Truth and omission in the history of SWAPO

Paul Trewhela, an anti-Stalinist historian of the national liberation movements in Southern Africa, reviews Marion Wallace's A History of Namibia: From the Beginning to 1990

Submitted by red jack on August 7, 2011

A new history of Namibia provides a valuable corrective to various earlier accounts relating to the history of SWAPO, the governing political party in Namibia since 1990. Its balanced verdict is compromised, however, by unscholarly omissions in what purports to be a comprehensive bibliography, in its acknowledgement of sources, and in a lack of candour concerning its author's intellectual history.

This however makes the book's conclusions all the more significant.

A History of Namibia: From the Beginning to 1990, by Marion Wallace, with John Kinahan (Hurst, London, 2011), now stands as an authoritative summary of the history of SWAPO in exile, as well as of previous Namibian history. While reporting a history of events in SWAPO in exile which is "still highly contested in Namibia," as the author states, the book is a summary of more than two decades of "substantial research." These events "cannot now be in any serious doubt." (p.281)

Dr Wallace writes that in the late 1960s there was "some discontent in SWAPO's armed wing, and in 1968 a group of seven military trainees returned from China to the Kongwa camp in Tanzania, where they protested at what they perceived as poor organisation, corruption and military inactivity within the movement. The protest was treated as mutiny and quashed by the arrest of the group and their imprisonment in Tanzania. ...

"The crisis foreshadowed later conflict within SWAPO. A heavy-handed and authoritarian response allowed Sam Nujoma and those around him to stamp their authority on the movement, and resulted in the imprisonment of members expressing dissent." (p.271)

Of SWAPO's political crisis in the mid-1970s, she writes that the downfall of Portuguese colonialism in Africa in 1974 "raised the diplomatic problem [for SWAPO's leaders] of choosing an allegiance in the initially confused situation in Angola: SWAPO briefly sided with UNITA, before throwing in its lot with the MPLA. At the same time, the movement's position in Zambia, to which it had transferred its headquarters (from Tanzania) after the 1969-70 Tanga Congress, had become precarious. ...In 1974...relations between [Zambian president Kenneth] Kaunda and South African Prime Minister [BJ] Vorster briefly improved, and SWAPO's continued ability to conduct military action from Zambia was thus thrown into doubt. ...

"...Rumours of badly planned and executed missions flourished, as well as allegations of corruption, and there was much unhappiness with SWAPO's initial closeness to UNITA. ...

" April 1976 tensions finally exploded. At the SWAPO leadership's request, the Zambian army arrested an estimated 1,600-1,800 SWAPO members and detained them at Mboroma, near Kabwe, north of Lusaka. Eleven prominent leaders, including the SYL [SWAPO Youth League] group and five of the SWAPO executive who had been sympathetic to them (among them Andreas Shipanga and Solomon Mifima), were imprisoned in Tanzania, with President Nyerere's cooperation. Those in the Mboroma camp experienced harsh conditions, including a very severe food shortage. ...during this period there may have been killings of perhaps forty-five to fifty individuals.

"The events of the mid-1970s - and indeed those of the 1980s, when the 'spy crisis' in SWAPO led to a new wave of detentions... - are still highly contested in Namibia, where the issues they raise have not been resolved. That these events occurred, however, has been shown by substantial research and cannot now be in any serious doubt."

The SWAPO leadership "treated the dissension essentially as a military mutiny, rather than a legitimate demand for democratic accountability. These considerations, however, hardly justify SWAPO's extreme reaction to the crisis, which resulted in large-scale human rights violations. ...SWAPO's office-holders opted for authoritarianism ...." (pp.279-281)

Concerning SWAPO's subsequent "spy-drama" of the 1980s, Dr Wallace writes that the final decade of war involved "an extreme escalation of human rights violations within SWAPO, which detained and tortured hundreds, and possibly thousands, of its own members, accusing them of spying for South Africa. The detentions were carried out by SWAPO's new Security Organisation, established in 1981 under 'Jesus' Solomon Hawala.

"Hundreds were imprisoned in 'dungeons' in Lubango in Angola, where some died as a result of their harsh conditions. One detainee described being made to strip naked, '...and [then] beatings started, continuing for several days. They once put me in a bag, tied it and carried me to a big hole where they threw me in and out, telling me that they would bury me alive. One evening they tied me to a car and pulled me'. Torture resulted in the video 'confessions' of many of the detainees."

Dr Wallace concludes that "both SWAPO's long-standing authoritarian culture and the increasing power of its Security Organisation were crucial factors in the tragedy. The latter body became increasingly out of control in the 1980s and could not be brought into line by those who opposed its actions within the leadership. Even the President's authority in the situation was brought into question when Kovambo Nujoma, his wife, was detained for a few weeks in 1988. The tactics the Security Organisation adopted were hardly designed to be effective against genuine spies, but rather reflected divisions within SWAPO as educated people and non-Oshiwambo speakers found themselves particularly targeted.

"During the independence election campaign of 1989, the extent of SWAPO's detention and torture of its own members was to become widely known for the first time, leading to a weakening of its support within Namibia, especially in the South; a Parents' Committee set up by Erica Beukes (whose brother had been detained) and others demanded justice for the detainees, as did some political parties. Towards the end of that year, one of SWAPO's leaders condemned the use of torture, and acknowledged that not all the detainees had been spies." (pp.298-299)

These conclusions are particularly powerful since their author, Dr Wallace, was a former significant British supporter of SWAPO during the period under discussion above.

