Review of Siegfried Groth's Namibia - the Wall of Silence: the Dark Days of the Liberation Struggle
By Timothy Dauth. 23 April, 1996
Siegfried Groth, Namibia - the Wall of Silence: the Dark Days of the Liberation Struggle, with forewords by Carl Mau and Heinz Joachim Held. Translated from German by Hugh Beyer. Wuppertal, Germany: Peter Hammer Verlag, 1995. 210 pp, 18 photographs, 2 maps, table (facts and figures), chronology, select bibliography.
ISBN 3 87294 708 7
Distributed in South Africa by David Philip Publishers.
Reviewed by Timothy Dauth, PhD Candidate, Department of History, University of Western Australia.
Siegfried Groth is a German Lutheran pastor who, according to the foreword by Bishop Held, records here "not history, but stories" (p.15) collected during his pastoral work in Namibia and with Namibians in exile. Groth mixes his own experiences with the stories of others, building a history of Namibia's liberation struggle around a very personal narrative. The particular concern of this work is to relate tales and circumstances of human rights abuses committed by the South West Africa People's Organisation of Namibia (SWAPO) in exile against dissident members and those detained as spies during the 1980s. These excesses are contextualised within the spiralling vortex of violence and oppression that accompanied South Africa's presence in Namibia, and within a general framework discussing the historical role of the Churches in Namibia's liberation struggle. The express purpose of Groth's history is not to provide, but to invite, a proper investigation of aspects of SWAPO's exile operations, and from this to contribute to the rehabilitation of ex-detainees within the national reconciliation process in Namibia. As a history written by a non-historian, Wall of Silence is a history without pretensions of being such, and it is also a history that is itself making history.
Particularly since its release in English translation, Pastor Groth's work has had an extraordinary impact on the contemporary Namibian political landscape. It has spawned an organisation (the Breaking the Wall of Silence Committee (BWS)), inspired a Council of Churches in Namibia (CCN) initiative for a conference on SWAPO detainees, and incited a fiery national debate that refused to settle. Not least, it has provoked an intemperate response from the ruling SWAPO Party that holds serious ramifications for the future of the party and for the future of Namibia's national reconciliation and democratisation process.
The most remarkable response was that of the Namibian President, Sam Nujoma, who appeared in a special state television address to warn the nation of Groth's "false history", and accused Christo Lombard, a theology professor, renowned anti-apartheid activist, and defender of Groth's work, of being an "apostle of apartheid" (The Namibian, 7/3/96). In the same month, SWAPO's Secretary General, Moses Garoeb, called the Party to battle stations, declaring war on the "unpatriotic elements" and "foreign remnants of fascism" that had threatened national reconciliation by bringing the detainee issue into the open. Garoeb and other SWAPO officials have argued that Groth's work and the issues it raised could incite a civil war in Namibia (The Namibian, 13/3/96). A little later, during Independence anniversary celebrations, SWAPO supporters in its northern heartland reportedly called for the banning and burning of Pastor Groth's book (Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), "Action Alert Up-Date - Namibia: Call For Banning and Burning of Book," 27/3/96).
The controversy has also become something of an international issue with the detainee question being addressed in the US State Department's 1996 Human Rights Report - which, for this and other reasons, did not include Namibia in its list of 8 African countries said to have 'respected' human rights. The Report comments that the detainee issue "will likely remain controversial until the Government conducts a full investigation and releases its results" (The Namibian, 12/3/96).
International concerns were also raised when the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) refused to release footage of the President's address and other detainee related material to a German television crew (Mail and Guardian, 11/4/96).
What is most curious is that such a row should be raised now, six years after Namibian independence, when SWAPO's electoral position is unassailable, it has a firm reign over the bureaucracy, and its opposition is crumbling and discredited. It is likely that revelations of SWAPO detainees contributed to costing the party its two-thirds majority in the 1989 elections, but in its landslide 1994 victory SWAPO more than made up the deficit and its position is safe for some time. On the face of it, SWAPO was unlikely to have been damaged in the slightest by Groth's work had it not felt the need to react in such an extreme manner. Far more than the work's own content, it has been SWAPO's reaction to Wall of Silence that has provided cause for debate. And indeed, the excessive response to Wall of Silence might be described as incredible when one considers its content and its author's personal history.
