By Kevin G. Lowther
Kevin G. Lowther is Africare's former regional director for Southern Africa. This article was first published in the returned Peace Corps volunteers publication, RPCV Writers & Readers (January 1994).
Editor's note: In July 1965, having just completed two years of Peace Corps service in Sierra Leone, Lowther traveled extensively throughout Africa. The following article recounts his introduction to apartheid rule in Southern Africa. (March 2000)
I first met Ben Amathila and John ya-Otto in the chill late afternoon of July 25, 1965. It was Amathila who picked me up in the Landrover as I walked toward Windhoek's Old Location. I got in and unwittingly violated an apartheid law: It was illegal in South West Africa, today an independent Namibia, for white and black to share the front seat.
Ya-Otto was a hundred yards or so ahead. Twenty minutes earlier, he had walked briskly past me at our rendezvous at Post and Stubel Streets. Without pausing or looking, he identified himself and told me to follow at a distance when he returned.
I did, and before long the Landrover pulled alongside. The plan was to pick up ya-Otto, as well, then meet somewhere in the Old Location, the ramshackle quarter reserved for Windhoek's Africans. As we gained on ya-Otto, however, he began frantically scratching his back.
First ya-Otto, then Amathila via this improvised warning, had realized that the car parked up ahead belonged to the Special Branch, the security police. So too, it turned out, did the Volkswagen to our rear.
"You'll have to get out," Amathila said urgently and slowed to a stop. "The police are behind us. Just tell them I was going to give you a ride to Okahandja and was going to get my things in the Location."
We shook hands and I got out, heart pounding. Ya-Otto kept walking, but looked back. I think we exchanged farewells. Then I headed back to town, pretending calm, with two SBs shadowing my retreat.
So ended a young writer's clandestine attempt to interview members of the South West Africa People's Organization. One year later, SWAPO would launch its armed struggle after the World Court refused to declare South Africa's occupation illegal.
The Special Branch came for me that night. Two plainclothes thugs took me from my hotel to a dark side street and beat me after a perfunctory interrogation. The thug-in-charge said he would show me things that would make me never want to come back. Of course, now I had all the more reason to return someday. I also had learned my first practical lesson in applied apartheid: It is based on sheer power and the willingness to use it.
Ya-Otto, then the Secretary-General of SWAPO, and Amathila were fortunate not to be jailed for their part in our aborted meeting. Both, in time, were to be tortured and ya-Otto imprisoned for several years in Pretoria. Both eventually escaped into long exile.
I would come to know many Namibians during the quarter century it took to liberate the country. I attended one's marriage in Philadelphia in 1969, another's funeral in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1981. I even ventured back to South African-controlled Namibia in 1986 at the invitation of a local African development worker. She and I drove to the south to visit some small agricultural projects. I rode in the front seat, slept in the same house with her alone, in the colored section of a small town. But there came no knock in the night. Apartheid's watchdogs also slept.
Ya-Otto and Amathila were not yet welcome in their homeland, however. They operated in the diaspora of the struggle -- working at a guerrilla camp in Angola, consulting comrades in Lusaka, fundraising in Sweden or patrolling the corridors of the United Nations in New York. Over the years, mutual friends would mention that one or the other had been in town. I had just missed them, it seemed.
I often wondered when and how we would truly meet. Late in June 1990, three months after the Namibian flag replaced the South African flag, I finally met John ya-Otto and Ben Amathila, in Windhoek. There were no tears, no hugs, no revolutionary handclasps. We simply smiled and greeted each other, as though we had always known we would meet on this day.
Ya-Otto, who then headed the National Union of Namibian Workers, invited me home for a Sunday afternoon barbecue. Strangely, we felt no need to compare notes about the Sunday afternoon and evening of July 25, 1965. That was history. We spoke instead of how to address the country's surging unemployment, of how to fulfill popular expectations spawned by independence.
I found Amathila at his spacious office in the government buildings overlooking the city. He was then Minister of Trade and Industry, and confronting much the same problems and expectations as ya-Otto. Not only did he remember me, he recalled our rendezvous far more vividly than I, down to ya-Otto's backscratching. Perhaps that's because he had been in Windhoek illegally, without a pass, and had taken considerable risk to pick me up.
It was late, and I had a plane to catch. He offered to drive me back to town. His government Mercedes had replaced the SWAPO Landrover. When we stopped for a red light near my hotel, I looked back.
"There aren't any police behind us," I said, "but I'll get out here."
We laughed, as old friends will.
Copyright 1994, Kevin G. Lowther. All rights reserved.