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Lauren Dobell writes of a ruling party - Swapo in Namibia - that threatens to turn very mean indeed in its fevered reaction to a book that reveals more about its abuses of power as a liberation movement in exile than it cares to have known. Here she reviews Siegfried Groth's "Namibia: the Wall of Silence" and the political response to it.

vol 11 no 4

Review: Namibia's wall of silence
review by Lauren Dobell

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 4, July 1996
Page 30



Lauren Dobell is a doctoral candidate at Oxford University and a student of Namibian politics.

Namibia: The Wall of Silence, by Siegfried Groth (Peter Hammer Verlag, Wupertal, Germany 1995), 211 pages.

Namibia's collegial multi-party parliament, its exemplary national constitution and its regular, peaceful elections are a continuing source of pride to its citizens and of satisfaction to local and international observers. As a measure of the degree to which democratic practice is entrenched, however, a smoothly functioning electoral system is in itself insufficient. To be considered genuinely "consolidated," a democratic polity must have demonstrated itself able to cope with stresses or shocks without sacrificing the basic political freedoms upon which it depends. Such a shock was administered to Namibia's ruling party with the release of Siegfried Groth's book, Namibia: The Wall of Silence, earlier this year. Swapo's initial response to the oppositional activity it engendered was not especially encouraging.

At the heart of the crisis is the issue of former "detainees," who allege widespread mistreatment of suspected dissidents during the liberation struggle by Swapo's leadership in exile, and are demanding a full confession and apology from the perpetrators, possibly through a process modelled after the South African Truth Commission. But the ramifications of their campaign reach well beyond the question of rehabilitation for those accused by their movement of having been spies and traitors, and restitution for the families of those who never returned from the "Swapo dungeons." At stake too is the government's policy of national reconciliation, the past and future role of the once-powerful Council of Churches in Namibia, the composition of the Swapo leadership and, ultimately, the quality of Namibia's democracy itself.

National reconciliation?

Swapo's policy of national reconciliation, the essential contours of which were determined before independence, differs significantly from the ANC's approach to the same fundamental challenge of putting a nation's ugly and painful past behind it. South Africa's Government of National Unity established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reasoning, in the words of Justice Minister Dullah Omar, that "reconciliation is not simply a question of indemnity or amnesty or letting bygones be bygones. If the wounds of the past are to be healed . . . if future violations of human rights are to be avoided, if we are successfully to initiate the building of a human rights culture, disclosure of the truth and its acknowledgment is essential."

As Namibia's ruling party, Swapo chose another route to reconciliation. In the government's view resurrecting the past served no useful purpose. A successful transition, the argument went, required cooperation among former enemies, and delving into past wrongs would only incite a desire for vengeance and distract the nation from the tasks of reconstruction and development. An unspoken but critical subtext were the Swapo leadership's concerns about the skeletons in its own closet. Having been quietly collecting dust for some years, these now appear set for a good rattling.

The "detainees issue" did make itself felt in Namibia's independence elections. Swapo detainees released in July 1989 formed a political party and united with the vocal Parents' Committee (comprising relatives of detainees or missing persons). Together they captured some of Swapo's support and helped to deny it a two-thirds majority vote. Since then the issue has been largely dormant. Exhortations from the president to observe national reconciliation, the judicious incorporation of many former detainees into the public service, the discrediting of others, fatigue and fear of social ostracism have all contributed to effectively quelling the few subsequent attempts by former detainees to revive the issue. In late 1994 parliament stifled a motion by opposition politician and former detainee Eric Biwa requesting the release of a promised official list of some 2,100 people still unaccounted for so that formal death certificates could be issued to families, permitting guardianship to be established, marriages to take place, and inheritances to be settled. The issue appeared to be effectively squelched. That is, until the long-awaited release of Siegfried Groth's book provided a catalyst for the resurrection of the controversy.

The book was immediately attacked by senior Swapo leaders, including President Sam Nujoma and party Secretary-General Moses Garoeb as "false history," its author as an "enemy of Swapo" (and, by implication, of Namibia). Sponsors of a formal book launch were accused of having declared war on national reconciliation. All the attention risked portraying the book itself as the issue, rather than for what it provided: a lightning rod for serious and legitimate discontent among many Namibians, a bellwether for Swapo's tolerance of criticism and democratic dissent, and a decisive test for the resilience of the magic wand of national reconciliation.

The book itself

Turning first, then, to the book and its contentious contents. The author is a German Lutheran pastor whose ties to Namibia date back to the early 1960s, when he was sent by the Rhenisch Mission in Wuppertal to work with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia. Subsequently banned from entering Namibia, he ministered, on behalf of the same churches, to Swapo's followers in exile. His account of what he personally witnessed in the Swapo camps, and what others told him about widespread corruption among the leadership and the harassment, imprisonment, torture and disappearances of people branded as dissidents makes for painful reading; the emotional cost to Groth of finally speaking out is very clear.

