“Breaking the wire” – The struggle for freedom in Namibia

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005Katatura is a small township five miles away from Windhoek – the capital city of Namibia. Like most townships, it is a dull place with sand roads and matchbox houses.

But on Wednesday 29 February this year, the place came alive. The streets were full of people. They danced on the street corners. Every­ one sang, laughed and hugged each other.

Police in soldier uniforms stood on the side of the roads. But this did not stop the excitement. Cries of “Toivo, Toivo” and “Swapo will win”, filled the air. And the bright red, green and blue colours of Swapo were everywhere.

And the rain came – a long, wet rain. It was the first good rain in many weeks. Maybe the gods were also happy that day.

A sixty year old man with no hair, a grey beard and shining eyes was coming home. He was home again after 16 years in a far away place called Robben Island. His name Toivo Herman ja Toivo, the founder of SWAPO and the father of the Namibian people’s struggle for freedom.

The Germans tried to kill all the Herero people. Some of the Herero lived. They looked like this.

The Germans tried to kill all the Herero people. Some of the Herero lived. They looked like this.


Toivo’s story really begins In 1958. I n that year he was working in a grocery shop in Cape Town. Like most men from Namibia, he was a contract worker. He was trying to make a living for his family who lived in Ovamboland, the rural area of northern Namibia.

In Cape Town Toivo got interested in politics. He met people from the ANC and the Communist Party ­ organizations that were fighting to change things in South Africa. And he met other contract workers from Namibia – men like Andreas Shipanga, Emil Appalus, Solomon Mifima and Jacob Kuhangua.

These men met together in a small barbershop in Cape Town. They talked about the history of their country and the problems of the Namibian people.


When they met, they spoke about strangers ruling their people. They spoke about the Germans who first came to their country. The German rulers were very cruel. They took the people’s land and forced the men to work on white farms and mines.

Then after the First World War, the South Africans took over the country. For a while the Namibian people were happy. The cruel Germans were gone. But the people of Namibia were not happy for long. Toivo and his friends spoke about the new rulers from South Africa. They said the new rulers were just as bad as the Germans.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005Toivo and his friends remembered how people before them fought against the Germans and the South Africans. In 1893 and 1904 the Herero people from the south of Namibia took up arms. The Herero’s wanted to chase out the German strangers and get back their stolen land. Maherero the chief of the Herero people asked other people in Namibia to join in the fight. “Let us die fighting,” he said to the people of Namibia.

Toivo spoke about how these people were crushed by the German armies. The Germans wanted to kill all the Herero people. After the war only eight thousand out of 80 thousand Herero people were still alive.

Then In 1922 the Bondelswart people fought against the new South African rulers. The South Africans had already taken the land of these people. So the Bondelswarts lived by keeping a few cattle and hunting for food.

But the South African farmers did not like this. They wanted the Bondelswarts to work on white farms nearby. So they forced the Bondelswart people to pay a heavy tax. The people refused and also took up arms.

They too were crushed by the South African soldiers. The government even sent aircraft to bomb the village of these people. One hundred Bondeslwart people were killed.


Toivo and his friends also spoke about contract labour in Namibia. They spoke about how they were forced to find jobs in Namibia. They could not choose the jobs they wanted. The people at the labour office checked workers to see how fit they were – just like cattle. Then they chose a job for them to do.

The workers had to sign a paper contract. The contract said all workers must stay in the job for 12 or 18 months.

Contract workers could not choose their jobs. They could not talk about their wages. And they could not leave the job before their contract was over. If workers were cheeky or if they broke their contract, they were beaten and jailed by the police.

Workers knew the contract kept them in chains. That’s why they called contracts “Odalate” – the wire.

But Namibian workers didn’t take their contracts without fighting. They went on strike many times because the contracts were so unfair.

In 1948 two thousand mineworkers went on strike. And In 1952 and 1953, thousands of workers at fish factories stopped work. They wanted an end to the contracts.

Toivo and the other men from Namibia spoke about the “wire” for a long time. They all agreed that the Germans and the South Africans were in Namibia for one reason – to get rich.

The country IS full of good farm land. The sea is full of fish. And diamonds, copper and coal lie under the soil. Toivo said that the whites were using contracts to force the people to work on farms and mines for very low wages. The rulers were using the labour of the people to rob the country.

Workers in a fish factory.

Workers in a fish factory.

The men knew that contracts were the biggest cause of suffering in Namibia. And they new that the fight against the “wire” must go on.


So one day in 1957, Toivo and his friends got together again in the barbershop in Cape Town. They decided to start a new organization. They wanted to end the contracts and fight for the rights of the Namibian people.

Most contract workers came from Ovamboland in the north. So they called the organization the Ovambo­ Land People’s Organization (OPO).

The leaders of OPO sent men back into Namibia. These men held meetings and told people about the new organization. The new organization grew very quickly.

One of the new leaders inside Namibia was a young railway worker called Sam Nujoma – the leader of Swapo today. He went around to the workers compounds. He told workers to join the OPO. “We must work together,” he said. “You, me, all of us – we must fight for our freedom together.”

Soon the new organization had thousands of members in compounds and locations all over Namibia.

In the meantime, Toivo was still in South Africa. He was busy collecting stories from contract workers about their suffering under the “wire”.

