Nujoma, Samuel 1929—
Samuel Nujoma 1929—
President of the Republic of Namibia
Samuel Nujoma presides over a country whose independence dates only from March 21,1990. The nation’s unique challenges range from social issues like the widespread illiteracy to economic matters such as international competition in the mining field. This responsibility is shouldered by President Nujoma, whose warm smile conceals a tough, uncompromising negotiating style and an implacable endurance that led the South West African People’s Organization through a grim, 23-year war of liberation.
Samuel Shafiishuna Nujoma was born in 1929, in a small town in northern Namibia. Then known as South West Africa, the country was a British colony that had been placed under South African guardianship in 1920 by the League of Nations. As was the case in South Africa itself, the compulsory education enjoyed by both rural and urban white children was denied to black students, whether they lived in urban squatter camps or in tribal settlements like Nujoma’s native Ongandjera. He received some education from the nearby Finnish Mission, and like many others, he became a cattleherder. In 1943 he moved to Walvis Bay to live with an aunt.
In 1949, young Nujoma moved to the country’s capital, Windhoek. Here, by attending night classes at St. Barnabas Anglican Mission, he was able to achieve an eighth-grade education while working for the South African Railways during the day. Nujoma’s daily duties consisted almost entirely of sweeping floors and making tea. Although his work offered little intellectual stimulation, his position gave him the chance to become a labor union organizer. His political activities cost him his job in 1957, but not before he built a useful network of friends with similar interests.
In the mid-1950s Nujoma met Herman Andimba Toivo ya-Toivo, a union organizer from Capetown, South Africa. Ya-Toivo was in the process of forming the Ovambo People’s Congress (OPC), an organization dedicated to the improvement of working conditions for black laborers. Through union-oriented activities, the OPC hoped to abolish the South African pass system, which then required black laborers to seek official permission before moving from one job to another, and
At a Glance…
Born May 12, 1929, in Ongandjera, Northern District, Namibia; married Kovambo Theoplidine Katjimuina, 1956; children: one daughter, three sons. Education: Attended Finnish Missionary Primary School, 1937-48, and St. Barnabas School, Windhoek, 1949-54.
South African Railways, laborer, 1955-57, clerk, 1957-59: South West Africa People’s Organization, founder and leader, 1959-90; President of the Republic of Namibia, 1990—.
Awards: Lenin Peace Prize, 1968; November Medal Prize, 1978; Frederick Joliot Curie Gold Medal, 1980; Namibia Freedom Award, California State University, 1980; received honorary doctorate from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria.
Addresses: Office—Office of the President, PMB 13339, Windhoek, Namibia.
forced them to accept lower wages and lower-level jobs than their white South West African counterparts.
In 1959 Ya-Toivo persuaded Nujoma to extend OPC activities to Windhoek by starting the Ovamboland People’s Organization (OPO). Nujoma’s efforts were well timed, for the South African government had recently instituted a general policy that had infuriated the South West African black population. The offensive order decreed that urban blacks must be moved, city by city, to segregated regions close enough to industrial areas to supply needed labor. That year Windhoek’s blacks were ordered to move from the Old Location that had housed them for generations to a distant new place they themselves called Katutura—the place where no one lives.
Spurred by black fury, Nujoma’s OPO following quickly swelled, attracting so many non-ovambo members that Nujoma decided to acknowledge its multi-tribal character by changing its name to the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), and publicizing a far broader mission than Ya-Toivo’s modest vow to improve black workers’ lives. SWAPO’s aim was no less than an end to colonial rule, together with universal adult franchise and the abolishment of the policies of separate development and separate education for blacks and whites.
The organization lost no time in showing its determination to succeed. As soon as the projected move to Katutura became public knowledge, the acronym SWAPO and leader Sam Nujoma became familiar words in the international press. SWAPO led retaliatory practices such as boycotts of buses and a municipally-sponsored beerhall. Nujoma staged a protest meeting in the Old Location, where Nujoma first proposed—accompanied by a chanting crowd of supporters—South West African independence to white government officials. The suggestion brought incessant attention from the police, who began to follow Nujoma’s every move. Nujoma decided to leave South West Africa, and in 1961 he established SWAPO headquarters in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He spent the next five years travelling throughout Africa and Europe in search of support for his organization.
