Abrahams, Ottilie Grete (1937—)

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Abrahams, Ottilie Grete (1937—)

Namibian political leader and physician whose efforts were crucial in the establishment of an independent Namibia. Born Ottilie Grete Schimming in 1937 in Windhoek, South West Africa (now Namibia); educated in Windhoek and Cape Town, South Africa; graduated University of Cape Town, 1961; married Kenneth Godfrey Abrahams, in 1961.

Founding member of the South West Africa Student Body (SWASB), a predecessor of the major nationalist parties; deeply involved with the newly formed South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO); served as secretary-general of the Namibian Independence Party (NIP).

In 1937, Ottilie Grete Schimming was born into a family of mixed race (designated by the derogatory terms "Rehoboth Baster" or "Coloured" in South Africa) and was educated in Windhoek and Cape Town, South Africa. An activist while still in secondary school, Ottilie was a founding member of the South West Africa Student Body (SWASB), a predecessor of the major nationalist parties that were to emerge several decades later. This organization was founded by Namibian students enrolled in South African secondary and post-secondary schools, and was inspired by South Africa's Defiance Campaign of 1952 led by the African National Congress (ANC). When Ottilie and many of her contemporaries returned to South West Africa, she and the other militants among them wished to create a permanent entity that reflected their growing sense of national identity. Consequently, in late 1955, she founded the South West Africa Progressive Association.

After graduating from the University of Cape Town in 1961, where she was granted a medical degree, she married Kenneth Godfrey Abrahams (1936—), a South African medical student of mixed race who also received his degree from the University of Cape Town. The couple returned to South West Africa where Ottilie set up a medical practice in Rehoboth, and both began to engage in dangerous political activities. In the early 1960s, they became deeply involved with the newly formed South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO). Soon they were also active in a small guerrilla group, Yo Chi Chan, which attracted the attention of the South African intelligence services. By 1963, Kenneth was forced to flee to Botswana where he was captured by South African police and taken to Cape Town. Ottilie led the movement to free her husband, which took place when the British pressured the South African government. The reunited couple went to Tanzania where they worked in the SWAPO office with Sam Nujoma (1929—), then went on to create a dissident organization, SWAPO-Democrats (SWAPO-D) in June 1978.

After returning to Namibia, Ottilie Abrahams and her husband split from SWAPO-D and joined another dissident group, the Namibian Independence Party (NIP). Ottilie served as secretary-general. Their leadership during the 1989 elections paved the way for Namibia's independence. One year later, Sam Nujoma was elected president of a new, independent Namibia. In time, Ottilie and Kenneth would become estranged from Nujoma, claiming that he had used party funds for an extravagant lifestyle. With the achievement of independence, the Abrahams moved away from the center stage of political life, concentrating instead on activities that were considerably less dramatic but greatly constructive for their nascent nation. Drawing on their joint experiences of several decades of revolutionary journalism, they worked together to edit and publish a highly regarded journal, The Namibian Review. While Kenneth concentrated on his medical practice, Ottilie Abrahams devoted much effort and time to essential self-improvement projects, including supervising an adult-education center in the shanty-towns around the national capital of Windhoek in the 1990s.


Grotpeter, John J. Historical Dictionary of Namibia. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia