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In search of light: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO

In The Politics of Politics on March 12, 2010 at 9:33 am

The New Worker

Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO

David Lush spoke to the author Paul Trewhela about the relevance of Inside Quatro to southern Africa today. (This is a transcript of that interview published in Insight Namibia)

While Inside Quatro documents meticulously the abuses of the ANC and Swapo in exile, there is little reflection or analysis on what implications these abuses have had for the ANC and Swapo’s governance of South Africa and Namibia respectively. Wasn’t this a missed opportunity?

PT: Primarily the book has an historical character, though with open-ended relevance to the present and the future. The two most important chapters in the book, in my view (chapters 2 and 11), are not ones written by me, but give first-hand accounts of the experience in exile in the ANC and Swapo camps. As I explain in the Introduction, all but four of the 14 chapters are from Searchlight South Africa, which was banned in South Africa. While available to academics, and quite widely cited in various publications since then, these texts have not been available to the general public until now.

My main aim was to make these texts from 20 years ago as widely available as possible to readers in southern Africa. People can develop their own interpretation of current events in the light of a more thorough knowledge of this history, which Inside Quatro helps provide.

There was, at least, some attempt by the ANC to find out what happened in relation to these abuses, to apologise to those who were wronged, and to clear the air. No such attempt has been made in Namibia. What have been the consequences of Swapo’s denial?

PT: Chapter 4 of my book provides an indication of how publicity given to issues relating to human rights abuses by the ANC in exile by agencies such as Searchlight South Africa, Amnesty International, the Weekly Mail and the Douglas Commission fed into a real struggle within the National Executive Committee of the ANC, and how Nelson Mandela came to be personally informed of the issue. The gap of four and a half years between general elections under a new constitution in Namibia (November 1989) and South Africa (April 1994) gave time in South Africa for the issue of disclosure to acquire political force. There was no possibility of this in Namibia. In this sense, South Africa was a beneficiary of earlier struggles over this issue in Namibia, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa stands on the shoulders of Namibian efforts.

There are also other crucial issues. One is that the principal political leader and president of the new state in South Africa (Mandela) had not been contaminated by responsibility for abuses carried out in exile. Had (Andimba Toivo ya) Toivo, say, and not Sam Nujoma, been the most significant leader in Swapo in the 1989/1990 period, it is just remotely possible that there might have been more scope within Swapo for a struggle leading to a decision in favour of a TRC-type disclosure. There are other differences too. As I write in the Introduction to Inside Quatro: “Swapo in government convened no Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Namibia. …It had too much to hide. The forces that might have compelled it to do so were too weak”.

A principal issue remains Swapo’s participation – however limited – in the SADF invasion of Angola in 1975, prior to the repulsion of the South Africans by the Cubans. This took place under pressure from the Zambian government and in terms of Swapo’s previous fraternal relationship with Unita in southern Angola, as I set out in Chapter 13, ‘The Kissinger-Vorster-Kaunda Detente’.

This provoked a huge wave of anger in the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (Plan) and the Swapo Youth League in western Zambia, which was then repressed with force and misrepresentation, setting in place the cycle of manic purges continuing until the return of the exiles to Namibia.

This fundamental issue of modern Namibian history places the integrity of Nujoma and the exile leadership of Swapo at that time under a very searching light, especially because they then initiated very severe repressions of their critics, describing them as “traitors”, as Nujoma said at the time.

The entire discourse of government of independent Namibia, as set by Swapo in terms of “wavering” (as in Where Others Wavered, the title of Nujoma’s autobiography), would have been put in question by a TRC-type process in Namibia.

In this sense, the issue of a TRC for Namibia is so much more radical than it was for South Africa, putting in question the integrity – and more – of almost the entire governing elite. This remains so, 20 years after independence. The issue of truth and lies, and what can be trusted and what cannot be trusted in the record of the founding fathers of the state, remains far more unsettling in Namibia than it was in South Africa. A film such as Invictus is unthinkable with a setting in Namibian political history. In this sense, issues of history remain so much more potent and topical in Namibia than they do in South Africa.

This isn’t the place to examine other very major matters that remain open for investigation concerning Namibia’s political history of the past fifty years. I’ll mention only one, relating to gender. At a seminar at Cambridge University in Britain on February 10, Martin Plaut, the Africa Editor of the BBC World Service, provided supportive evidence for the statements in Inside Quatro that women members of Swapo were detained and physically examined under accusation that alleged female “enemy agents” had hidden razor blades in their vaginas, for the purpose of murdering Swapo men. (the recording of the seminar)

Similar testimony was given by several former Swapo members to the hearings of the Internationale Gesellschaft fur Menschenrechte in Frankfurt in 1985 (see Leo Raditsa, Prisoners of a Dream, St George Street Press, Annapolis, USA, 1989). A good deal of what was said there corresponded to what I was told in Windhoek in 1990. My understanding is that rape of women Swapo members was a system in its pits in the ground at Lubango, and maybe elsewhere.