Although SWAPO has made remonstrations to the contrary, Groth's background appears to be that of an active friend of the liberation struggle, and in many ways a supporter of SWAPO itself, who decided to break a long standing taboo against criticising the movement. It is important to note that while he made private protestations, Groth maintained his own 'solidarity of silence' on the detainee issue until after it had become very much common knowledge in Namibia. This work is in part a belated act of atonement for his failure to make a stronger public criticism of SWAPO's human rights abuses while they were actually occurring. "Through my many year's of silence," Groth confesses, "I had become jointly responsible for the situation." (p.193)
The first three sections of Wall of Silence concentrate almost exclusively on aspects and consequences of the "South African rule of terror" (p.33) in Namibia, opening a discussion on the articulation of Christianity and the liberation struggle with particular relation to issues such as the use of violence and the encompassing role of SWAPO. Groth is sympathetic to both, situating himself and most of his informants squarely within the liberation movement. Up to this point his work is in many respects very similar in perspective to, for example, much of Church and Liberation in Namibia (edited by Peter Katjavivi, Per Frostin, and Kaire Mbuende. London and Winchester: Pluto, 1989).
Although he then relates horrific tales of abuse committed under the auspices of SWAPO and comes to identify entirely with SWAPO dissidents, there is never a sense that Groth considers SWAPO beyond redemption. There is a short and unresolved discussion of whether the abuses and authoritarian elements in SWAPO were indeed exceptions brought on by exceptional circumstances, or part of the very structure of SWAPO (p.165), but in the final analysis, all Groth asks of SWAPO is a confession and atonement for particular alleged sins.
It might be argued that Groth's work has made such an impact in Namibia because it is ostensibly a critique from within the fold. Not for want of trying, SWAPO has found it difficult to dismiss it as a work of malicious propaganda. However, it must be noted here that Wall of Silence is by no means the first published work by an author with a known solidarity background to critique SWAPO for its handling of dissidence, the 1976 crisis or the 1980s 'spy drama' detainees.
One significant recent work of 'progressive revisionism' along these lines is Colin Leys and John S. Saul's volume, Namibia's Liberation Struggle: the Two-Edged Sword (London: James Currey, 1995). This is a wide ranging work that takes issue with many aspects of SWAPO's history and current directions. Alongside Leys and Saul's own close look at SWAPO's problems of accommodating dissent and the paradox of 'liberation without democracy', this work includes a contribution by Philip Steenkamp that specifically examines the Church position regarding SWAPO detainees. In this, Steenkamp makes quite similar observations to those contained in Groth's work.
Another recent work that most reluctantly, and yet pointedly, takes issue with SWAPO's conduct towards its detainees is Pekka Peltola's The Lost May Day: Namibian Workers Struggle for Independence (Jyvaskyla: Finnish Anthropological Society and the Nordic Africa Institute, 1995). Like Groth, Peltola bases much of his criticism on personal observations made while undertaking solidarity work with SWAPO and the Namibian exile community.
Yet another example is David Lush's Last Steps to Uhuru (Windhoek: New Namibia Books, 1993), which observes the response to the 'Spy Drama' during the 1989 elections and, most usefully, discusses how the issue was received by the progressive pro-independence newspaper, The Namibian.
Other work to have touched on these issues prior to Wall of Silence and in a manner that may be construed as constructively critical of SWAPO include: Denis Herbstein and John Evenson's The Devils are Among Us: the War for Namibia (London and New Jersey: Zed, 1989), in dealing with what it describes as 'exilitis'; Lionel Cliffe, et al, in The Transition to Independence in Namibia (Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner, 1994); Lauren Dobel's New Lamps for Old? The Evolution of SWAPO's Philosophy of Development, 1960-1991 (MA thesis: Queens University, 1992); and, research work, including considerable material drawn from interviews with ex-detainees, by Sue Brown and Tove Dix ("Political Prisoners and Detainees in the Namibian Liberation Struggle", in The Integration of Returned Exiles, Former Combatants and Other War-Affected Namibians, Windhoek: Namibian Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Namibia, March 1993).
Works dealing with the dissident and detainee issue from an unsympathetic perspective include: Nico Basson and Ben Motinga (eds.), Call Them Spies: A Documentary Account of the SWAPO Spy Drama (Windhoek and Johannesburg: Africa Communications Project, 1989); Andreas Shipanga's In Search of Freedom: the Andreas Shipanga Story as Told to Sue Armstrong (Gibraltar: Ashanti, 1989); and, A Struggle Betrayed by Erika Thiro-Beukes, Attie Beukes and Hewat Beukes (Reheboth: Akasia Drukkery, 1990). While these works are for the most part discredited - Basson has admitted being a South African agent (Lush, p.178), and material for A Struggle Betrayed included documents stolen from Pastor Groth's office (Groth, p.144) - the validity of their subject matter and the bulk of their findings cannot be rejected out of hand.