Dr Wallace was co-author, with Tessa Cleaver, of Namibia: Women in War (Zed Books, London, 1990, with a foreword by Glenys Kinnock, now Lady Kinnock, married to a former leader of the British Labour Party). The book contains quotations from SWAPO policy statements about women's equality, and cites C.O. Kisiedu of the SWAPO Women's Council as stating: "Women are virtually perpetual minors all their lives, with no legal rights. Regardless of age, of whether they are married or not, women are always subject to the authority of men". (Cleaver and Wallace, p.78, quoting C.O. Kisiedu, The Situation of Women living under Racist Regimes, UN Institute for Namibia, Lusaka, 1981).

Cleaver and Wallace then write that it is important for women in Namibia "to avoid the danger of interpretation in terms of a 'Western-bound feminism'"(p.80), quoting from P. McFadden in Brian Wood (ed), Namibia 1884-1984: Readings on Namibia's History and Society, Namibia Support Committee, London/ United Nations Institute for Namibia, Lusaka, 1988, p.623.

Despite this warning against "Western-bound feminism", there is no reference in Namibia: Women in War to the systemic sexual abuse suffered by women members of SWAPO in its camps in exile, a subject that again receives no specific mention in Dr Wallace's A History of Namibia - despite her authorship of a previous book with specific focus on Namibian women.

Dr Wallace was also co-author with Patrica Hayes, Jeremy Sylvester and Wolfram Hartman of Namibia under South African Rule: Mobility and Containment, 1915-46 (James Currey/Out of Africa/Ohio University Press, 1998). Her chapter in this study is titled "A person is never angry for nothing': Women, VD and Windhoek". A subtitle to one section is "Examination and coercion" (p.80).

However, there is no specific examination in A History of Namibia of the sexual coercion of women in SWAPO's camps, even though this was reported in evidence provided to the Denton Sub-Committee on Security and Terrorism of the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States Senate on March 22-31, 1982, and also in SWA/Namibia: Human Rights in Conflict (Internationale Gesellschaft fur Menschen Rechte, Frankfurt, 1985), reported also in Human Rights Violations in SWAPO Camps in Angola and Zambia (IGFM, London, 1988). This testimony was not assessed by Cleaver and Wallace in 1990, and was simply ignored.

A series of important sources is similarly omitted from the bibliography of Dr Wallace's new book..

These include Leo Raditsa, Prisoners of a Dream: The South African Mirage (St George St Press, Annapolis, 1989), reporting evidence provided to the Denton Sub-Committee of the US Senate, vol 1, 1982.

A study by RW Johnson, How Long will South Africa Survive? (Macmillan, London, 1977), which provided the first account by a major author and publisher of the "events of the mid-1970s" in SWAPO in exile (as set out by Wallace above), is also excluded.

So too the book of documents edited by Erica Thiro-Beukes, Attie Beukes and Hewat S.J. Beukes, Namibia: A Struggle Betrayed (Rehoboth, Namibia, n.d. [1986]), despite Erica Beukes being cited by Ms Wallace in her new book, as above.

A later, more comprehensive and reliable collection of documents edited by Nico Basson and Ben Motinga, Call Them Spies: A Documentary Account of the Namibian Spy Drama (African Communications Projects, 1989), is similarly absent from the bibliography.

So too is the autobiographical account by Andreas Shipanga, related to Sue Armstrong, In Search of Freedom: The Andreas Shipanga Story as told to Sue Armstrong (Ashanti, Gibraltar, 1989), despite Shipanga's important role in the SWAPO crisis of the mid-1970s, recorded by Wallace above. An important complementary account by a major British journalist, Fred Bridgland, Jonas Savimbi: A Key to Africa (Mainstream, Edinburgh, 1986), is likewise not recorded.

So too is my book, Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and SWAPO (Jacana, Johannesburg, 2009), which contains three chapters on SWAPO that were first published in a banned exile journal, Searchlight South Africa, in 1990-91.

Missing too is the autobiographical study by the most senior official of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in its dealings with SWAPO, Vladimir Shubin, The 'Hot 'Cold War': The USSR in Southern Africa (Pluto Press, London/UKZN Press, 2008).

These exclusions, as well as others, in a major study of 451 pages, with 34 pages of closely printed Bibliography, represent a failure of academic method as well as good faith.

This failure is all the more remarkable, given the professional status of the author.

Dr Wallace - described on the dust jacket as "African curator at the British Library and a historian of Namibia" - is one of the most important archivists in the world of books and documents relating to Africa.

As Curator of the African collections in the British Library in Euston Road, London, a website entry for Ms Wallace states:

I am responsible for the British Library's African collections, which include published books and periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts and archives, visual materials, electronic resources, sound recordings, sheet music and stamps. Our holdings include materials published in Africa and in the rest of the world, and items in African as well as European languages. For more details see

A further entry relating to a previous position in the British national archives states:

I advised readers generally on the records, and developed special expertise in Colonial Office records on Africa. I also managed the development of web content, for example the Black Presence exhibition (

A note on the back cover to her book with Tessa Cleaver, Namibia: Women in War, states:

Tessa Cleaver is involved in the anti-apartheid movement, with particular focus on Namibia. Marion Wallace has been involved in the solidarity field for many years and currently works with a Namibian solidarity organization.

It is hard not to conclude from Ms Wallace's new book that while it places beyond dispute SWAPO's record of human rights abuses against its own members in exile, it does so at the expense of an honest accounting of the painful and difficult process in which this history first came to be recorded. Insofar as this study succeeds as A History of Namibia, it fails equally as a history of the writing of history.