All of these are vital, living issues relating to Namibians who are alive as well as dead, which the nation can clarify only by open investigation. This need will never go away until everything is brought to the light. For me this need arising from buried trauma is the most pressing need in the whole society, and I hope my book – like Pastor Groth’s Breaking the Walls of Silence – can begin to allow in a little more light and a little oxygen.

To what extent are the governance styles of Swapo and the ANC today a reflection of their behaviour in exile?

PT: In my judgement, drawn mainly from media reports and a wide correspondence, no proper lessons have been learnt by the governing parties in either Namibia or South Africa. In Namibia this was par for the course, given the total denialism by Swapo throughout, as shown in Nujoma’s autobiography.

In South Africa, ex-Quatro detainees campaigned for Jacob Zuma before, during and after the ANC national conference at Polokwane in December 2007, which resulted in the total dismantling of the party and later state support structure for former President Thabo Mbeki. They felt that this huge overturn within the ANC – there has been nothing remotely comparable in Swapo – permitted some form of democracy and provided for a greater element of personal safety. Nevertheless, as I wrote in my Introduction to Inside Quatro, these people still constitute a “silent generation” whose members “keep their heads down. This is not yet, for them, the time to speak…”

Since I wrote these words, there has been a murderous and chauvinistic assault by ANC political structures in Durban on the Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) shack dwellers movement last November, with apparent collusion by the police and judiciary. AbM members appear to be detained effectively without trial, through a farcical cycle of remands. This has been powerfully contested by the Diakonia Council of Churches, in stark contrast to the shameful silence of the churches in Namibia in the 1980s when they refused to give witness to Swapo’s detention of its members in exile.

As I wrote at the end of chapter 8 of Inside Quatro, “Advocacy of terroristic state behaviour has a long history in southern Africa”. In this sense, I do believe that it remains far too true, as your question puts it, that “the governance styles of Swapo and the ANC are a reflection of how they behaved in exile”.

About the timing of the publication of Inside Quatro: Why now?

PT: I don’t think it would have been possible for Inside Quatro to have been published earlier by a publisher in southern Africa, as Jacana has had the courage to do. I think that the removal of the Mbeki apparatus did suggest there was some space for critical thinking in the society.

Also, Searchlight South Africa was always only a two-person effort. I was working fulltime as a schoolteacher throughout, and from 1992 was a single parent to my two youngest children. After Baruch Hirson and I had brought Searchlight South Africa through 12 issues between 1988 and 1995, I just didn’t have the energy to carry a further heavy load and responsibility.

I retired as a schoolteacher in 2006, which made a stronger engagement with journalism possible again, though I can’t wait to put my major energies back into painting, after the effort needed to bring Inside Quatro to publication and to get it attention.

I’m sure attempts have been made to discredit you and your book on account of your own ‘dissident’ past (Trewhela is a former member of the South African Communist Party).
How have your own feelings about the past shaped your reporting on southern Africa, particularly given that you have lived away from the region for so long?

PT: Baruch Hirson’s insistence that only verified material be published as “fact” was a tremendous shield that protected Searchlight South Africa and my subsequent writing from being discredited. I can’t remember any public criticism of the journal from ANC sources, apart from one reference in 1992. It made more sense for them to try to kill this information with silence, given our very small circulation.

This began to change in the lead-up to the South African general election in April last year, culminating several months ago in a criticism of my writing in the Johannesburg Sunday Times by Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary general, on 13 December. Mantashe’s criticism was directed at an eyewitness account from Inside Quatro, which had been published by the Sunday Times the previous week under my name. I think it was really a tribute to what the ANC was no longer able to suppress, and proves that this history retains its vitality and relevance.

I’m not worried about “swimming against the stream”. I feel I’ve been doing it for most of my life. I would feel very worried, though, if I was living in South Africa or Namibia. In Zimbabwe a person in my position would probably have been killed. So from Britain I have been able to do what is far more dangerous for people such as Phil ya Nangoloh or Erica Beukes in Namibia, or people such as S’bu Zikode associated with Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa.

Would I be correct in describing you as a committed Marxist?
PT: I was a Trotskyist, and, yes, a “committed Marxist” through to the end of working on Searchlight South Africa. But I’m not a Marxist any longer. Marx’s conception of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” gave a licence to totalitarian dictators of all kinds, and Marxism’s economic determinism and alleged “scientific” philosophy are way off beam. I’m much more aware than before how fragile are the little shoots of civil society, and how they need nurturing, and how easily they are crushed by very ideological people who claim to have a universal panacea, usually violent. They’re the dangerous people in southern Africa, as Robert Mugabe and his regime have shown.

Source:  Insight Magazine

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