On balance then, the amount of critical and reliable research available on the area suggests that one need not seriously doubt either the bulk of the source material or the historical arguments offered by Wall of Silence. Sections of Swapo notwithstanding, it is generally accepted that there were indeed grievous abuses of human rights perpetrated by SWAPO personnel during the struggle for independence. It is also reasonably clear that sections of SWAPO utilised the very real problem of informers and spies to mask its heavy handed approach to internal dissent and factionalism. In most research, as it is in Groth's, this observation is prefaced with accounts of the violent extremes and systematic oppression of South African rule, and with acknowledgement that there must actually have been a considerable number of spies and informants in SWAPO. As becomes clear in Groth's account and in other works, there are few former or current SWAPO members, particularly those from the southern regions of Namibia, who were not aware of serious problems in SWAPO or were not touched personally by the detainee issue. One often cited illustration of this is that President Nujoma's own brother-in-law, Aaron Muchimba, was arrested as a spy, and his wife, Kovambo, was interrogated for some weeks (Leys and Saul, p.56).
Certainly, in the light of the controversy raised, it is true that if Groth's work were to stand alone, there would be good reasons to scrutinise the allegations raised in it. Compared to all except perhaps the last three works cited, there are problems of methodology in Groth's work that do in fact leave it vulnerable to the charges of fabrication that have been made. Groth's work is clearly written for a popular audience by a non-historian. It is not concerned with appearing impartial and it is not fearful of academic stricture. The interviews and quotations contained in it are not referenced, names have been changed without specifying which, and it is apparent that some of the lengthy quotations have been edited for readability, though this is not indicated.
According to a review by Christo Lombard, Professor of Theology at the University of Namibia, Groth uses 'recorded dialogue' when quoting sources (The Namibian, 15/2/96). While the length of some quotations suggests that this must have been the case, it is not made clear by Groth where this is so, and if true, then the extent and breadth of the quoted dialogue indicates that Groth had recorded all his important conversations over many years. It is likely, however, that many of the quotations are recreated from memory, or from Groth's diary.
Another particularly important issue is the extent to which the interviewees themselves may have embellished their accounts. Although Groth includes considerable background information on most of his informants, he does not pretend to offer any anything other than a charitable assessment.
Again, though, if it were not for the controversy surrounding the book, there would be no great reason to scrutinise Groth's sources. Interview material gathered by Sue Brown and Tove Dix, and by Peltola and others, shows, for example, that the detainees' stories need not have been fabricated. The integrity of the original sources remains open to question, but only really on particular points of exaggeration. Otherwise, the many quotations from known documents can be verified and other research does support the general thrust of Groth's work. It would be helpful to have some kind of methodological explanation and assurances from Groth - but, at least on the important generalities, his work is well enough covered.
The question again arises then as to why Groth's book should have caused such a controversy when the criticisms and general points of history it raises are certainly not new, they are not in themselves particularly contentious, and they are quite widely accepted in Namibia even amongst significant sections of SWAPO membership.
The controversy is therefore quite evidently not so much around the factual integrity of Groth's work, but around whether SWAPO need now acknowledge and offer apologies for the more problematic aspects of its history that are described in the text. Suggestions have been made, for example, that SWAPO conduct something similar to the African National Congress' Motsuenyane Commission of Inquiry into abuses committed by its security section, 'Mbokodo'. Though problematic in some respects, this Inquiry went a considerable way towards neutralising the issue. Another prominent demand with considerable currency is that Namibia hold an equivalent of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In this respect, the coincidence with the beginning of the South African Truth Commission is one reason why Groth's work has received so much attention. South Africa's Commission holds a certain conceptual legitimacy that is difficult to refute, but if the focus of demands for a Namibian equivalent was to be on SWAPO abuses, and if, as is very likely, senior officials feared implication in these, then it is no wonder that the party leadership is so nervous.
So far, Namibia's national reconciliation has not been a confessional or revelatory process, as is at least supposed to be the case in South Africa, but is quite clearly and self-consciously dependent on maintaining silence. For SWAPO, to "call for confessions and apologies is to denounce reconciliation." (Peter Kavaongelwa, Secretary For Labour and Economic Affairs, SWAPO Youth League, in a letter to the editor, *The Namibian*, 29/3/96.) So far this has suited all parties concerned except for a section of the innocent and aggrieved on either side.
Particularly interesting in this respect is how the detainee issue has now been linked to revelations regarding the murder of SWAPO activist Anton Lubowski (*Mail and Guardian*, 15/3/96). SWAPO has apparently been reluctant to pursue investigations into this case and is cautious of opening any 'old wounds'. (Molly Lubowski and Marita van der Vyver, Anton Lubowski: Paradox of a Man, Strand: Queillerie, n.d.)
