I never left Swapo – ya Nangoloh

By Hilary Mare and Jeremiah Ndjoze

In the BIG Conversation this week, Phil ya Nangoloh takes us back to his early political life when he joined Swapo. He rubbishes claims that he was only joining Swapo now but that he was only pursuing his membership card. He also speaks about what his aspirations for Namibia were and the achievements that President Hage Geingob has made that preceed his predecessors. This includes decisive action against corruption among other realities. Ya Nangoloh also addresses his relationship with Founding Father, Sam Nujoma.

TBC:  Who is Phil ya Nangoloh? Some people say you are a political demagogue. Others say you are a rabble-rouser. And there those who follow you with keen interest. But, how would you describe yourself?

PYN:  Phil ya Nangolo is a Namibian who was part of the liberation struggle. I was a student activist in the early 70s when I left the country for exile that is when I formally joined Swapo. The protest [back then] was about what we called Bantu education.

TBC:  Who influenced you into politics at that tender age? In fact, how old where you in 1974?

PYN:  In 1974 I was around 18 and I read a lot about Ya Toivo (the late Andimba Toivo ya Toivo). I read a book by Chris Vermaak called The Silent War. I knew that was in line with my convictions.

TBC:  You mentioned Ya Toivo. He was one of the influential people in Namibian politics. How exactly did he influence you?

PYN:  Ya Toivo complained about discrimination. He was against people being treated unfairly and when I was a child we were treated unfairly by children in Uukwambi because we moved there from Ondonga. Being treated unfairly is tantamount to being discriminated against. I adapted with my critical and independent thinking skills.

TBC: Who were your peers during your formative political career?

PYN:  I can remember some of those who were in my class. Like Denga Ndaitwah, Daniel Uapunduka and the seniors like Professor Rehabeam Auala. These are people whose examples we followed in protesting and resisting the system.

TBC:  As a person who was passionate about the birth of an independent Namibia, free from all forms of discrimination, how would you describe Namibia from independence until now? Are you satisfied with where Namibia is right now?

PYN:  Absolutely. First of all, a very big success was achieved on 21 March 1990. This country is no longer under apartheid rule. That is a great achievement. Another achievement is that people are able to move freely. The schools are integrated. Also, we have a wonderful and unifying constitution.

TBC:  What were your expectations after independence? There was Swapo in exile and Swapo in Namibia. We had political figures in Namibia, like Hendrik Witbooi and Ya Toivo before his arrest. Even after his arrest, he remained an influential political figure and many anticipated that he might end up leading Namibia as the country’s president. We also had several influential leaders amongst them, the likes of former President Sam Nujoma who was leading the party abroad. What was your wish prior to independence? Who would you have preferred to be our first president?

PYN:  I thought Ya Toivo would be the president because he was actually the founder of Swapo and I heard more about him in the early stages of the party and struggle than I heard, for example, of President Nujoma. I started to learn more about President Nujoma when I joined PLAN in Zambia. I read about Ya Toivo and [Nelson] Mandela. I will not exclude Nujoma in the later stages. Everybody has their weaknesses here and there but Nujoma successfully led the liberation struggle which brought about our independence. We cannot deny that fact.

TBC:  We have the policy of national reconciliation. In your view, how has this policy benefitted the previously disadvantaged communities?

PYN:  In many respects it has benefitted them. First of all we have Parliament which passes laws on behalf of the Namibian people by people who were democratically elected. The implementers of these laws are the ones who built schools and hospitals. We have a free primary school system. New towns have sprung up, meaning government has been decentralised. Rural electrification is happening. So is rural water supply, even though not fast enough. Also, we have an equal representation of all sexes in Parliament and good laws that cater for specific groups in society. These are concrete steps that have been taken to benefit the previously disadvantaged. Businesses are springing up. One can get a tender from government regardless of your skin colour. If we were a train, then we have definitely left the station towards the desired destination.

TBC: Has the policy of national reconciliation corrected the economic wrongs of the past?

PYN: No it has not.  It might be very difficult to do that is such a short time. As I said, people can now establish companies. Anybody can establish a company, get a tender and engage into development projects. That in itself applies to national reconciliation in terms of economics. I do not think it is enough and I did not expect it to be enough. In life, it will never be enough. We have established universities in order to produce people who will run the economy. I always emphasis on health, education and housing. Health is longevity. Education is knowledge. Housing is income. These are the variables that one can use to measure human development. Knowledge, life expectancy and income. Although unemployment continues to increase, there are more people who have jobs unlike before. Swapo has done quite well as far as national reconciliation is concern. Look at the willing buyer, willing seller policy. They did not want to rock the boat as was the case in Zimbabwe. Ours is not about a revolution but evolution.

TBC:  Let me just get to the allegations around you supposedly joining Swapo that were in the media this week out of the way. They said that you have applied to rejoin Swapo as a member. Why now?

PYN:  I did not rejoin Swapo because I never resigned from Swapo in the first place. Of course, I was accused by my own people within Swapo – simply because I was talking about human rights violations – that I joined this or that opposition political party; mostly those colleagues who were working at Namibia Today [laughs]. As soon as I joined Swapo in 1974, I became a PLAN fighter. Have you ever heard of a PLAN fighter who was not a member of Swapo? The truth is, in 1974 when we were in PLAN, there were no cards. It would also not be suitable for a PLAN fighter to carry any identity document for obvious reasons. You are fighting an enemy and you do not want their intelligence people to find documents on you. That is why Swapo never had the system of members carrying cards. But my name was registered in the books of Swapo when I joined. I joined Swapo formally in Zambia and not at school in Namibia. But mentally, I joined Swapo in the early 70s when we were demonstrating against the apartheid regime. It is a question of substance and form. I am a Swapo member by deeds/acts. But I don’t have a card. What happened recently is that I applied for a membership card. Not for membership. I simply formalised or legalised if you want, my already existing Swapo membership.

