It is an immense honour to share brief remarks on the life of a man who ranks among the pantheon of this generation’s most venerated leaders. The life of Comrade Herman Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo exemplifies the oft-quoted ideal that asks that we ‘lead by example’.
In reflecting on this remarkable life, I am reminded of another such leader who made an indelible impact on history.
In August of 1958, Martin Luther King Junior preached a sermon meditating on the question ‘what is man?’, which he believed to be “one of the most important questions confronting any generation”.
From these reflections stemmed forth one of King’s most iconic quotes, stating that:
‘the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy’.
Indeed, the character of Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo’s life was defined by where he stood ‘at times of challenge and controversy’: always choosing the side of the oppressed and refusing complicity with the morally degenerate system of apartheid.
We are poorer for this immense loss, felt not only in Namibia, but in South Africa and across the continent of Africa. Such is the effect of the life of one who extended his activist humanity across the lines of the borders constructed between us.
On days like these, a complex cocktail of emotions overtakes our hearts and minds. As we collectively grieve the passing of a beloved friend, family member, comrade and struggle icon, we are invited to take measure of his remarkable life.
Such an inducement requires us to recall the thematic arc that shaped his days on earth and is simultaneously a motivation to continue the journey that defined his activism and just ethos.
While we are immensely saddened by the passing of Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo, we celebrate his life and longevity: encouraged by the lessons we take forward in continuing his legacy.
The lauded English author, Terry Pratchett, once stated:
‘‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…’
What Pratchett reveals, is the indelible imprint left by those whose lives become emblematic of the highest characteristics of the human condition.
There are indeed monuments that bear his name: the MV Ya Toivo ship; Andimba Toivo ya Toivo Senior Secondary School and the dining hall at the St Mary’s Mission School. These physical structures ensure that his name stays in our consciousness. But there is more to memory than name alone, and it requires monuments beyond brick, steel and stone.
Our lives too, can serve as living memorials of Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo’s legacy, as we ensure that the ripples of his life swell the souls of those who have devoted their life to affecting change that is dedicated to social justice, and emboldened by a humanist consciousness.
In our attempts to do so, we are required to recall the vision and ideals that inspired his commitment to improving both the human condition and the material lives of the oppressed.
Ovamboland’s son trained as a carpenter in his early years. In reflecting on this, a metaphoric angle appears between his interest in such a trade and the activism that would overtake his daily life.
Some people are gifted with the ability to both see the reality in front of them, and imagine the transformed shape that it could take in future.
For Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo, a piece of wood was a potential table or chair, in the same way that an oppressive reality held within it the possibility of liberation from its shackles.
A commitment to such a visionary existence requires remarkable fidelity to an alternate vision for the future.
While there are less obstacles that lie in the way of changing the condition of a piece of wood as opposed to the material conditions of an oppressive society, they both require the acknowledgement that such change is both possible and that your own hand has a role to play in its achievement.
Such a society awaited Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo when he reached South Africa in 1951. However, rather than shying away from the commitments necessary to alter its conditions, he quickly joined a trade union and political movements, including the Modern Youth Society (MYS) and the African National Congress, belonging to the same branch as luminaries such as Denis Goldberg, Albie Sachs and Sandi Sijake.
Due to South Africa’s Mandate from the League of Nations following the defeat of Namibia’s colonising power, Germany, in the First World War, this Mandate, which was given to South Africa to help Namibia prepare for its independence, was betrayed as South Africa reneged on this undertaking as it sought to enhance its power through perpetual overlordship of Namibia. In this way black Namibians came under South Africa’s political oppression and thus shared similar political experience with oppressed South Africans.
In this way, comrade Toivo Ya Toivo was one of us: dedicated to the interconnected struggles for liberation in both his native Namibia, and on our soil. He exemplifies the profoundly humanist act of understanding our connection to our nations’ journeys across borders.
The actions that accompany such an understanding would lead to his imprisonment on Robben Island for sixteen years – becoming Namibia’s longest serving political prisoner, under Apartheid.
In ‘The State vs Tuhadeleni and 36 others’, Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo, accused No. 21.’, was convicted of treason under the Terrorism Act and the Suppression of Communism Act – which were retrospectively amended to try the Namibians under the depraved South African legal system.
Held incommunicado under section 6 of the Terrorism Act which allowed for 180 days of detention without trial, Toivo Ya Toivo and his 36 fellow detainees were subjected to the severest torture imaginable by the security police who were guaranteed immunity as well as unfettered and unchecked powers.