There is a quite understandable and probably legitimate fear that any moves towards an expurgatory reconciliation process would threaten stability. Further, while the brutalities committed by South Africa and its Namibian surrogates by far outweigh those committed by SWAPO, it is SWAPO that currently has the most to lose.
Regarding the former detainees, SWAPO has in fact pursued something of a quiet and unofficial process of rehabilitation and reconciliation, offering many ex-detainees a return to the SWAPO fold and employment in the bureaucracy. "Those who have been arrested now have positions. So we have reconciled, we have made up. In our own way...", says Namibian Prime Minister, Hage Geingob, in an interview with Pekka Peltola. "We [do not] stop the reconciliation and start the witch hunt." (Interviewed 13/1/93, Windhoek, in Peltola, p.161.)
It is the case that "a significant number [of ex-detainees] were employed in the civil service on the recommendation of some Ministers" (Brown and Dix, p.8.53), but many others have not yet been, or do not wish to be, accommodated in such a manner. The common demand from organised and vocal sections of ex-detainees is to receive an apology from SWAPO and a public acknowledgement that they were not spies. Many also demand a proper investigation into the affair and a resolution to the question of those detainees still missing or unaccounted for. Their hopes in these respects have been raised by the coincidence of the starkly contrasting South African Truth Commission model of reconciliation and by the release of Groth's work.
Also important in contextualising the debate is the observation that the CCN has finally begun to find a voice for itself in independent Namibia. Part of this process has been in breaking its apparent loyalty to SWAPO. The CCN is now trying to establish itself as something of a moral arbiter of national debate in Namibia without being constrained by fear of treading on SWAPO's toes. The CCN has also to an extent accepted the suggestion of Groth and others that it bears a measure of 'guilt by association' or culpability by virtue of its silence regarding SWAPO abuses in exile. This is still an uneasy, and certainly not consensually accepted position, and the Churches were careful not to formally associate themselves with Pastor Groth and Wall of Silence. However, without the CCN finding voice enough to at least host the debate, Wall of Silence may have been met with just that.
Similarly, the NGO and CBO sector, represented by Nangof (Namibia Non-Governmental Organisations' Forum), has been much more strident in its criticisms of the SWAPO Government lately, and has backed the CCN initiative of a national conference on the detainees issue (The Namibian, 12/3/96). Nangof, like the CCN, cannot be seen as an organisation likely to spout anti-SWAPO propaganda. It has a considerable cross membership with SWAPO, and that it has supported a resolution of the detainees question signals a progressive, rather than a conservative, challenge to the authority of SWAPO's leadership.
Another contributing factor coinciding with the release of Wall of Silence is a still private but growing irreverence for the SWAPO 'old guard' amongst sections of SWAPO, particularly in the Youth League, and in the SWAPO affiliated National Union of Namibian Workers. According to Groth, Peltola, and other sources, these sections of SWAPO were particularly affected by the excesses of SWAPO's security wing. They were the subject of much suspicion and suffered most under the climate of fear that came to characterise exile life. Some SWAPO activists are privately eager that the detainee issue be cleared up, not least for the reason that their own friends or relatives had suffered under detention and still carried the stigma of being accused as spies. While there has not yet been any public breaking of ranks on this issue, in the approach to SWAPO's five yearly Congress, due by the end of 1996, it appears that the party leadership is keen to show its resolve. It is also perhaps fearful that public revelations of senior culpability in human rights abuses might disrupt the balance of power in the party at this critical time.
An interesting point to consider here is that, technically speaking, the imminent SWAPO Congress would probably be the last chance to mount any substantial 'radical challenge' to SWAPO's 'old guard' before the 1999 Presidential and National Assembly elections. As the Namibian Constitution stands, SWAPO would need to find a new Presidential candidate for these elections - and this point may have occurred to some in SWAPO's current leadership in their response to the detainees issue. Also interesting in this context is that SWAPO has apparently decided on outgoing Deputy Foreign Minister, Netumbo Ndaitwah, as the official choice to replace Moses Garoeb as Secretary General of SWAPO (The Namibian, 19/4/96). Although very much a 'loyalist', it is possible that her appointment signals some kind of damage-control in SWAPO. She would also make a much more difficult target for any 'radical challengers' hoping to make use of the detainees issue.
Certainly, SWAPO is not so concerned that opposition parties might gain mileage from the detainee issue - they are no particular threat at the moment, and have actually been rather more quiet than might have been expected in this current crisis. It is more concerned about internal ramifications, and in controlling the damage caused by the drift of former allies in the CCN and in the NGO sector.
