Namibia has seen an unprecedented outpouring of grief following the death of liberation struggle hero Andimba Toivo ya Toivo. It was matched by vibrant social media commentary.
Comments suggest that many regarded him as an icon of the Namibian liberation struggle, although he never became the official leader of the liberation movement, South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), nor independent Namibia’s President.
These political leadership positions were firmly occupied by Sam Nujoma, who served three terms as president after 1990. On his retirement in 2005 he was declared the official “Founding Father of the Namibian Nation”.
In the wake of Toivo’s death some commentators claimed that he would perhaps have been a more deserving recipient of such an honorary title. These contestations are indicative of the internal politics of SWAPO, still Namibia’s ruling party by a large margin. They were dismissed quickly though, most publicly by Namibia’s First Lady Monica Geingos.
Irrespective, Toivo (92) received unprecedented accolades as a “revolutionary hero”. Thousands attended memorial services held for him across the country. Innumerable tributes were published in Namibia, South Africa, and on the continent, and beyond.
Namibian President Hage Geingob delivered an extraordinary eulogy during the national memorial service of 23 June. He emphasised Toivo’s significance, saying:
We have lost a man who epitomises the core ideals that make us the nation we are today. … His durable principles and inexhaustible reservoir of compassion, forgiveness, patience and sense of justice allowed him to shun the murky waters of greed and factionalism
A day later Geingob called at the burial site to honour Toivo’s legacy through commitment to fighting tribalism and racism, poverty and corruption. He was given a state funeral at the Namibian National Heroes Acre in Windhoek.
Remarkably, Geingob’s historical account named a full list of the Ovamboland People’s Congress founders in Cape Town in 1957, which included a number of early activists who later fell out of favour with SWAPO, such as Emil Appolus, Andreas Shipanga, Otillie Schimming Abrahams, and Kenneth Abrahams.
This historical honesty paid due respect to the man. In the party he co-founded Toivo’s frank attitude was not always welcome. In 2007 he failed to be re-elected to the SWAPO Politburo. Rumours had it at the time that he was too sympathetic to the Rally for Democracy and Progress, a break-away party from SWAPO. He denied this. In 2012 he was finally made a permanent member of SWAPO’s Central Committee.
Who was this inspiring man, and what remains of his legacy?
A revolutionary hero
Herman Andimba Toivo ya Toivo was born in 1924 in Omangudu in northern Namibia. He received primary school education from the Finnish Lutheran mission (‘Toivo’ means ‘hope’ in Finnish). During World War 2 Toivo was a soldier with the South African Native Military Corps. He then attended the Anglican St Mary’s Odibo school, where he qualified and worked as a teacher.
In 1951 Toivo moved to Cape Town. In the Cape he became involved with South African anti-apartheid organisations, including the African National Congress and left-wing student movements. In 1957 he formed the Ovamboland People’s Congress, forerunner of the Namibian liberation organisation South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO).
Because of his activism he was deported to Namibia, where he continued his anti-apartheid and Namibian nationalist politics. In 1966 Toivo was arrested by the South African authorities. The following year “The state v. Tuhadeleni and 36 Others” trial opened in Pretoria. Toivo appeared as Accused No. 21. The trial was the first under South Africa’s Terrorism Act of 21 June 1967.
With a powerful speech from the dock Toivo drew international attention to the Namibian liberation struggle. He is best remembered internationally for his statement that Namibians were not South Africans and that they should not be tried by South Africans under “foreign” law.
Sentenced to 20 years in prison he spent 16 years on Robben Island, where he became close to Mandela. In 1984 he was released and joined SWAPO in exile.
After Namibian independence in 1990 Toivo served in the SWAPO government in various portfolios.
Against greed and division
In 2005 Toivo retired from official politics with a farewell speech in the Namibian parliament. The veteran liberation fighter issued a stern warning against greed and self-enrichment among those who had come to power in post-liberation governments:
Being a member of parliament or even a minister should not be seen as an opportunity to achieve status, to be addressed as “honourables” and to acquire riches. If those are your goals, you would do better to pursue other careers.
Toivo did not only speak out against post-liberation scourges raising their ugly heads in Namibia. In 2014 he also addressed a warning to South African politicians.
In his later years Toivo also raised his voice against what he perceived as the rise of tribalism in post-colonial Namibia. In an interview with the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation he called on his compatriots to, “forget about this tribalism. It will never take you anywhere, but it causes destruction.”
At a time when ethnicity had become a frequent concern in the post-colonial politics and society, Toivo called on the solidarities of anti-colonial nationalism. He urged that Namibians “should not allow ourselves to be divided.”
On various occasions during the mourning period Toivo’s children, family members, old comrades and friends praised his exceptional and stubborn commitment to revolutionary morality. His widow Vicki Erenstein ya Toivo used the occasion of the state funeral to chastise those who exploited their positions to get rich.
Regional and international significance
Toivo was not just a Namibian freedom fighter. As an activist against apartheid he was part of a generation who bore Southern Africa’s long struggles against apartheid and colonialism in regional solidarity. To these men and women the freedom struggle was a continental, even a global rather than just a nationalist endeavour.
Geingob’s eulogy made a special point in emphasising the significance of international solidarity in the pursuit of Namibian independence. He equally stressed the commonality of the Namibian and South African struggles against the shared common enemy of apartheid. The Namibian president called for a pan-Africanist commitment to honour Toivo’s legacy in the post-colonial struggles against what he described as the “common enemy” of inequality, poverty and corruption.