How the press covered (up) the facts about Namibia’s women fighters

One of the things a writer is for is to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable and ask difficult questions. ~ Salman Rushdie

A Namibian exile at Minya base near Lubango in Angola gives an account of her detention to an East German journalist, June 1989. Photo John Liebenberg

I have postponed for too long this task that has weighed so heavily on my conscience, but today is as good a day as any to tell the shameful truth.

This story is about the role of the press in suppressing a dark and dreadful chapter in Namibia’s history, and I suppose it is fitting that I write this at a time when the media houses in the country are celebrating World Press Freedom Day.

The difficult and unfortunate task that falls to me is to show how the press, and in particular the most widely read English newspaper in the country, became complicit during the 1980s in a most grievous crime, and how they covered up — until it was no longer possible to do so — the systematic rape and torture of women fighters in exile.

It is difficult to write this, for a number of reasons, but there is nothing worse for a writer than to be restrained by fear. I have lived by the maxim that the truth shall set us free, and I believe it is imperative that we act on the principles we hold dear, or else become what we detest.

In a time of war and revolution

Students march from Khomasdal towards Katutura. Photo John Liebenberg

It was the time of Namibian independence. There was much excitement in the air. There were marches and protests everywhere. After the climax of the war that erupted without warning on the northern border on 1 April 1989, there emerged an understanding among the warring parties that independence was inevitable, that the will of the people could not be held back indefinitely.

Following the prolonged war against Angola and Cuba that culminated in the Battle at Lomba River (also known as the Battle of Cuito Cuanevale) the South African government, steeped up to its knees in the blood of people, had by mid-1988 come to the inescapable conclusion that the force of history could not be held back at gunpoint, it could not be shot down, or arrested.

United Nations special representative for Namibia, Martti Ahtisaari addresses the press with Administrator-General, Louis Pienaar. Photo John Liebenberg

But in the midst of the euphoria of the long-awaited end of South African rule that was drawing nearer every day, news of a terrible crime came to light in June 1989 as the United Nations Transitional Assistance group (UNTAG) was preparing to conduct the first democratic elections in Namibia that would finally lead to the end of South African rule over the territory.

In certain circles of former exiles and among the affected families, news had seeped out in the months preceding the election that there were still vast numbers of Namibian fighters held in captivity in Angola by the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo), the very organization they had joined to fight against South Africa.

This worrying news led to the formation of a number of pressure groups, such as the Committee of Parents and the Political Consultative Committee, who were campaigning for the release of their family members and comrades.[i]

Reporters to the rescue

In June 1989, a few reporters were invited to join UNTAG observers on a fact-finding mission to southern Angola, where a number of Namibian detainees were being held. On their arrival there, the reporters were astounded and horrified to learn that hundreds, possibly thousands of Namibian youth had been held in captivity by Swapo — which is today the ruling party in Namibia — on the unproven allegation that they were agents of South Africa.

It slowly emerged that large numbers of young radicals and dedicated liberation fighters, who had left the country to join the armed resistance against South Africa, had been arrested in Angola and detained without trial in exile at a number of locations in the most gruesome conditions, in holes in the ground, that they commonly referred to as ‘the dungeons’.

The conditions in which they lived were nightmarish to say the least and were soon labelled by the international media as ‘Swapo’s gulag’, after the prisons for political dissidents created in the Soviet Union under Stalin, the country where many of Swapo’s security personnel had been trained.

The renowned photographer, John Liebenberg who worked for The Namibian newspaper at the time, was one of the journalists who went to cover the story in May 1989. Two weeks later his report was published on page 3 in that paper on 9 June 1989. It caused widespread public outrage.

The release of the detainees was in accordance with the ceasefire agreement and the terms of the Settlement Agreement between Angola, South Africa and Cuba. This meant all political prisoners held by South Africa and Swapo had to be released to give effect to the plan of the Western Five (US, UK, Germany, France and Canada) for Namibia’s independence.

What the reporters found in Angola was deeply troubling and defied all credulity. Hundreds of Swapo cadre were paraded before them as ‘agents’ of the South African government, who were being released by the good graces of the Swapo leadership.

