds.

“My brother Adolph and four of my cousins – Lucky, Patrick, Simon and Samuel were killed, alongside many others in the Lubango prison camps in 1989, just a few days after I was released on 19 April with other detainees as part of Resolution 435 which called for the release of all political prisoners by our liberation movement Swapo and apartheid South Africa.”

Mureko could hardly think of them still alive 30 years after the attainment of self-rule from South Africa in 1990.

“I could not wait to see them dead already,” he said yesterday, “because they had stopped suffering.”

His brother and cousins – known as the “Mureko brothers”, are listed by a Namibian-based advocacy group, Breaking the Wall of Silence (BWS), as part of the disappeared victims of the Lubango prison camps.

BWS asserts thousands of people suffered and died in the Lubango prison camps because of Swapo's perverted, tribal bigotry and paranoia that dirtied Namibia's war of independence in the 1980s. It further estimates that hundreds of innocent cadres - all members of Swapo and its disbanded armed wing, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (Plan), are still unaccounted for.

Human tradegy

BWS was formed by Swapo ex-detainees, their relatives and concerned Namibians some 24 years ago to seek truth and closure to rights abuses carried out by Swapo in exile, especially in Angola.

“What happened in Lubango was a great human tragedy and act of evil,” Mureko sighs.

“The least we can do is to make sure that Namibians see the human faces of us the survivors so that the victims of the Lubango crimes are not merely a story but an issue we must face directly in our lifetime.”

Inconclusive meetings

Another ex-detainee, Benjamin Gawiseb, says that the Swapo Party had been in government for 30 years now. “Even in government the Party has denied real justice to thousands of its victims, dead or alive. Instead its leadership opted for a short-cut: decreeing a policy of so-called national reconciliation,” Gawiseb maintains.

“Such a move did not take into consideration in any meaningful sense of the word the victims' voices.

“This amounted to choosing impunity for those who carried out a reign of terror against innocent Namibians – both inside and outside the country during the war of liberation, “he says.

Some justify the Lubango purges, saying they were “a necessary evil” to save Swapo from being undermined from within.

Others say “victims were caught in the crossfire” of the liberation war.

A group of ex-detainees and some family members of the disappeared had an audience with President Hage Geingob at State House in Windhoek on 15 May last year, with the meeting ending inconclusively.

President Geingob told them to accept that any such [brutal] acts were part of the war and thus they have to move on with the times in the name of national reconciliation

According to ex-detainees and families of the disappeared, such viewpoints clearly fail to grasp the fact that the movement's authoritarian culture and the absolute power of its security machine under Solomon 'Jesus' Hawala, notoriously known as the 'Butcher of Lubango', were crucial factors in the tragedy known as the Swapo spy-drama of the 1980s.

All Namibians know it was war, but wars are less chaotic than they appear.

Pain, suffering and death are inflicted on someone's orders. And wars have laws – some are supposed to protect even 'enemy spies' by treating them humanely in all circumstances.

Protecting such 'spies' against murder, torture, humiliating or degrading treatment, and providing such 'spies' a fair trial was and is in line with international law. In dealing with the spy hysteria “Swapo perfidiously defied all established international protocols regarding armed conflicts,” says Pauline Dempers, the BWS national coordinator.

The Swapo Party has through the years, she says, stifled calls for a thorough investigation into Namibia's war-era wrongdoings and had absolved themselves of the terrible deeds against its members in exile, claiming “no one was holier in war”.

This culture of impunity became even more stubborn with the Party achieving hegemonistic status, with a two-third majority in parliament in the 1994 national polls, according to the BWS coordinator.

“As it said, the victor's justice tends to apply when the fighting stops – so it looks as if the Swapo Party and its government, for now at least, feel content and secured. I am saying so because they had been adamant to move beyond what is referred to as the 'victor's justice' and deal with the past head on,” Dempers decries.

Futile attempts

She says that attempts to engage government and the ruling Swapo Party to have open talks on the predicament in which victims of the Lubango dungeons find themselves were started in 2000 with a letter to then Swapo secretary general, Hifikepunye Pohamba who refused to meet a BWS delegation or receive any communication from them.

The same snubbing tactics were used by succeeding Swapo secretary generals, Ngarikutuke Tjiriange and Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana.

Attempts to discuss the ex-detainee issue with Pohamba as head of state and president of the Swapo Party also failed in early 2006.

In July 2006, however, a BWS delegation met with then minister of presidential affairs, Albert Kawana, at State House to plead for direct talks with President Hifikepunye Pohamba.

Dempers says a written message was left for him, but with no response despite several follow-ups. “President Pohamba, as head of state and Swapo Party leader, had led the Lubango victims in circles over the issues,” Dempers says.

“Our engagement with him proved pointless.

“He doggedly refused to face up to the past rights abuses by Swapo in exile.”

“There is clearly not only a trust deficit with the Swapo Party and its government, but also lack of political will to acknowledge our dark past honestly.”

Positive development

She says the ex-detainees have been waiting for justice, psychological help, reparation, and other redress from the Swapo Party and its government.

“Justice should involve truth and honesty about the root causes of the Lubango debacle, acknowledgement of the past wrongs, a genuine apology and effective remedy for the inhumane, degrading treatment and false allegations of spying for apartheid South African,” she argues.

Dempers however says the meeting held with President Hage Geingob last year was a positive development that fuelled optimism about resolving the crimes and misdeeds carried out by certain elements in the leadership of Swapo in exile.

A delegation of ex-Swapo detainees and family members of the missing detainees are still to meet with President Geingob as soon as State House sets the date, she confirms.

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