Book Review: The Long Road to Liberation (Hans Beukes)


bookA WELCOME departure from the boring back-and-forth, in public discourse concerning Namibia’s road to independence, between triumphalist nationalism and begrudging paternalism/racism (“we heroically defeated apartheid/imperialism” vs. “we had to stop communist terrorism/defend civilisation”).

Hans Beukes has little patience with either camp. He grew up in the fascinating Rehoboth Baster community, and has not only genetic links but family ties with “white”, Nama (Khoi) and “black” (Bantu-speaking) Namibia. He was an early opponent of apartheid, was already in exile in Norway when SWAPO was launched, and opposed its eventual decision to adopt armed struggle. Although at times he took part in its lobbying activities on the world stage, he consistently challenged its lack of internal democracy and considers its present government riddled with tribalism. His conclusion is that there is still some way to go before liberation can be claimed.

Both Namibians and those South Africans interested in the former South-West Africa Mandate territory can find much of interest in Beukes’s detailed memoir. His grandfathers took part in skirmishes against the German army, ahead of the soon-victorious South African invasion force early in WW1. However, the Basters soon came into conflict with the new rulers who continued the Germans’ project of colonisation, and Grandfather Beukes narrowly escaped summary execution along with many others, when a telegram arrived from the League of Nations in Switzerland. Earlier, one of Beukes’s companions had shrewdly invested the grand sum of seven pounds (borrowed from a German married to a Baster) in a reply-paid telegraphic petition to Geneva; the Union Defence Force officers were restrained by the glare of world attention.

Inspired in part by this family legend, young Hans, while studying law at UCT, made a difficult decision. His passport having been confiscated to prevent him from taking up a bursary to study in Norway, he decided to leave S.A. illegally, knowing that he could never return under apartheid rule, but intent on challenging its S.W.A. mandate at the United Nations. He remained in exile (both in Africa and overseas) until independence, marrying a Norwegian.

As already mentioned, Beukes opposed the adoption of armed struggle in S.W.A.; he had considerable contact with Albert Luthuli, who did likewise in S.A. (and when awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was president of the ANC), The matter of who decided on armed resistance, when, why and how in each case, was to be of great consequence to the two countries – and still is.

To deviate briefly from Beukes’s story, it should be noted that there will never be clarity on this decision in South Africa’s case, which of course was bound closely to Namibia’s. Joe Slovo and Nelson Mandela are dead, and have left us mutually contradictory accounts of the decision. At least one of them lied or was mistaken. Mandela says (in his memoir) ANC president Luthuli agreed after some resistance, and then later changed his mind or forgot that he had agreed, being aged. Slovo, in his memoir, says that after the Sharpeville massacre the ANC involuntarily found itself on a war footing and had no chance to consult president Luthuli in the rural home to which he was confined by a banning order.

Beukes ascribes dire responsibility for what he sees as SWAPO’s descent into despotism, to the United Nations and in particular its Commissioner for Namibia, Sean McBride – the son of John McBride, who fought with the Boers against Britain and went on to be executed for his part in the 1916 uprising in Ireland. As Beukes sees it, the anointing of a particular faction (the most militaristic one, led by Sam Nujoma) of SWAPO with the status of “sole legitimate representative of the people of Namibia” on the world stage, doomed the other factions (both “dissidents” in exile and grassroots members within the country) at best to marginalisation, at worst to detention, torture and execution. Not to mention adherents of all other Namibian political parties.

Other accessories to the Nujoma cabal’s crimes, Beukes asserts, were frontline state presidents Kaunda and Nyerere who obligingly detained “dissident” SWAPO members (many of whom had done nothing more than support a call for a party congress to establish accountability of leadership). Zambian troops, in keeping a large group captive, killed a few violently and others by malnutrition.

Even the apartheid authorities assisted the rise of Nujoma – in that they simply sent him back to Zambia when for reasons known to himself, he flew into Windhoek in 1967. Beukes presents evidence that this decision was based on military intelligence’s opinion that he was of more use to the apartheid cause while commanding SWAPO than he would have been as a captive.

In summary, Beukes’s analysis is that both sides of the Cold War confrontation promoted escalation of the proxy war in Namibia and Angola – with total disregard for the welfare of Namibians, Angolans and South Africans. Concerning actual combat operations, Beukes seems content to use SADF-aligned sources of information, such as Magnus Malan’s autobiography. He seems unaware of the school of thought which holds that due to the international arms embargo against apartheid S.A., and Angola’s eventual acquisition of MiG23 fighters and advanced radar-guided anti-aircraft missiles (both among the few types of arms Pretoria could neither make at home nor buy on the global black market), the balance of military power shifted in the late 1980s such that apartheid politicians were obliged to settle. Instead, he takes the view that internal resistance in S.A. in the late 80s made foreign adventures unsustainable. Of course these explanations are not mutually exclusive.

After independence, Beukes returned to Namibia several times but remains based in Norway, citing tribalism and corruption as the remaining obstacles to liberation.

Porcupine Press

  • ISBN-10: 1505359023
  • ISBN-13: 978-1505359022

Available via Amazon

Reviewer: Michael Graaf

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