There was in fact no proof that these people were spies and indeed many of the brutalized people the reporters encountered there in the bush pleaded their innocence and wanted their names to be cleared of the charges, but the leadership would have none of it.

Forced confessions

Confessions to the effect that they were indeed enemy agents — it soon became known — were extracted from these young fighters during torture by Swapo’s security apparatus and under threat of imminent summary execution, a fate that the detainees said had befallen many of their comrades, who stubbornly refused to agree to the charges against them.

These forced ‘confessions’ were then filmed to be used as evidence against the fighters — and perhaps to exonerate the political leadership of the charge of war crimes. As noted, many of the fighters stubbornly refused to accept the allegations, and many of these were not heard of again.

Those who eventually gave in and said they had been sent as spies by South Africa, insisted afterwards that they had done so on the basis that they were made to understand that it was the only way they could save their lives. It is internationally accepted though that confessions extracted under torture or threat of execution are not valid under common law, but in the camps in exile there was no law but the will of the men in charge of the camps.

A nightmare

It was a nightmarish tragedy of historical proportions that unfolded before the eyes of the journalists assembled under the guard of the UN at Lubango in Angola. Many women came forward to testify that they had been repeatedly raped over many years by the camp guards and security agents; some fell pregnant and even gave birth in the hellish holes in the ground in which they had been held captive for so many years.

News of the abuse of women in the Swapo camps in exile was not entirely new to the world though. There is evidence that leading intelligence agencies were aware of these crimes already by the late 1970s. In 1982, the US Senate also conducted hearings led by Senator Jeremiah Denton [ii] “to assess the activities of the Soviet Bloc countries in southern Africa”, that heard testimony from a number of women who had joined Swapo and the ANC in exile.

Former SWAPO detainees in Angola. Photo John Liebenberg.

The women from Swapo who testified before the Denton Commission reported that there was a culture of rape and sexual abuse within the camps, and that often food was withheld from those who refused to comply or was only offered to those who consented to sleep with guards and camp commanders at places like Mboroma camp.

In other cases the children of these women, they said, were summarily removed from them. Some, they reported, were taken to the GDR, then East Germany, where hundreds of children from the Swapo camps had been sent to be raised and educated.

In the case of the women at Lubango, the reporters on site noted that many of them who were extricated from the dungeons only recently, were carrying babies in their arms, which they said openly were the products of rape.

This unfortunate story is one of the most tragic episodes in the history of the anti-colonial struggle, and needs a lot more research for the full dimensions of the atrocities to be brought to light.

The Wall of Silence

In a book published by Pastor Siegfried Groth in 1995 (‘Namibia — The Wall of Silence: the Dark Days of the Liberation Struggle’) the old Lutheran priest, who had been assigned to minister the gospel to the cadre in Swapo camps in Zambia and Angola, finally unburdened his conscience and included a cache of letters from Swapo cadre in exile, detailing the most horrific crimes of systematic torture, rape and murder perpetrated by the Swapo security apparatus.

The sad and inescapable truth that emerges from Groth’s book is that the Lutheran church had for many years withheld this dreadful knowledge from the wider world. It is an open question whether Swapo would have been able to continue to perpetrate these crimes against its members and garner as much international support as it did if the church had come out earlier with the truth and acknowledged the dark secret that it held close to its bosom for so long.

In 2012, Claudia Namises, a former detainee who hailed originally from the South of Namibia, detailed the manner in which she was repeatedly raped and tortured from the time of her arrival as a youth in exile.

She was accused of concealing blades with her vagina and was repeatedly probed internally (cavity searched) by security personnel, purportedly to extract the blades. [iii] Even at the time that she told her story to a reporter at Informante newspaper in April 2012, she still feared for her life.

Her testimony of sexual abuse and torture is corroborated by that of many other women who were in exile and whose voices were for many years suppressed by the churches, by the United Nations, and above all by the liberal press, which backed Swapo in the struggle against South Africa.