Crisply described in a foreword as "not history, but stories," Groth's loosely-woven narrative draws mainly on his own memories and diary entries for a deeply personal and anecdotal account of the Swapo crises of the mid-1970s and 1980s. Although he is at pains to situate the movement's paranoia and excesses against a backdrop of a brutal apartheid regime, Groth does little to explain the wider context in which the Namibian liberation struggle was fought, nor the inner dynamics which, from the late 1960s onward, repeatedly threatened to tear the movement apart.

Naturally, it is from the perspective of a devoted Christian, not that of a political historian, that Groth seeks to understand the terrible fates visited on so many of his parishioners-in-exile. The author's faith, however sorely tested it has been, pervades the book; indeed its generous dose of biblical content may, in places, make it tough going for more secular readers. It is not, however, to these that the book is primarily pitched. The account serves several purposes: as a catharsis for the author, as an attempt to provide some small solace to the victims and their families, as a plea for a confession from the perpetrators, and for some serious soul-searching by those who protected them by their silence. The general reader will find the accounts of individuals' experiences within the movement moving, but fragmentary. Groth calls his account of the spy drama a "body without limbs," but it is in fact the reverse: it is the central narrative thread that is lacking.

Several of the chapters follow a similar pattern, tracing the story of courageous Namibians whose experience of apartheid cruelty at home sent them into exile, where they fell victim to forces they could not comprehend. Groth's own analytical tool - the measuring stick of morality - is ill-suited to the task of explaining actions that were rooted rather in more terrestrial instincts: anti- intellectualism, ethnic rivalry, jealousy, ambition, logistical confusion and political pragmatism, played out within a framework set by regional and international forces. Groth is to some extent captured by the red herring of ideology here: the role of communism in informing the movement's leaders is overplayed, and Marxism is conflated with its Stalinist distortions. At the same time, however, Groth's account reflects the incomprehensibility to the victims of their betrayal by a movement fighting for freedom from a common oppressor. What may appear understandable with the perspective accorded by time and distance from the event, certainly wasn't to those caught up in it.

Swapo's responsibility

Throughout the account runs the underlying question: were the atrocities and the authoritarianism a product of terrible circumstance or part of Swapo's fibre? Groth is reluctant to condemn individuals or to pass judgement on the movement. The "securocratic" wing within the Swapo leadership is held directly responsible for the abuses which occurred, but it is the individual and collective complicity of the churches and clerics inside Namibia and abroad which shoulder the brunt of the blame in this account. Like Groth himself, the churches remained silent about what they knew or suspected: a product of a mistaken and terribly damaging solidarity. To break down the "wall of silence" is the challenge Groth throws out with this book. And in this respect it seems he may just succeed.

Ironically, albeit perhaps inevitably, the book remains to some extent complicit in the very "silence" it sets out to break. Groth tells only some of what he knows. He cites few sources, and in quoting his informants appears to be giving the gist rather than the verbatim content of their remarks. Most of the names of the victims are pseudonyms, and only a few of the best- known "securocrats" are named. He does, however, break a longstanding taboo in holding Sam Nujoma, as president, responsible for what was taking place in his organisation, whether or not he was fully apprised of what was happening. Altogether, it is a very partial contribution to the whole truth, as the author humbly acknowledges. His faith allows him to accept the exceptional (the "miraculous" escape of some obvious targets) and to sidestep many important questions, leaving the reader frustrated. Many of the chapters simply trail off: some did this, some did that. Some survived, some didn't. Most seek to find some sort of redemption for Swapo. Groth almost certainly exaggerates the role of Christian belief as a cleavage within the movement. (In another account of life in the camps, Pekka Peltola emphasises trade union membership as putting Swapo cadres at risk; education and ethnic background were most salient according to the evidence). Namibian political scientist Joe Diescho probably came closest to the truth in a recent interview with The Namibian: the majority were simply "people who had the courage to ask [inconvenient] questions."

The Wall of Silence has undoubtedly made waves inside Namibia. It is not so much what Groth himself reveals about this history that matters. Very little of what he says is new, and others have contributed more detail, better substantiated, to the collective record [ Editors' note: see in particular, in this regard, Colin Leys and John S. Saul, Namibia's Liberation Struggle: The Two-Edged Sword (London and Athens Ohio: James Currey and Ohio University Press, 1995), to which Lauren Dobell herself contributes an important chapter.] One is left to wonder why the book has struck such a chord among certain sections of the Namibian population, and elicited such an extravagant response from the top ranks of Swapo.

