An unusual and vehement war of words about historic truths dating back to the apartheid era has erupted between President Sam Nujoma of Namibia and the outspoken editor of a local newspaper.
An unusual war of words about historic truths dating back to the apartheid era has erupted between the president of Namibia and the editor of a local newspaper.
Addressing university students in Windhoek on Thursday afternoon, President Sam Nujoma spoke on many topics, lashing out against gays, lesbians, “Boers” and the media.
Journalists should remain “true to their ethics” and facts and the truth, Nujoma said.
He mentioned Hannes Smith, a journalist with more than 40 years of experience and editor of the weekly Windhoek Observer, Namibia’s only broadsheet newspaper, and accused him of reporting falsely on an incident that happened in 1959.
In December 1959 black Namibians were to be removed by the apartheid authorities from an old shanty town location on the western outskirts of Windhoek to a new one, but resisted.
On the night of December 10, demonstrators held a peaceful protest march, but a young Afrikaner police officer became nervous and fired a shot despite orders not to do.
In the resulting stampede more shots were fired and 11 people killed and several wounded.
In his autobiography Where Others Wavered, published in 2001, Nujoma claimed the wounded blacks were denied medical treatment by white medical staff, including those at the small Red Cross Society clinic.
Smith challenged that accusation in one of his newspaper’s editions shortly after Nujoma’s autobiography was published, stating he had been a cub reporter then and present during the 1959 incident and witnessed that the wounded were attended to.
More than two years later, the 74-year-old Nujoma picked on Smith, who is 70, repeating in his address to the students that none of the injured was treated.
“Smith must know that he is misusing his newspaper by telling lies. The whites must know that national reconciliation was created to accommodate each other, but if they don’t behave, we will act.
“The writing is on the wall, therefore Smith and all whites who think they can blackmail indigenous Namibians ...” Nujoma threatened off the cuff, with the rest of his sentence drowned by thunderous applause from the students.
“I don’t want to threaten anybody and I don’t have to visit the house of someone who is not my friend, but Smith makes money with his newspaper because of peace and stability in the country. Those who provoke the situation—we will do something about it and we have the power!” Nujoma declared.
Under the front page headline “Nujoma, I don’t fear you”, Smith challenged Nujoma in this week’s edition of his newspaper to prove his accusation.
“I repeat that it is a gross lie that medical treatment was refused to the wounded on the night of December 10 1959, as stated in your book Where Others Wavered,” he wrote.
“You have now forced my hand to list all the untruths in your book and to publish them at some unspecified date if I’m still alive for I know that murder could perhaps be my eventual fate.”
Smith also accused Nujoma of “autocratic dealings” with his subordinates.
“The way you believe that you are indestructible and could never err, your haughtiness killed the last vestige of the tremendous warmth I had for you,” he wrote.
Instead of Nujoma attacking him in public, a face-to-face meeting at State House would have been the better option, Smith continued.
“I shall fight you publicly to the last ditch and the last round,” he challenged the head of state.
“Do what you think you should do to me, Mr President. You have the powers to do so. And, you know that the nation trembles in front of you but one member of the nation, that is me, does not tremble in front of you.”
Topping that, the unwavering Smith concluded his full page “letter” to Nujoma with further advice: “I’ve made peace with Death, unlike you. If I have to be killed, Mr President, instruct the assassins to do so gently. I shall not ‘waver’, to borrow from you”.
In 1998 Smith was sued by the government over critical and strong-worded editorials he wrote against the government and Nujoma, but the case has not yet come to trial.
His newspaper was censored many times on stories in colonial days on atrocities committed by South African security forces on captured freedom fighters.—Sapa-AFP