The name Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo is inseparably linked to the struggle for the independence of Namibia. Formally known as South West Africa, the country got renamed upon its independence in March 1990, with Sam Nujoma becoming president and my fellow Robben Island inmate Ya Toivo heading the Ministry of Mines and Energy (1990 to 1999) and Labour (1999-2002).
Born a Namibian in 1924, and I, South African, in 1925, our paths were destined to meet, albeit under conditions of our respective struggle journeys that saw us become prisoners on Robben Island.
He landed on the island in 1968, four years after the sentencing of South Africa’s Rivonia Treason Trialists in 1964.
He and 36 other Namibians had been arrested on September 9, 1966 by the South African security forces.
They were charged under the Terrorism Act and on February 9, 1968 and Ya Toivo was found guilty of contravening the act and sentenced to 20 years in prison, enduring long periods of solitary confinement and other forms of harsh treatment.
Long as that sentencing had come across, he was not without hope as to the terminal point of his struggle: “I know that the struggle will be long and bitter. I also know that my people will wage that struggle, whatever the cost. Only when we are granted our independence will the struggle stop”.
Ya Toivo traced his struggle years from our very home shores. He left his home country for Cape Town in 1951 to be employed as a railway police officer between 1952 and 1953.
He was instrumental in the formation of political formations such as the Modern Youth Society (MYS) made up of university students and trade unionists. He became deputy chairman of the MYS, part of whose activities included organising festivals, lectures, discussion groups and night schools for activists pursuing further education.
He joined the ANC in Cape Town in 1957. Later that year, he co-founded the Ovamboland People’s Congress (OPC), forerunner of the Ovamboland People’s Organisation (OPO) and the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) upon it being reconstituted on April 19, 1960 and was appointed its secretary-general. Soon thereafter Swapo established its military wing, the South West Africa Liberation Army.
He also helped establish close contacts with two South African parties - the Congress of Democrats and the Liberal Party. The OPC sought to fight for the rights of migrant workers, some of whom had defected from the South West African Native Labour Association.
The driving force behind these mobilisation efforts was opposition to the incorporation of Namibia into South Africa. The League of Nations had directed South Africa to exercise a mandate over the country at the conclusion of World War I in 1918.
Growing opposition to South Africa’s control of Namibia led to Ya Toivo sending a petition to the UN in December 1958.
Because of his political activities in support of Namibian independence, Ya Toivo was arrested in 1966 by the South African authorities. During his trial in August 1967, The State v. Tuhadeleni and 36 Others, he appeared as Accused No 21 under the Terrorism Act of June 21, 1967.
The act was applied retroactively to convict political leaders from Namibia. The speech he made on behalf of his group after his conviction gained renown for its pronouncements denying South Africa the right to try South West African citizens or to rule their country.
His speech from the dock made headlines and became an internationally circulated key document to rally support for the Namibian liberation struggle.
His 1967 speech, which had a ring of resonance with Nelson Mandela’s at the Rivonia Treason Trial, in part stated: “We are Namibians, and not South Africans. We do not now, and will not in the future, recognise your right to govern us; to make laws for us, in which we had no say; to treat our country as if it was your property and us as if you are our masters. We have always regarded South Africa as an intruder in our country. This is how we have always felt and this is how we feel now and it is on this basis that we have faced this trial.”
On January 26, 1968, he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment by the Pretoria Supreme Court.
He was jailed on Robben Island when Rivonia Treason Trialists were already serving the fourth year of their life sentences. Because of his non-conformist nature, even in prison, he spent most of his time isolated from his fellow countrymen.
It was his unrelenting steadfastness on Robben Island that earned him the admiration of Nelson Mandela, which continued after the dawn of democracies in their respective countries .
Said Mandela about his fiery character: “He didn’t care to be promoted and he wouldn’t co-operate with the authorities at all in almost everything. He was quite militant. He wanted very little to do with whites, with the warders”.
He was not an easy fellow, showing no remorse and often embroiled in intermittent fights with authorities.
One of these fights is recalled by a fellow Robben Island inmate Mike Dingake: “A few metres from my cell, warders tried to push Ya Toivo intolerably around. Andimba unleashed a hard open-hand smack on the young warder’s cheek, sending his cap flying and the young warder wailing “Die k***** het my geslaan.”
The debates we had in prison were often about which country between South Africa and Namibia would be first to gain independence.
Throughout his years at Robben Island Ya Toivo refused to recognise South Africa’s jurisdiction over Namibia and was a real troublemaker for the prison authorities.
On April 18, 1970 Ya Toivo demanded that all Namibians be transferred to their country and called for drastic improvement of the medical services on Robben Island.
He fought for his country with distinction and was just as humble in serving it.
He retired from active politics in 2006 after holding three successive ministerial posts.
He remains a fellow struggle stalwart that both South Africa and Namibia are proud to have had as an inspirational leader.
South Africa extends its condolences to the Namibian nation in its moment of loss.
Mlangeni is one of South Africa’s Struggle stalwarts still alive. A former Rivonia Treason Trialist, he served 26 years as a Robben Island prisoner and Ya Toivo served 16.