“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.”


19 years away from home

10th December 1982

Betty Mbatha sat in the old chair. She held the train ticket in her hand – a train ticket to Cape Town. She was excited. She was going to see her husband. She was going to see Lombard.

Lombard was in jail on Robben Island. And Betty did not see him often. They don’t allow many visits. And anyway, she did not have money for train tickets everyday!

She saw Lombard for a few hours every year. And those few hours were everything. She forgot about the children to feed. She forgot about the rent. And she forgot about going to bed alone.

When she saw him, she spoke to him on a telephone. They did not let her touch him. For 19 years she hasn’t touched him. But she loves him. She never stopped loving him.

Betty got up from the chair. She put the tickets carefully back in the drawer. Then she went back to her sewing machine – the sewing machine that kept the family alive for all these years. She worked quickly. She wanted to finish the dress for the old lady down the road.

Betty looked up. She looked at the picture of Lombard on the wall. She smiled at him. “At least you know where the next meal is coming from,” she whispered.

Betty felt good today. She always felt good a few days before she went to Cape Town. Then she heard a knock on the door:

“Hello Betty,” said a young man. Betty knew the man. He was the shopkeeper from the corner shop. “Lombard has just phoned me. He said he will come home later today.”

“Don’t talk nonsense and stop wasting my time,” shouted Betty. She closed the door. She was tired of people telling her that story. And anyway, she had a ticket for Cape Town already. She went back to her sewing machine.


Lombard Mbatha climbed out of the truck. He stretched his legs. The long trip from Cape Town was over. And RobbenIsland was behind him. He was thankful.

He now stood in Leeukop prison somewhere near Pretoria. He was tired. And he did not know what was going to happen.

“There’s a new law,” some people were saying. “They are letting us out early.”

“Big deal,” Lombard said to a man near him. “What’s one year early after 19 years?” And then he thought for a few minutes. “But I won’t complain if they do let us out,” he said with a smile.

And then somebody shouted, “Hey, those guys are still here. And they left the Island before us. They aren’t going to let us out early.”

Everybody kept quiet. Lombard stood still. He stood still for a long time. He stood until he heard a voice. Somebody was talking to him.

“Lombard Mbatha, here are some new clothes. Take all your belongings. You are going home. Do you want to have a bath before you go?”

Lombard felt dizzy. His legs were shaking. “No thanks,” he whispered. “I’ll bath at home.”

Lombard got into the car with the policemen. They were driving him home. They drove fast. He watched the world fly past from the window. He did not feel well. He felt hot and cold. He felt like he was on a boat – like the boat taking him to the Island all those years ago.

He remembers his anger on the boat. How can they give me 20 years for taking people to Botswana? The judge was not fair!

And in the beginning, he helped build the jail. Yes, they sent him to jail. And then he

must help build it.

And after Lombard finished building, he started woodwork. He liked woodwork. But when he looked up from his workbench, he dreamed of Bloubergstrand on the mainland. When he dreamed about Bloubergstrand, he thought about home. And then

He worried.

 He worried about Betty. She always looked tired when she saw him. She worked so hard. And he always asked himself, “Why did they not let Betty carry on with my Undertaker’s business? Why didn’t they give her a licence?”

 But when his thoughts turned away from Bloubergstrand, he forgot about the outside world. He wanted to forget. He had to forget.

 A policeman’s voice woke Lombard from his thoughts. “We’re in Vereeniging,” the policeman said. “We are stopping here for a while.”

Lombard opened his eyes. He knew he was nearly home. And suddenly he had a new worry. He didn’t want to give his family a fright. He decided to phone the shop in Evaton. Then the shopkeeper could tell his family he was coming home.

They let Lombard use the phone. And soon they were driving in the car again. Then Lombard felt a bump. The car hit a pothole on the way into Evaton. Lombard Mtatha was home.


Learn and Teach.Lombard, can you please tell us about the day you got home?

Lombard: Yes, I remember the day well. My youngest daughter Nelisiwe met me at the gate. She hugged and kissed me. Then the police took me inside and shouted, “Mrs Mbatha, we have brought your husband home.”

My wife came up to me. She took my hand – for the first time in 19 years. Then she kissed me. She was calm. But I knew she was happy. Then I turned around. I looked at my two young children. They were the only children home at the time. My daughter was crying. My son went outside to cry.

We talked for half the night. And then we went to bed. Nelisiwe woke up soon afterwards. And she screamed, “Baba, are you still here?”

“I am still here. I am not going anywhere,” I answered.

 Learn and Teach: What did you do for the first few days?

Lombard: I stayed at home for the first few days. Many friends came to visit me. I was happy because people did not forget me.

 Learn and Teach: What will you do in the future?

Lombard: I’m not sure yet. But I would like to do woodwork. I have a woodwork certificate. But I may have problems. I’m not sure what people will say when I show them my certificate – and they see I learnt woodwork on the Island.

Learn and Teach: How has Evaton changed since you left?


Lombard: I must say the place looked funny after so long. When I left, this township

Sebokeng was not next door. And another thing – when I left the young girls didn’t drink so much liquor.

 But one thing hasn’t changed. And that’s my wife’s cooking.  Her food was worth waiting for.

 Lombard Mbatha laughed. And then we all laughed. We laughed with happiness. Mbatha was not broken. His spirit was not lost. He can still laugh. ●