A SWAPO supporter arrested by police task force in Katutura on Namibia Day. Photo John Liebenberg

In reflecting on these crimes against the Namibian people, there is no suggestion that South African colonial rule was not brutal and barbaric. There is sufficient evidence from the contemporaneous press, from multiple UN reports and from the personal experience of those who lived through those difficult times, that the racist government was exceedingly cruel and inhumane and needed to be done away with.

The question though is this: in whose interest was it to incarcerate hundreds of Namibian fighters, when the war for independence was at its peak? The inescapable conclusion of the objective observer must be that it played into the hands of the colonial army to take all those freedom fighters off the battlefield and detain them without trial.

Namibian exiles at a SWAPO camp in Kwanza Sul, Angola. Photo John Liebenberg

Having researched over a number of years the question of what really happened in Swapo’s camps in exile, it is my view that there is no reason to doubt the testimony of the many women who lived to tell the tale, that — based on the evidence — we have to give them the benefit of any doubt: that indeed many were systematically tortured and sexually abused over many years, and incarcerated on trumped-up charges.

The case of the missing twins

In one particularly harrowing story, two talented sisters, the Kali twins as they were known to their friends at Martin Luther High School, who had been sent by Swapo to study in Cuba, where they represented the Swapo women’s league and the youth movement at university, narrated after their release in 1989, how their studies were suddenly interrupted after they had asked the party leaders for clothes for the students.

They were arrested by the Cuban security forces, strip-searched and flown to Angola, where their legs were put into plaster of paris to prevent escape along the way to the dungeons.

In Angola, they were taken to a place called the Marx Reception Centre, where they were taken to the basement and systematically tortured in the most brutal manner over many months to confess to being spies. Eventually they realized as they had been repeatedly told, that they would be killed if they did not come up with a story: so they did, they fabricated implausible stories that they had been recruited by South Africa.

They were separated for many years and thrown into the infamous and crowded ‘dungeons’, mere dugouts in the ground, where they spent many years alongside their countrymen and women in the most deplorable conditions.

In November 1989, they narrated the story of their abduction from Cuba and subsequent torture to the editors of Searchlight South Africa in London, who documented in excruciating detail the methods of abuse the women were subjected to over a period of five years.[iv]

Revolutionaries betrayed

Swapo has never marshalled any real evidence to prove that the allegations and charges against so many of its cadre had any substance. Anyone could be taken at any time, even renowned fighters, like Commissar Mihe Gaomab, could be arrested on the slightest pretext, tortured and imprisoned — or killed if they did not comply and confess. Gaomab recently spoke to journalists about his arrest. He still hopes that his name will be cleared.

Former PLAN fighter and ex-detainee Commissar Mihe Gaomab. Photo John Liebenberg

It was in this context that the famous youth leader Johannes (Axab) Hendricks, who led the Namibian National Students Organisation, also disappeared shortly after he was released from prison by the South Africans and smuggled across the border in 1988. To this day, his family and friends in the student movement do not know what really happened to him.

NANSO activist Axab Hendricks. Photo John Liebenberg

Axab reportedly told his captors that if he ever got home he would surely tell the Namibian people the truth of what Swapo was doing to the youth in exile, but he soon disappeared without a trace — and to this day almost nothing is known of his fate. This though was a story repeated countless times, and the question of the actual number of Namibian fighters and revolutionaries who were disappeared in this manner is still not settled.[v]

What is particularly harrowing and heartbreaking about this dark episode in Namibian history is the way in which women fighters in the camp — who had joined the movement believing they were fighting a revolutionary cause to liberate their country from colonialism — were systematically abused, raped and tortured over many years.

Moreover, these crimes were denied and are still suppressed by a strata that regards itself as the liberal and progressive intellectuals. It is to his credit that the student leader Ignatius Shixwameni — who became the youngest Swapo MP after independence — in later years apologised at a public meeting and asked for forgiveness for having in his younger days labelled these young fighters as spies. When the truth became known to him he also resigned from Swapo.