Elected president of SWAPO in 1961, Nujoma was reelected in December 1969, at the Tanga Consultative Congress in Dar es Salaam. It was an important meeting, at which SWAPO was streamlined into a hierarchical liberation movement with the help of more experienced allies like South Africa’s African National Congress and FRELIMO, from Mozambique. The new SWAPO featured a 70-member Congress to oversee the work of the entire organization. It organized a women’s council, a council of elders, and a youth league to ensure that no section of the Namibian population was overlooked for recruitment purposes, and it created an education department to educate and train recruits. A new legal committee was formed to handle international relations as well as all treaties and agreements, and a department of health and social welfare was established to organize mobile clinics and train nurses. Important as these institutions were, they were eclipsed by Nujoma’s most important innovation—the official launch of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).
SWAPO then joined the Organization of African Unity (OAU), established by several independent African states to end colonialism in Africa. The OAU preferred that each African nation seeking independence be represented by one unified group rather than by several smaller ones and stipulated that each member body be committed to armed opposition to its respective government. SWAPO had no trouble meeting these requirements, having made the decision to to fight for independence in 1962, after Western powers had refused the organization their help. Hundreds of volunteers were sent to Ghana, Egypt and Algeria for basic training. Russia, China, and North Korea received other recruits, sent on to them from the organization’s auxiliary offices in Lusaka, Cairo, and London.
With overt hostilities thus declared, Nujoma established a base in rural northern Ovamboland, where in August of 1966 SWAPO had their first clash with South African troops. In traditional guerrilla fashion they set fire to buildings, wounded enemy soldiers, and disappeared into the bush. Predictably, they did not escape retribution. Partly as a result of this battle and partly because South African Prime Minister Verwoerd was assassinated two weeks later, new terrorism laws were enacted. By 1967, 37 SWAPO men had been arrested by the South African police. After interrogations documented by many sources as having included torture, they were tried, in proceedings closely monitored by the world press.
The trial was still in progress when the UN General Assembly declared South Africa’s presence in Windhoek illegal and passed a resolution calling for the repatriation of the detainees. When South Africa refused, the UN called on all its members to force South Africa to relinquish the territory, and accepted an Afro-Asian resolution that South West Africa be renamed Namibia. The legal proceedings, however, went on. Of the 37 defendants, 20 received life sentences, nine were jailed for 20 years and three received five-year sentences.
In the 1970s, SWAPO began to see the results of its efforts. In 1971 the UN heard evidence from Nujoma and passed another resolution declaring South Africa’s rule illegal, and in 1973, recognized SWAPO as Namibia’s only legitimate representative. A strike partly organized by SWAPO had a more immediate result. Originating with Ovambo contract workers bound for the gold and diamond mines, the strike spread rapidly and involved 13,000 men demanding higher wages, a change in the contract arrangements assigning black workers to jobs without choice, and an immediate end to the policy compelling them to live in male dormitories away from their families. The strike caused the government to abolish its South West African Labor Association and replace it with employment bureaus designed to recruit workers by mutual consent.
Another important event occurred in 1975, when the former Portuguese colony Mozambique became independent. The new Marxist regime deprived South Africa of vital international support, and left it unprotected against the fighting escalating in neighboring Rhodesia. The apartheid South African regime was threatened enough to initiate constitutional talks on Namibia. The conference began on September 1, 1975 in a Windhoek gymnasium known as the Turnhalle—a name that was eventually given to the conference itself.
