Toivo ya Toivo: Namibia’s humble hero - News - Gondwana Collection

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Toivo ya Toivo: Namibia’s humble hero

Avatar of inke inke - 09. June 2017 - Discover Namibia, Gondwana Collection

Toivo ya Toivo with his wife Vicki, daughter Nashikoto and the Etosha Boys at the Okambashu Restaurant at Etosha Safari Camp.

There are a handful of people who have changed the world through their vision of peace. Some, like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King, spent years in prison or gave their lives for this cause. Namibia’s Toivo ya Toivo was one of these great men.

I had the privilege of meeting Andimba Herman Toivo ya Toivo two years ago when staff at one of the Gondwana lodges informed me that he was spending the night. Thankful for the opportunity to accommodate one of Namibia’s greats, I extended the invitation for him to stay as our guest of honour. When he came to our offices in Windhoek to thank me personally, I finally had a chance to meet the man who played a key role in the establishment of a democratic Namibia. Ya Toivo had alerted the UN to the dissatisfaction of ‘Namibians’ living under South African rule and the inhumanity of the contract labour system in the late 1950s and 1960s. He was one of the founding members of the Ovamboland People’s Congress (OPC), a forerunner to SWAPO, and later became the regional secretary for SWAPO in the north, recruiting members and mobilising the youth, encouraging them to further their studies in exile. He would soon pay dearly for this. In 1966 he was arrested, with 36 other Namibians. He was tried for treason two years later in Pretoria and sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on Robben Island. 

Those days were, thankfully, long past when we sat drinking tea in the office garden, two Namibians chatting peacefully together. Released after sixteen years on Robben Island, ya Toivo lived in exile until independence, returning to become a member of parliament and to help draft the first Namibian constitution. He served as the secretary general of SWAPO from 1984 to 1991. I was honoured to present him with our VIP card and make him a Gondwana Ambassador, welcome at any of our lodges, anytime. Eager to see more of his country, he soon reserved accommodation and visited The Delight Hotel in Swakopmund, Damara Mopane Lodge and Etosha Safari Lodge. It was Etosha, however, that drew his attention because I had told him that his photograph is proudly displayed on our ‘Wall of Fame’ in the Okambashu Restaurant, along with Mahatma Ghandi, Dr Sam Nujoma and other important peacemakers.

I was delighted to receive a call from his daughter saying that her father would appreciate my company at Etosha. I joined ya Toivo for supper in our homely Okambashu restaurant, which explores the theme of the colourful pre-independence shebeens that served as important gathering points for people to meet and talk. During the evening, I had a chance to get to know him better and watched, with admiration, how he chatted easily to staff members, genuinely interested in their lives. He thoroughly enjoyed sitting in the courtyard listening to the vibey music of the Etosha Boys, comfortably enthroned in a large recycled-tyre chair. His humility floored me and I made a point to remember to deliver just such a chair to his home.

The memorable encounter stayed with me when I returned to Windhoek where I further researched the life of this esteemed man. What soon became apparent was that on his impending sentence in 1968, when I was just a small boy, he, like the other remarkable men who had the courage to stand up for their beliefs, delivered a powerful speech. Reading through it, I couldn’t help noticing the similarities in the belief systems of the great leaders of world peace who promoted non-violence and equality in the last century.

I scrolled through the various speeches transfixed. “Non-violence is the first article of my faith. It is also the last article of my creed,” Ghandi had proudly declared in India while his destiny hung in the balance. Mandela, who was ya Toivo’s fellow inmate on Robben Island, had presented his well-known speech at the Rivonia Trial in 1964. He said: “We believe that South Africa belongs to all people who live in it, and not to one group, be it black or white... The basic task at the moment is the removal of race discrimination and the attainment of democratic rights on the basis of the freedom charter.” Martin Luther King, advocate of non-violence and equality on behalf of the Afro-Americans, proclaimed in his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech: “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.” He continued, “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

In 1968 while the court audience stilled to pin-dropping silence, ya Toivo had stood up and expressed similar concepts with his words: “I do not claim that it is easy for men of different races to live at peace with one another. I myself had no experience of this in my youth, and at first it surprised me that men of different races could live together in peace. But now I know it to be true and to be something for which we must strive.”

Discovering the parallels between these men, I realised that all four had been imprisoned and two had been assassinated for their fortitude. A friend also brought it to my attention that ya Toivo’s speech on 9 February 1968 coincides with the day our constitution was adopted in 1990. I had the strong heart-felt impression that the spirit of his speech had somehow been absorbed into the Namibian constitution. 

Ya Toivo’s eighteen years – or 6600 days - spent in prison hadn’t embittered him or made him self-important. He always remained Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, our humble hero. On 9 June 2017 he passed on. We would like to extend our heartfelt condolences to his wife, daughters and family.  

Thank you. Tatekulu, our meeting will remain one of the shining moments in my life.

Mannfred Goldbeck & the Gondwana Collection

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