The student uprising that changed the course of history

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By Magreth Nunuhe

Windhoek – There are many events that changed the course of history during apartheid rule in Namibia, but not one quite like the students’ uprising of 2 June 1988, which set in motion the collapse of apartheid, the birth of democracy and the attainment of independence.

On that day, 30 years ago, the young people of Namibia took to the streets to protest the evil South African apartheid laws extended to Namibia, which included enforced racial segregation and the inferior Bantu education system designed for blacks.

The students did not only want to do away with Bantu education, but also wanted an environment free of racism and justice.

But what really triggered the national boycott at a heightened time of unrest in Namibia?

It was undoubtedly the death of learners at Ponhofi Secondary School in Eenhana in Northern Namibia, who were caught in crossfire between the South-African Defence Force (SADF) and the Swapo army wing, People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) and the army bases that were stationed near schools.

The Southern Times caught up with Michael Jimmy, a former student activist and leader of the Namibia National Students Organisation (NANSO).

“Namibia was at a boiling point and we had to fast-track independence. We worked very closely with Swapo and the trade unions,” said Jimmy.

“We were ready to risk our lives. We had trusted and tested comrades like Nico Bessinger, Dan Tjongarero, Asser Kapere, Ida Hoffmann, Ben Ulenga, and John Pandeni. If they could go to prison, why not us?” he asked.

He said that although they did not have weapons, independence would not just happen and they had to challenge the regime and risk death, disappearance or imprisonment.

Jimmy said that intensive planning for the historic school boycott all started in May 1987 at the annual congress as branches started mobilising students.

“The talk was: ‘Make Namibia ungovernable’. We talked of intensification of the struggle,” he narrated, adding that that congress resolution was endorsed during the NANSO annual conference of January 1988.

“That led to mass demonstrations and student school boycotts, acceleration of Resolution 435 and removal of army bases,” he said.

On the day of the boycott, learners in northern Namibia started with the demonstration at Ponhofi Secondary School and as word went around, all schools in the north downed books.

Some 10 kilometres out of Windhoek, learners at St Joseph's RC High School, also known as Dobra, marched to Windhoek and soon all schools in the capital city followed suit, until the whole country was ablaze with demonstrations and learners refusing to go to school or write exams.

Jimmy said that they planned the uprising, but did not know it would take off like that.

“We successfully campaigned for the end to military conscription of scholars, the democratisation of the education system through the abolishment of the prefect system and democratically elected school boards. We also successfully demonstrated against the removal of army bases from schools during the decisive 1988 uprising and the acceleration of the implementation of UN Resolution 435,” said Jimmy.

Doufi Namalambo, another former student activist and a co-founder of NANSO, said that she got inspired while she was a student at a tertiary institution in South Africa, where student activism was rampant.

“When you are going through political turmoil, you need to join forces,” she said, adding that while in South Africa, they rallied behind issues that directly affected them as students because Namibia and South Africa were fighting the same enemy.

Namalambo added that at the time the war in northern Namibia was physically taking place and South African soldiers placed themselves around schools and hospitals so that if they were attacked, innocent civilian lives would also be lost. 

“We were fighting against inequality in education and segregation. Students were militant at the time. The spirit was high and there was hunger to express ourselves politically,” she narrated, adding that there was no future in keeping quiet.

June 2 also coincides with the formation of NANSO, 34 years ago in 1986 at Dobra.

“Thirty-four years ago, today, Namibia witnessed the birth of a vibrant, dynamic and progressive student movement NANSO, which undoubtedly changed the political discourse and contributed immensely to the liberation struggle,” said Jimmy.

He noted that NANSO united the Namibian student community under its umbrella and issued pertinent portion papers on a number of issues which changed the landscape in those areas. “We championed gender equality. We build a critical mass of educated Namibians though a scholarship fund who today occupy senior positions in both public and private sectors,” he pointed out.

“Our alumni's are today qualified doctors, lawyers, academics, teachers, business people, politicians, farmers, geologists, cabinet members, public servants, and many other critical positions in our society,” he added.

Jimmy said that the formation of NANSO was not a “historic accident” but a “historic necessity”. 

 

 NANSO in oblivion?

Today, it seems that there is little recognition given to student activists of yesteryear and those who internally fought and opposed the apartheid regime in Namibia.

There have been calls for their recognition as freedom fighters, but it appears that they have not been given the honour they deserve. 

Jimmy, Namalambo and others are keen to see student activists recognised, as one former activist put it: “If only the current generation could understand and grasp what we went through - the debates to intensify the struggle on student level, the harassment by security forces, the endless clandestine meetings, the toyi-toying, the moves to protect our leaders from harassment and arrest.”

Jimmy said NANSO went into a slump, which is characteristic of all organisations, but gave credit to the generation that got the organisation out of that slump.

“Today we are happy that the organisation is still going strong with a first women president and a rejuvenated leadership. 

Today we pay homage to the founders of NANSO, the leadership throughout the years, the membership of this strong organisation, the Council of Churches for their support in the formation of the organisation,” he added.

Namalambo said that Namibians were generally not good at history and documenting it.

“There is a whole generation dying with information – some of them died,” she said ruefully, adding that what is written is patchwork and no consistent documentation.

“We need writers,” she pointed out, saying that even with her own situation, her parents sacrificed everything during the struggle, but she has no records of that.

 

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