This is the crux of the historical and contemporary problem of Namibia. What disturbs SWAPO, or at least parts of its leadership, most is to be challenged from within. A common contention that has survived into the post-independence era is that "denial of a SWAPO government is negation of Namibian independence." (Alfred T. Moleah, Namibia: the Struggle for Liberation, Washington: DISA, 1983, p.300.) An extrapolation of this is that any organisation outside of SWAPO, or beyond its control, may be reactionary or a threat to the struggle. This contention is often in effect also extrapolated such that an attack on certain SWAPO leadership or policies is an attack on SWAPO, which in turn is an unpatriotic attack on a free Namibia. This kind of thinking has been blamed for SWAPO's crisis of 1976 and the 1980s 'spy drama' detentions. It is clearly apparent again in the current controversy.
So, that it was Groth's book that provided the catalyst for such dramatic debate while work along similar lines was largely ignored is partially then a matter of the timing of its release with South African events and with what amounts to something of a minor breakthrough in building an independent civil society and a critical inner-party debate in Namibia. But it is also, and just as importantly, a factor of the work's own unique qualities.
For many of the reasons historians will be annoyed by Groth's work and critics will find it easier to challenge, it is much more able to be absorbed and understood by the Namibian public, and thus better suited to serving as a point of popular debate. It is not cluttered by academic methodology or worried by points of theory. Its prolific biblical quotations and proselytising religious text, for example, will offend the sensibilities of many in the academic audience - but in these respects it does greatly appeal to a deep religious sentiment in the Namibian population. This appeal is compounded by the popular moral authority the author commands by being a Lutheran pastor.
For a work that does not pretend to be an impartial or dispassionate account, Groth does keep personal opinion and theorising to a minimum. Where it is most obvious it could be a particular irritation to some - especially in the saccharine evangelism permeating the text and in the scattering of anti-Communist rhetoric. As Bishop Held notes, though, it is the tracing and telling of personal stories in a simple language that largely constitutes the work's appeal. While the methodology of this story-telling would appear somewhat suspect to the fastidious historian, the stories themselves, and the language and style in which they are told are most crucial to the popular readership.
Commendations are perhaps due here to Hugh Beyer for his English translation from the German original. The style is crisp, concise and a pleasure to read. Certainly, it is hoped that aspects of Groth's methodology were not lost in the translation. However, while, for example, the likelihood that the quotations were translated into German and then into English compounds methodological concerns, this does seem to enhance their fluidity and integration into the text.
More important than any academic respect the work might gain, is the point that the readability of the work, and the controversy it cultivated, acted in tandem to fuel a demand such that the book actually sold out in Namibia (according to The Namibian, 13/3/96). As a closely comparable example, Leys and Saul's >em>Two Edged Sword addressed similar issues and was released not long before Groth's work. It also raised the ire of the SWAPO leadership and the interest of many politically active Namibians, but its compact typeset and academic text made it inaccessible to a broader audience and it was thus easily marginalised, raising next to no public debate.
Herein lies the significance of Wall of Silence. Although it says nothing particularly new, it does so in a simple fashion that is appealing and accessible to the Namibian population. Assisted by its timing it has helped conjure a national debate that, in the words of Jean Sutherland of The Namibian, "could prove to be a defining moment in the history of the ruling party and ...could shape the quality and course of democracy in Namibia."
(The Namibian, 29/3/96)
I should point out here that the reviewer spent some time in anti-apartheid and ANC/SWAPO solidarity work - and often had occasion to publicly defend SWAPO and the ANC against accusations of human rights abuses, even where it was known that such abuses must have been occurring. I don't believe that I laboured under any liberal illusions regarding SWAPO or the nature of the struggle, and while I was not aware of the extent of the political uses of detention in SWAPO (a more particular concern to me now), I cannot say that I've been particularly surprised by Groth's or others' work.
Perhaps I should, but I honestly don't harbour any sense of guilt because of my loyalty to the movement over this issue at the time. I still feel that, in the difficult position the struggle found itself, it was important not to volunteer any bigger sticks to beat it with. At the time, I and many others - like Groth - felt that only 'the enemy' had anything to gain by public denunciation of SWAPO actions, and not those caught in internal SWAPO problems. However, I am of the opinion that under current conditions, 'progressive revisionist' history and an honest discussion about Swapo's current directions, can only be useful to the party - if it ever learns to accept the good intentions of same.
(I hope that pre-empts any misunderstanding of my position in any discussion to follow.)
Regards to all,
Timothy Dauth, PhD candidate (ANC and SWAPO in the '90s)
Postgraduate, Department of History
University of Western Australia
Nedlands WA 6009
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