Upon entering prison, Toivo Ya Toivo is quoted as saying “the struggle will be long and bitter,” but “I also know that my people will wage that struggle, whatever the cost.” He intimately knew what we now retrospectively discern: while the cost might be great, the rewards of following the most honourable path are even greater.
There are many words that have been used to describe him: steadfast, resolute, and iconic. Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo possessed an incisive mind, sharp tongue and unshakable spirit. When speaking of him, his fellow prisoners often attest to his unfaltering character.
Even when incarcerated and facing the brutal conditions on Robben Island, Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo refused to participate in the prison classification system – despite the fact that it might have mitigated the severity of his experience.
He chose, instead, to continue on the path he set out on when he spoke from within the courthouse that imprisoned him – rebutting that the South African government had legitimacy over him and his fellow Namibians through his defiant actions on the island.
Participation in a rotten system based on moral bankruptcy was inconceivable for a man who built his life and character on the highest of ethical principles.
Fellow prisoner, Former President Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying:
“He didn’t care to be promoted and he wouldn’t co-operate with the authorities at all in almost everything…He was quite militant”.
These contemporaries, Nelson Mandela and Toivo Ya Toivo, were united not only in their shared prison days on Robben Island, but also in their resolute commitment to the ideals that they were willing to die for.
They stand elevated in our consciousness, forever held in high regard amongst those who refuse to accept the status quo and are willing to break their backs and risk their lives to see a new dawn – even when to others it simply appears to be an ever-receding horizon; a mirage; an impossibility.
Part of doing justice to the memory of men and women of this order, however, is allowing their humanity to include a requisite complexity in the narratives that we build in their honour.
While worthy of veneration, during their time on earth they asked that we not commit them to the ranks of saints, nor view them above the fallibility of our human condition.
Like Mandela, Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo noted that the difference is in our commitment to working on our faults and amending our flaws. He is quoted as saying:
“Progress is something we shall have to struggle and work for. And I believe that the only way in which we shall be able and fit to secure that progress is to learn from our own experience and mistakes.”
Indeed, he reached the pinnacle of such progress, in political terms. The founder and Secretary General of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) saw his dream of liberation from South African rule realised in 1990. Incidentally the dawn of Namibian freedom was on the 21 of March 1990, exactly 30 years after the Sharpeville Massacre!
In these troubled times, where unity of the African people is of prime importance yet, ironically, xenophobia continues to be a scourge blighting our connection to each other, it is critical to remember that our fellow Africans both lived under apartheid’s policies, ruled by its oppressive prescripts and suffering similar human rights violations, and were committed to our struggle for liberation.
These are the times of which we are reminded of Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo’s pan-Africanist ethos, which requires that we consider both what shape unity will take on our continent, and what it demands from us in embarking on a shared vision for Africa’s future.
Our destinies have long being indivisible. This future is unmistakably a shared one which will take a concerted effort to attain.
The peoples of South Africa and Namibia are thus irrevocably connected. As the great Oliver Tambo once remarked, speaking to SWAPO:
“by your actions you have forged bonds of unity between yourselves and us, the people of Namibia and the people of South Africa – bonds of brotherhood and comradeship, forged in blood, and for that reason indissoluble. This was also demonstrated by the incarceration together of the leaders of our Revolution amongst them Herman Toivo Ya Toivo.”
Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo will be remembered as a freedom fighter who was committed to achieving better conditions for his fellow Namibians and South Africans: a man not obsessed with achieving rank in society, but on improving society such that the experience of equality and freedom is afforded to all, regardless of position.
His life was lived with a servant-leadership ethos that permeated through every space and political office that he occupied.
In the general conduct of the struggle for human freedom there are generally two categories of fighters; those who stay the course and those who betray the course. Toivo Ya Toivo fell in the category of freedom fighters who were steeled by the struggle. His life is better captured by the following memorable passage from the novel Steel and Slag by the Russian writer Popov:
‘In the heat of struggle, men become men of steel or disintegrate into cowards and traitors to end on the slag heap’.
My deepest condolences go to the family of Comrade Toivo Ya Toivo; to his comrades; and the Namibian nation. Please know that today, your loss is ours.
Across two countries, Toivo Ya Toivo proved that no condition is ever stagnant. No reality is too overwhelming to imagine change. Even posthumously, he reminds us that above all things, there is always possibility for change.
It is meaningful that his name translates as “hope of hope” in its Finnish origin. While we mourn today we are uplifted by the knowledge that, as comrade Toivo Ya Toivo himself showed, the role of leaders is to define reality and give hope.
Kgalema Motlanthe is the Former President of the Republic of South Africa and Former Deputy President of the African National Congress