The South African government invited 11 ethnic groups from Namibia, but excluded SWAPO, despite the group’s status as the country’s legitimate representative. The conference therefore drew no international support, even though it dealt with vital social issues such as discriminatory wage practices, housing, and medical services. In 1978 the UN intervened again, instituting Resolution 435, which called for a UN peacekeeping force stationed in Namibia, a cease fire culminating in all troop withdrawal, and free elections to a Constituent Assembly that would draw up a new constitution. In retaliation, South Africa invaded the neighboring country of Angola, a major base of SWAPO operations, killing hundreds of people at a SWAPO camp.
In 1980 U.S. President Ronald Reagan relaxed restrictions on arms sales to South Africa and voiced concern about the Marxist Cuban troops that had been stationed in Angola as protection from South African forces. Squarely on Pretoria’s side, Reagan announced that the Cubans would have to be withdrawn from Angola before South Africa followed suit in Namibia. Having lost faith in international support, Nujoma stepped up SWAPO operations. SWAPO guerrilla groups crossing the border from Angola increased; recruitment of rural supporters intensified. Although violence in which SWAPO was involved escalated, the group also worked to provide social services. SWAPO committees vaccinated children, provided educated in Zambia, Angola, Ghana, and made modern medical services available to wounded guerrillas in rural areas.
SWAPO activities were closely monitored by the South African Defence Force (SADF). In the late 1970s it instituted an operation called Crowbar, known in Afrikaans as Koevoet. Operating secretly in southern Angola, Koevoet employed many members of the police force, plus former Rhodesian army personnel and Namibians supporting non-SWAPO liberation groups. Working in conjunction with SADF personnel stationed in Namibia itself, Koevoet soon earned itself a fearsome reputation for wholesale destruction and the murder of civilians. Though it operated secretly until 1984, when Law and Order Minister Louis le Grange admitted its existence in the South African parliament, Koevoet captured tons of ammunition and killed hundreds of SWAPO sympathizers and civilians.
By the end of the 1980s bankrupt Angola, Cuba (whose $1,000 per day soldier fee had long gone unpaid), and South Africa were ready to lay down their arms. The 1988 Geneva Protocol marked their agreement, which was eventually sealed by the Brazzaville Accord. Calling for the gradual withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola over the following year, the document also stipulated the withdrawal of South African troops from Namibia, and preparation for free elections.
On September 14, 1989 Sam Nujoma came home to Namibia after an absence of almost 30 years. Nujoma’s comment, recorded the following day by the New York Times, was: “We return in a spirit of peace, love and national reconciliation.” Operating in a multiparty, multiethnic environment, Namibia’s SWAPO government immediately made every effort to put this maxim into practice. Still economically dependent on South Africa, President Nujoma prudently treated his former enemy without animosity. But he also took the precaution of joining the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, an organization established in 1979 by other states wishing to reduce their economic dependence on Pretoria.
Though Namibia is on its way to permanent peace and prosperity, the ongoing challenge of bringing a formerly colonial country into the space age remains. Still energetic in his mid-sixties, President Nujoma is confronting the formidable issues of education, housing, medical care, and international economic competitiveness with a skill that far outreaches his scanty formal education.
Africa Today, Africa Books Ltd., 1991.
Herbstein, Denis and John Evenson, The Devils Are Among Us, Zed Books, 1989.
Katjavivi, Peter H., A History of Resistance in Namibia, James Currey, 1988.
Legum, Colin, editor, Africa Contemporary Record: Annual Survey and Documents, 1968-69.
Sparks, Donald L. and December Green, Namibia: The Nation after Independence, Westview Press, 1992.
Udogu, Emmanuel Ike, South West Africa People’s Organization of Namibia as a Non-State Actor in the Namibian Issue, unpublished dissertation, Southern Illinois University, 1980.
Ya-Otto, John, Battlefront Namibia, Lawrence Hill & Company, 1981.
Current History, May, 1989, p. 164.
New York Times, January 13, 1981, p. 3; September 15, 1989; October 24, 1989, Sec. 1, p. 6; January 13, 1991, p. 3; March 21, 1990, p. A12; March 22, 1990, p. 3.
Time, November 27, 1989, p. 53.