TBC:  Let us clear up one more allegation while we are at it. Do you hold any aspirations of holding higher political office in the Swapo party besides being a card carrying member?

PYN:  No, absolutely not. I am now 66 years old [laughs]. I have no interest or ambition whatsoever to have a position in Swapo. If they offer that to me, I will honestly not take it. I would like to educate and render my services to all those who are in positions of power. I do not want to go in and run an office because I am tired. I have been running the Society for Human Rights for about 30 years. I would rather groom young people in addition to defending Swapo and national security in this country to ensure that there are no conflicts.

TBC:  Some will find contradictions in what you have said now in relation to what you have said in the past. In the past you accused the Swapo party of being corrupt, of human rights abuses and so forth. How do you balance these two? Is it an accountability issue?

PYN:  Yes, it is to hold my comrades accountable. Say for example, if my mother does something wrong because of the conscious that I have, I would respectfully say, mother you have gone wrong here but not insult her. That is what I have been saying about Swapo. I will never castigate one party as corrupt and praise another as clean. There is no single party that is immune to corruption. What needs to be done is that once corruption is detected it needs to be dealt with. Regarding the issue of human rights violation, I am still saying that Swapo has violated human rights in exile. The Lubango issue is a case in point. But, if you compare the bad that Swapo has done against the good that it has done, to me Swapo has done more good than bad. From a legal and moral point of view we cannot close our eyes because of the perpetrators are our mothers or sisters. There is no contradiction at all. I differentiate between criticism and hatred.

TBC:  How do you compare Hage Geingob’s presidency in relation to his predecessors in view of the global economic downturn which characterises his presidency, the Covid-19 pandemic and the fact that most of the economic resources were absorbed by corrupt tenders in the previous regimes leading to his presidency being subjected to severe budget cuts and so forth?

PYN:  During the President Nujoma era there was no freedom as we know it today during the Geingob era. Today, one can insult Geingob and not go around looking over your shoulder. You would not do that during the Nujoma era. You would not dare. Talking about personal freedom and differentiating it from independence, it started only prevailing during President Pohamba’s era going forward. I am willing to share with you that I met Pohamba in his State House at least three times. Although Pohamba did not do as much as what Geingob has done about corruption, I would say that he started the process. I refer to Nujoma as the father of national independence, Pohamba as the father of national freedom and stabiliser and I will refer to Geingob of the anti-corruption campaigner, more freedom and inclusivity.

He is the initiator of concrete action against corruption because it was during his tenure – in 2016 – that the corrupt tender system went down. As a result a lot of tender beneficiaries started hating or being critical of President Geingob. If you compare the Nujoma era and the Pohamba era, who among the top elite was arrested and prosecuted for corruption? Only the late Sacky Namugongo. But now you have two ministers in prison on suspicion of corruption. There was a minister of education who lost her job because of this. An airport tender was cancelled. The Geingob administration took steps against people who were involved in the mass housing project at Swakopmund. He is the first ever Swapo leader to have taken executive steps against corruption. He is also the first Namibian president in Africa, if not the world, who have voluntarily declared his own assets, and also the first to have agreed that 30 percent of his salary should be deducted and diverted to poverty alleviation initiatives. Give the man credit.

I truly believe in Geingob’s policy on inclusivity. To me it says that government – in terms of administration and parliamentary representation should include all people from the ethnic and gender makeup of our country. The results are visible. Geingob is the first president to have introduced what is called Harambee food (food bank) in all towns to alleviate poverty. Before that we only heard of drought relief food which was only handed out to people North of the redline. He is a Swapo leader and this is part of the party’s manifesto and developmental programmes.

TBC:  Over the years you had a somewhat turbulent relationship with Nujoma and many believed that you were the aggressor in the relationship. How would you describe your relationship with Nujoma today?

PYN:  I never had a personal relationship with President Nujoma. In my opinion Nujoma was –for a lack of a proper word – dictatorial. However, I had nothing personal against him. If you read what I have written about him, for example, you will never find a single part in which I insulted him. As I always say, I respect him and what he has done. He has done more good than bad. But there were certain things that were not good about his policies in relation to human rights. In fact, I think he had something personal against me, like when he insulted me for example. It was on July 3 2016 when he called me homosexual. I did not like that. First of all, I am not a homosexual. I am not saying homosexual people are bad or whatever, but I am not and that is an insult. I do not tolerate any insult from anyone and that must be very clear. Nevertheless, I credit Nujoma for leading this country to national independence.

TBC:  In light of the idiom that you just shared, at some point you were saying that he should be dragged to the international court?

PYN:  Again, this is something that should be differentiated. Why are people saying that I wanted to take him to ICC? Where was it written that it is Phil ya Nangolo against Nujoma [laughs]. It was the human rights organisation. I was only the head there. As far as I know Nujoma has never killed a single person. But from a legal point of view, because he was the head of an organisation of people who were hurting other people, he had vicarious liability. We say in law, let the superior answer. I never hated Nujoma. I have a principled stance against all human rights violation by anyone.