/ 15 June 2017

Toivo ya Toivo was more than a Namibian hero

Liberation leaders: Andimba Toivo ya Toivo
Liberation leaders: Andimba Toivo ya Toivo

In South Africa, we too easily forget that our troubled history is not, and has never been, confined within the borders of the republic.

All our neighbours, in their own way, played their part in South Africa’s liberation struggle, and all, to various degrees, suffered from their proximity to the apartheid regime. But none more so than Namibia.

Since the end of World War I, Namibia (then called South West Africa) was, in effect, ruled from Pretoria, which sought to recreate there the same racist policies enacted at home — and crushed any resistance with the same brutality meted out to opposition in South Africa.

That’s how Andimba Herman Toivo ya Toivo ended up on Robben Island. He was, with Sam Nujoma, a cofounding member of the South-West Africa People’s Organisation (Swapo) and a fierce, uncompromising advocate for independence.

“We are Namibians, and not South Africans,” he told the Supreme Court during his trial in Pretoria in 1967-1968, his political activity earning him a charge under the Terrorism Act. “We do not now, and will not in the future, recognise your right to govern us, to make laws for us in which we have no say, to treat our country as if it were your property and us as if you were our masters.”

Ya Toivo’s independent streak manifested itself in prison, where he vehemently refused to co-operate with prison warders, even if it meant fewer privileges.

“Andimba was not concerned about that. He didn’t care to be promoted and he wouldn’t co-operate with the authorities at all in almost everything,” remembered Nelson Mandela, who spent a decade with him in the same section in Robben Island.

Ya Toivo refused to complain about poor conditions and abuse, unwilling to acknowledge in any way the authority of an illegitimate government.

When his sentence was commuted, in 1984, he refused to leave his cell while other Namibians were still behind bars. Prison guards eventually tricked him out of the cell, and locked the door to make sure he couldn’t return.

Ya Toivo lived to see his independence dream come true and took on several Cabinet positions before retiring from politics in 2006. His death, last week at the age of 92, was mourned across Namibia.

South Africa too should remember a liberation hero whose struggle was so intimately linked to our own.