Tales from Dystopia VIII: Deportation from Namibia
In 1972 I was deported from Namibia, along with the Anglican bishop of Damaraland Colin Winter, the diocesan secretary Dave de Beer, and Toni Halberstadt. We were given until midnight on 4th March 1972 to leave the territory. A couple of lawyers urged us to contest the deportation order in the courts, and said they would act free of charge if we did so, so we hung around until the Supreme Court verdict was announced at about 2:30 pm. It went against us, so we left Windhoek and headed for the border, which we crossed at about 10 minutes before the midnight deadline. We stopped at the border for a commemorative photo, which I recently put on Facebook.
The photos sparked off some discussion among Toni’s Facebook friends who asked what had happened, but there isn’t really room to tell it in Facebook comments, so I thought I’d say a bit more about it in a blog post, though this isn’t by any means the full story.
I worked as a proof reader and rewrite man for the Windhoek Advertiser, then the only English-language daily newspaper in Namibia, which the South African government called South West Africa, and continued to rule, though the World Court had declared, in the middle of 1971, that South Africa had no legal right to govern the country. Dave de Beer and I were also stringers for the Argus Group of South African newspapers, and sent them stories for which we got paid a modest fee. Toni Halberstadt was a teacher at the Anglican Church school of St Mary’s, Odibo, which was on the Angolan border, and about 500 miles from Windhoek. She was kicked out of there by the South African government, and also came to work for the Windhoek Advertiser.
One day the chief reporter of the Windhoek Advertiser, that legendary journalist J.M. (Jakkals Mal) Smith came into the newsroom and announced that a strike was being planned in Walvis Bay. The rest of us laughed it off. There were seven fish factories in Walvis Bay and the workers there were always going on strike, and there were strikes three or four times a year. No, said Smittie, this is a big one.
And so it turned out to be.
The strike started because Dave de Beer, speaking at Wits University, had said that the contract labour system for Ovambo workers in Namibia was a form of slavery (see Tales from Dystopia I: Epukululo Lovawambo | Khanya). This was picked up by a journalist who happened to be in the room quite by accident, and was splashed all over the front page of Die Suidwester (the National Party newspaper in Namibia) for a week, one of their quarterly bouts of Anglican-bashing.
This prompted the Commissioner General for Ovamboland, Jannie de Wet, to say, in a broadcast on Radio Ovambo, that the contract labour system was not slavery, because the workers were free to go home at any time they wanted. Some of the workers in Walvis Bay, who heard the broadcast, wrote letters to the Ovambo compounds in other towns in Namibia, suggesting that on a certain day they should all go home, “just as the Boer Jannie de Wet had said.”
On a Sunday afternoon in Windhoek a meeting was held in the veld just outside the compound and the letter was read out, and they decided that they would not go to work on the Monday. So on Monday 13 December 1971 none of the Ovambo workers in Windhoek left the compound. And just to make sure they didn’t, the compound was surrounded by police.
Government officials, the government-supporting press and white businessmen, who were all convinced that blacks were incapable of organising a booze-up in a brewery, attributed the total stayaway from work to “outside agitators” (the stock phrase used in such situations). Because those who made such statements were invariably racists convinced that blacks were too stupid to organise a strike, they either said or implied that these “outside agitators” were white. The South African newspapers for which we were stringers sent their own reporters to cover the big story, but they didn’t have any local contacts and repeated the government line. We had contacts and continued to report the story from the strikers’ point of view, as described above. We weren’t aware, at that point, that the “white agitators” who were enforcing the strike were the South African Police, who were allowing no one to enter or leave the Ovambo compound.
Our informants were three contract workers who nipped out of the compound on the Sunday evening before the strike started. They worked for Noki Construction, a building firm set up by the Anglican Church to train people in the building trade. They said that they had left, not because they disagreed with the aims of the strike, but because they weren’t dissatisfied with their contracts, and also, because if the police went into the compound and found they were Anglicans, they would be blamed for starting the strike and would be arrested.
On 21 December Toni Halberstadt and I were called in by the owner (not the editor) of the Windhoek Advertiser, a guy called Juergen Meinert, and fired with immediate effect. No notice, we were to leave at once. I’d never met Meinert before, and wouldn’t have known what he looked like. We had been hired by the editor, but the owner stepped in to fire us, I suspect through pressure from the Security Police, or perhaps from the editor of the sister paper, the Allgemeine Zeitung. He was Kurt Dahlmann, a former Luftwaffe pilot in World War II.
Soon after that we went on holiday to South Africa. Toni went to the Northern Cape, while I went on a tour visiting friends and family in South Africa, and taking Marge Schmidt, Bishop Winter’s secretary, and her two daughters, to see the sights.
When we returned to Windhoek, some “ringleaders” of the strike had been arrested and faced trial. Dave de Beer and I were now reporting for the SA Morning Group of newspapers, and, having been fired from the Windhoek Advertiser, that was now my sole source of income, so I attended the trial every day. The defence of the strikers was organised by the Anglican Church, and there was an observer from the International Commission of Jurists, a Judge Booth from New York. The “ringleaders” were charged, among other things, with intimidating the strikers to cause them to stay away from work.
The evidence that came out at the trial showed that what we had written in our reports was substantially accurate, though there were several things that we had not known. The policeman in charge of the police who surrounded the compound was cross-examined by the defence advocate, and asked if they let anyone in and out of the compound. And the police officer said that they let them out if they had permission from their own people inside. “So the police were carrying out the orders of the strike leaders?” asked the defence advocate. And the Magistrate had a broad grin on his face.
On another occasion he was asked about the stikers boycotting the compound food. They went in a group to local shops to buy food – about 1200 of them in all. The defence advocate asked how, if those people were desperate to go to work but for the intimidation, it was possible to prevent them from going to work. The police witness insisted that they were intimidated. Asked how many were intimidating them, he said about six. Were they armed? Yes, with sticks. How many had sticks? Two of them. The defence advocate said “We are told in the Bible that Samson slew 600 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, so are you telling us that these two men with sticks were stronger than Samson?” Again the magistrate grinned at the discomfiture of the police witness.
When we were reporting the story, we interviewed Katutura shopkeepers about conditions inside the compounds, because the strikers had patronised their shops, and were chatting about it as they did so. Among the shopkeepers were Clemens Kapuuo, the Herero chief (unrecognised by the government) who was later killed by an unknown assassin, and David Meroro, the local Swapo leader. None of the staff reporters from the South African newspapers thought to interview them, even thought they were not only in touch with the stikers, but were political leaders in their own right. Views of black people, no matter how well-informed, just did not count among the white-controlled media in those days.
And a couple of weeks after the trial ended, we were deported.
The (all-white, all National Party) South West Africa legislative assembly had a special all-night sitting to amend the law so that we could be deported without appeal to the courts (the law was originally intended to apply to suspected German spies between the world wars, when South Africa governed the former German colony of South West Africa under a League of Nations Mandate). Nevertheless, these clever lawyers persuaded us to contest the deportation order, promising that they would do it free of charge. The case was dismissed with costs. Bishop Colin Winter raised the costs among well-wishers overseas, but we did not realise that the sneaky lawyers had pocketed the money and not paid it over to the SAW Administration, and one day the Durban sheriff came to seize my goods for the unpaid debt, which I knew nothing about. But that too is another story.