The reception

Partly it is a matter of authorship. The Swapo leadership has always been allergic to criticism of any kind, but the closer the source to the centre of power, the less easy it is to dismiss, and the more immoderate the reaction. In contrast to previous accounts of the "crisis of 1976" and the "Swapo spy drama" (Groth doesn't deal with the lesser-known "Kongwa crisis" of the late 1960s), The Wall of Silence is, in effect, speaking from within the solidarity fold. Groth was a fellow-traveller, and his defection hurts, although not nearly as much as others would. It is fear of fissures appearing further up that has prompted certain senior Swapo leaders to lash out as they have. The hierarchy of concerns that informed their manoeuvres in the weeks following the release of the book would appear to read, in descending order, as follows: 1) protecting themselves, 2) preserving the unity of the Swapo leadership's "inner circle," 3) maintaining the loyalty of the broader party membership, 4) assuaging international concerns, and 5) quieting the nation, although insofar as 5) appeared a prerequisite for some of the others, the strategy was not always altogether linear.

And certainly developments suggested that there were reasons for concern (or optimism, depending on the perspective) all along the spectrum. The release of the book in the original German prompted some former detainees to present a petition to the Council of Churches of Namibia, requesting the organization to undertake a booklaunch and to thereby acknowledge the "weighty responsibility" Groth imputes to it for initiating a genuine healing process. The ensuing debate within the CCN executive threatened to split it, with the major Northern churches initially rejecting any part in sponsoring a launch. The CCN eventually determined to hold a conference within the year to discuss the issue more generally. A Breaking the Wall of Silence (BWOS) Committee was then formed, comprising former detainees and their supporters, together with a number of CCN employees. These determined to launch the book under its own auspices, and undertook translations from English into the more widely spoken Afrikaans and Oshivambo, the latter directly addressing Swapo's traditional support base. Certain Swapo leaders' concern grew apace as the weekly meetings of the BWOS swelled in size, and its spokespeople became more outspoken. The President was the first to lash out (and it was highly suggestive to see who followed him). Having apparently never heard the adage "no publicity is bad publicity," he commandeered fifteen minutes of air time on national television to condemn the book. The next day book stores reported brisk sales and the battle escalated. Letters to the editor flooded into Namibia's newspapers, and passionate editorials flowed out; NBC radio's chat shows were abuzz with calls commending and condemning the efforts to resurrect the detainee issue.

More telling blows were still to land. The major umbrella organisation of progressive non-government organizations, NANGOF, and the branch of the national students' organization [(NANSO) still affiliated to Swapo] both declared their support for the proposed CCN conference, which had become emblematic, for both supporters and detractors, of a step towards a Truth Commission. Such public urgings from historical allies for Swapo to "come clean" caused party Secretary General Moses Garoeb to "go ballistic" as the headline in The Namibian put it, declaring Swapo and its supporters ready to back to war to defeat those "evil forces" that were threatening peace and stability in Namibia.

Garoeb's outburst concealed a more rational calculation on the part of those within the leadership who have most to fear from full disclosure. These are, in fact, a small minority within Swapo's formerly exiled leaders, who have relied for years on a pact of secrecy within the leadership as a whole. But there are signs that some of their colleagues are weary of their guilt by association, and that the bonds are eroding. So too, seemingly, is Swapo's control over the party wings, especially its youth league, workers and students. The "old guard" may be in for a rough ride at the forthcoming Swapo Congress, and it's certain that its strong arm tactics are intended to bring the more irreverent elements to heel.

What then, to make of all this? The Wall of Silence has helped to unleash forces inside Namibia that give cause simultaneously for optimism and alarm. On the one hand there are exciting signs that "civil society" in Namibia is finding its feet and finding a voice, binding together to create a political space for legitimate criticism and democratic dissent. There are signs too that more radical elements within Swapo may be building up to a much needed shake-up within Swapo's government and party ranks. On the other hand, Namibians have little experience of defying the party which retains so much of its liberation movement glamour, and some of its most powerful leaders have demonstrated that they are prepared to crack down hard on calls for a Namibian Truth Commission. The vexing paradox noted in other transitions to democracy is as true of Namibia as anywhere else: the more important it is to deal with the past, the harder it is to do so.

Near the end of his book Groth recalls meeting Swapo founding member Andimba Toivo ya Toivo at an independence day banquet. Initially reluctant to greet him, Toivo relents, saying "You're not a good friend of Swapo, but I do welcome you to Namibia." Would that all of Swapo's leaders made the crucial distinction between unquestioning support for Swapo and being a loyal friend to Namibia.

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