Namibian National Students’ Organisation (NANSO) president Ignatius Shixwameni addresses students at the University of Namibia. Photo John Liebenberg

The struggle for redemption

In the context of our own time, where women around the world are summoning the courage through the #MeToo movement to stand up to powerful abusers, to call them out, to name and shame the men who had harassed, abused and even raped them; a movement that has challenged abusers in the entertainment industry, in politics and in powerful corporate positions, it is an open question as to when the wider Namibian society and the media in particular will begin to acknowledge what had been done to these women and come to terms with the dreadful crimes that were committed against them on a daily basis over a period spanning more than a decade — all in the name of ‘liberation’.

When Siegfried Groth published his book not long before his death, and the letters of the Swapo cadre, he had one overwhelming motive, to unburden himself of the many crimes of his comrades that had weighed so heavily on his conscience for so many years: he wanted to ask the children of the revolution for forgiveness. He wanted redemption; to be forgiven for his role and the cowardly manner in which the church had suppressed the truth for so many years.

Groth must have known that the church was an accomplice to the crimes, that it had facilitated and covered up the torture and abuse of these young people by not speaking out, but only at the very end of his life did he find the courage to speak out — and by then, for many of the young fighters it was too late, much too late.

Then SWAPO Secretary General Andimba Toivo ya Toivo speaking to detainees at Lubango, 25 May, 1989. Detainees spoke to ya Toivo and the journalists about the excesses of PLAN commander Solomon Hawala, who was present for the talks. Photo John Liebenberg

Since their return home, the survivors of the abuse at Lubango and Mboroma and other camps, the small but resilient group of ex-detainees have fought ardently and bravely to clear their names, to restore the truth of their innocence, but their efforts have not softened the hearts of those who hold the reins of power, nor of those who committed and commissioned the crimes against them.

The question of press freedom

This brings me at last to the issue of press freedom and what it means today. I have over the past few months studied the archival records of The Namibian newspaper from the very inception of the paper in the mid-1980s to try to find any record of any reports on this issue before June 1989, when the UN was pressurized to finally intervene and conduct an international investigation.

After searching for many weeks, it was deeply disappointing to find that since the founding of The Namibian — a newspaper that presented itself as the progressive alternative to the right-wing press funded by South Africa — “the people’s paper” as it styled itself, did not carry a single report on the question of the Swapo detainees in exile up until the release of the detainees in June 1989.

It is an open question what impact a proper investigation into the question of the Swapo detainees would have had on the course of events, given that The Namibian newspaper by the late 1980s had grown to become a powerful institution in shaping public opinion, given its fearless reporting of South Africa’s atrocities against Namibians.

The newspaper’s staff no doubt suffered attacks, including arrests, harassment and bomb attacks by the regime. But it is deeply troubling that with the bare exception of one single paragraph when the then editor of the paper, Gwen Lister — the only female editor in the country at the time — during an interview in early 1989 with Swapo’s chief information officer, Hidipo Hamutenya, asked about the arrest of the “Swapo 100”, there was not one single report on this most important question.

It was, after all, an issue that affected almost every family in Namibia, and indeed the future of the country and above all, the lives of so many liberation fighters.

In her said interview with Hamutenya, Lister asked only one oblique question, which seemed to strongly imply that those seeking to expose Swapo’s atrocities against its members in exile, as the left-wing socialists were doing at the time, were themselves working in support of South Africa.

She asked:

“It would seem in the future, that pro-South African forces will use ‘left-wing tactics, rather than ‘right-wing’ to try and undermine the Swapo movement. Some see reactionary elements in the guise of Marxism/Trotskyism. There was also talk at the time of the arrest of the ‘Swapo 100’ that the alleged spies had been trained in Marxism/Leninism before they left the country. Can you comment on this?”

Hamutenya skirted the issue deftly, but Lister was apparently suggesting that those seeking the truth about their brothers and sisters and fellow compatriots were “pro-South African” and “reactionary”. Besides that interview, no further questions were asked again about the fate of the hundreds of youth who were held without trial and in unbearable conditions in exile until their eventual release.