Contract workers were taken to their jobs in cattle cars.

Contract workers were taken to their jobs in cattle cars.

He sent these stories on a tape to people overseas – so that the” world could hear of Namibia’s pain.

When the police heard about this, they arrested Toivo. They sent him back to Ovamboland. But Toivo did not stop working for his people. He held many meetings and asked people to join the OPO.


Toivo knew that the Ovambo people were not the only people fighting for freedom in Namibia. So he and the other OPO leaders had talks with the leaders of the Herero and other groups of people in Namibia – like the Nama. They remembered the early struggles of these people. The OPO knew that it must fight for the freedom of all the people of Namibia.

Then one night something happened that made the OPO leaders want· their freedom more than ever. In Windhoek most people lived in the ‘Old Location’ where they owned land. The government wanted to move these people to a dry and dusty location called Katatura.

Katatura was five miles from town ­ just like in South Africa.

The people refused to move.The police arrived with trucks and guns. Suddenly they began to shoot ­ and that night more than 11 people were killed.

Toivo and the OPO leaders were angry and bitter. They began to think about their struggle. In April 1960 the OPO changed its name. The new name was SWAPO – the South West African People’s Organization. And the new organization decided to use guns to free their country. They wanted the people of Namibia to rule their own country.


So like the Herero before them SWAPO decided to take up arms. Thousands of young men left their homes to join the S’WAPO soldiers. They went into the bush to learn how to fight.

But Toivo was worried. He knew the South African army was strong. He was scared that many of his people would die.

“1 did not agree that people should go . into the bush,” said Toivo in a court a few years later. “But I could not refuse to help them when I knew they were hungry. I was not, and I could not remain a spectator in the struggle of my people for their freedom.”

In 1966 SWAPO attacked an army camp in the north of Namibia. The South African government was very angry. Toivo and other SWAPO leaders were arrested. Many SWAPO soldiers were also arrested. They were all put in jail.

Later they were taken to court in South Africa. In 1968 the judge sent Toivo and many others to jail on Robben Island.


But this did not end the struggle. While Toivo sat in jail SWAPO was still alive. Sam Nujoma became the new leader. And one thousand miles from Robben lsland SWAPO soldiers still fought for freedom in Namibia.

Workers also kept up the fight against their contracts. In 1972 nearly 20 thousand workers went on strike for three months. The workers wanted an end to all their contracts.

For 16 years Robben Island was Toivo’s home. And in all this time SWAPO got stronger. So when Toivo came home he knew he could say – “The struggle goes on.”


The man who died for freedom

At the end of October every year, thousands of people from all over Namibia come together in the town of Gibeon. They come together to remember a brave fighter and a great leader. The people of Namibia will never forget Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi.

Kaptein Witbooi was one of the first people in Namibia to begin the struggle for freedom. He fought for freedom. And he died for freedom.

Kaptein’ Hendrik Witbooi died in 1905. He was killed in the war against the German rulers of Namibia. Germany ruled Namibia until the end of the First World War. When Germany lost the war, they also lost Namibia.

After the war, the people of Namibia still did not get their freedom. Instead they got new rulers from another country. Their new rulers came from South Africa.

The Germans killed thousands of people in Namibia. Before the Germans came to Namibia, there were 80 thousand Herero people. When the Germans left, there were only 20 thousand Herero people left. When the Germans came, there were 20 thousand Nama people. When they left, there were only four thousand Nama people left.

When the people of Namibia meet in Gibeon every year, they stand at the grave of Kaptein Witbooi and they remember the past. They remember the cruel German rulers and their dead heroes. They talk about their long struggle for freedom. And they talk about the lessons they have learned from their struggle.

“We have learned some very important lessons from our struggle,” said Pastor Hendrik Witbooi last year. He is the leader of the Nama people and the great grandson of Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi. In the war against the Germans the people of Namibia did not stand together. The Herero and the Nama people did not unite in their struggle.

“The people of Namibia were at war with themselves. If the people of Namibia had fought together, they maybe could have won the war against the Germans. But we were divided. And when people are divided, they won’t win any struggle. They will always lose.”

Pastor Witbooi does not talk empty words. Today he and his people are loyal members of Swapo—the organisation that fights for freedom in Namibia. Pastor Witbooi himself is the vice—president of Swapo.

And some people say that only the Ovambo people believe in Swapo. How wrong they are! The people of Namibia have learned from their past.

But when the people meet in Gibeon every year, they don’t only feel sad. They also feel happy. Old friends meet each other and talk about old times. The people sing and dance. And the young people learn about the history and culture of their people.

They feel proud and strong when they watch the men ride their horses through the dusty streets of Gibeon. The men wear the same uniforms that Kaptein Witbooi and his soldiers wore. And they sit proudly and straight up on their hourses — just like Kaptein Witbooi and his men did.

And the people clap loudly when the men on the horses come to the grave of Kaptein Witbooi. Then the men ride very fast around the grave. When they are finished, they fire three shots from their guns. And the people stand there together—strong and united.

After two days have passed, the people say goodbye to each other until they meet again the next year. Then they make their way to their homes in the different parts of Namibia.

On the way home they think about the brave Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi and all the other people who have died in the struggle for freedom. And they think about the future. A hundred years have passed and they are still not free. They know that the work of Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi is not yet finished.