When the story of the release of the detainees finally broke on Friday 9 June 1989, it apparently did not merit front page coverage in The Namibian, but was tucked away — one might say hidden away— on page 3. In her ‘Political Perspective’ column that day, Lister did not even mention the fate of the many women who had languished for so long in the Swapo camps, neither did the editorial raise the issue. Why not?

The resurgence of the women’s movement

Today, in light of the resurgence of the women’s movement and the fight for justice for the victims of rape, torture, abduction and false imprisonment, it is surely incumbent on those who profess to strive for freedom of the press (like The Namibian) to come clean and admit their role in suppressing the truth — or at least that they failed in their duty as honest journalists to investigate an issue that was of such cardinal importance to the wider public, an issue of life-and-death importance to so many people.

Source: The Namibian

It would appear thus that the liberal press, which presents itself as being at the forefront of women’s rights, of championing the struggle against patriarchy and male dominance, was in fact instrumental in enabling and consolidating patriarchy in the political sphere, and in this way, undermined women’s rights at a time when it was critically necessary to give voice to those very people, in particular the women on the frontline, whose voices had been suppressed for so long.

The question that we have to ask, given its wide influence on public opinion and on policymakers, is whether The Namibian could have helped to resolve and end this crisis in the Swapo camps much earlier, had it gone about its duty to report honestly and objectively in the public interest, by investigating the truth of the claims made by the parents that their children in Swapo’s camps were incarcerated on false charges and subjected to daily abuse, starvation, torture, rape and downright murder — for by the mid-1980s there was surely much talk of it about town.

One thing is clear from her interview with Hamutenya quoted above: the editor was in fact aware of the issue. For this, the newspaper that took for itself the name ‘The Namibian’ will have to answer one day to the Namibian people about what they knew about what had happened to the children who went to fight for the freedom of the country, and why they failed to investigate this issue.

It is therefore an unfortunate but unavoidable conclusion that the churches, the press and to a large extent the United Nations, made possible the continued perpetration of these systematic crimes against the Namibian youth and prolonged their wrongful incarceration by failing to investigate and by failing to call to order the party and the leaders that they supported.

Because of this, countless women were left to languish in holes in the ground at the mercy of cruel men, who systematically tortured and raped and incarcerated them on false charges over a period of many years. Had the press done its duty to investigate and to inform the public of the facts, it is quite likely that events would have taken a different turn.

Truth as a weapon in the struggle

It is too late to turn back the clock now, to undo the crimes of yesteryear, but today on World Press Freedom Day, it is not too late for the truth to triumph, it is not too late for the media bosses, particularly The Namibian which prides itself on promoting press freedom and women’s rights, to come clean and admit that at the time when the people needed them most, they failed to do their duty; they failed to search for the truth and tell it as it is.

In so doing (or rather in not doing so), by instead suppressing the most painful facts, we must conclude that the liberal press aided and abetted the torturers, the rapists and the killers who were in charge of the camps in exile and allowed these brutes to destroy a whole generation of revolutionaries, to violate countless numbers of women fighters, and to deceive a whole country into thinking that these were the true liberators of the land.

It may not be easy for the people who were hurt and discarded by their comrades to come forward and say #MeToo, but it is surely easier for us, as their fellow countrymen and women, to show empathy and support for the victims of these unresolved crimes, to clear their names, to acknowledge their hurts and the injustice they suffered, to soothe their hearts, and — like Pastor Groth — to ask forgiveness for our cowardice, to admit that we had failed for too long to acknowledge the betrayal they suffered and the painful historical truth, of which they are the living embodiment.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — —

ENDNOTES

[i] Call Them Spies: The Namibian Spy Drama; Ben Motinga, Nico Basson, 1989.

[ii] Prisoners of a Dream: The South African Mirage; Leo Raditsa, 1989.

[iii] Hit-list prompts dungeon revelations, April 2012 — http://www.informante.web.na/node/9763

[iv] Searchlight South Africa Number 4 February 1990, http://disa.ukzn.ac.za/sites/default/files/pdf_files/slfeb90.8.pdf

[v] Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO; Paul Trewhela, 2010

Writer, reporter, activist

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