Iconic Robben Island prisoner, Namibia’s Ya Toivo dies


THE Robben Island generation is phasing out and the so-called born free young generation is taking charge. The passing away last week of Namibia’s iconic son, liberation struggle hero and former Robben Island prisoner, Herman Andimba Toivo ya Toivo at 92, is being buried today at the Windhoek’s Heroes Acre.

Early this year, another apartheid antagonist Ahmed Kathrada who fought alongside with Madiba and incarcerated at the Robben Island died in South Africa at 87. Maybe, Ya Toivo’s death had completed the feeling of a telepathy effect created on the tripartite deaths of Madiba, Kathrada and now Toivo ya Toivo.

Ya Toivo who died in Windhoek last Friday is not a stranger to Southern African politics and Africa as whole. Unlike Mandela who received fabled aura the world over, Ya Toivo was a Namibian nationalist who fought an enduring war in campaigning for his land’s independence and was jailed for 16 years alongside with Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada in South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison.

He was a co-founder of the South West People’s Organization widely known as Swapo forerunner of Ovambo People’s Congress (OPC) found by Ya Toivo. Swapo later came to be recognized by the United Nations as the sole legitimate representative of the Namibian population.

Apparently Sam Nujoma and Ya Toivo ran different avenues, while Dr Nujoma left Namibia to become Swa po’s exiled leader to Tanzania, Mr Ya Toivo remained in South Africa to face arrest, trial and incarceration at Robben Island until 1984.

While in South Africa based at Cape Town he became very active mobilising his countrymen to agitate against the occupation of South West Africa by the apartheid government of South Africa.

In 1958 Ya Toivo smuggled out a tap protesting against migrant system to United Nations but later was nabbed and expelled from South Africa. That was the beginning of his struggle to agitate and seeking better conditions for migrant workers.

In the same year, the South African authorities repatriated him to northern Namibia because of his activism. In 1966, Swapo guerrillas launched the first military operations of their uneven armed struggle against vastly superior South African forces. Within months, Mr Ya Toivo was arrested and sentenced to 20 years and sent to Robben Island.

But Ya Toivo showed his defiance to the South African government by his oratory prowess he displayed before his sentence was pronounced at the court. He said, “We are Namibians, and not South Africans.

We do not now, and will not in the future, recognise your right to govern us; to make laws for us, in which we had no say; to treat our country as if it was your property, and us as if you are our masters.

We have always regarded South Africa as an intruder in our country. This is how we have always felt, and this is how we feel now, and it is on this basis that we have faced this trial,” he stated powerfully.

Robben Island prison is where he met with Mandela and Kathrada. In 2000, the International Corrections and Prisons Association, (ICPA) held its annual meeting in Cape Town where the world Corrections Officers met. It was arranged that they should visit this historic prison at Robben Island.

I happened to be one of the delegates from Namibia and our host was none other than the former Robben Island prisoner Ahmed Kathrada who had a luxury of briefing us how the life was at that time in Robben Island.

Knowing that some of us have come from Namibia he had to dedicate his briefing on Ya Toivo. He remarked, “Ya Toivo wanted very little to do with whites, with the warders,” on Robben Island, Kathrada recalled that, Mr Ya Toivo, he said, “Wouldn’t cooperate with the authorities at all in almost anything.”

Even when the South African authorities released him in 1984 after 16 years, Mr ya Toivo was reluctant to leave his cell while fellow nationalists were still jailed. When he returned to Namibia, thousands of jubilant supporters were there to greet him, pouring into the streets of Katutura, a segregated black township near Windhoek.

To continue with the struggle he exiled himself to Zambia and became the Secretary-General of Swapo where Sam Nujoma retained the post of President of SWAPO. Come independence March 1990, he held a strong portfolio of Minister of Mines later Minister of Corrections Service before his retirement as Minister of Labour.

As a minister of Corrections it was nice working with him as an ex-prisoner; he was quite aware of what is happening in the prisons and the plight together with the stigma the prisoners endure when they are released from prisons.

He was of the opinion that why should the government spend a lot of money in rehabilitation of prisoners and yet the very government denies these people to be employed simply because they had been convicted.

Ya Toivo fought on this until the government accepted his argument that imprisonment should not be a prohibition for employment.

However there was an outpouring of condolences from different corners, one of them from South African Communist Party statement read, “Africa is not independent yet because of persisting imperialist domination, and the capitalist exploitation of its resources and people.

The masses of our people remain impoverished across the board while a few, both national and foreign exploiters are becoming rich and richer out of the exploitation.” The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation statement hailed Ya Toivo by saying.

“While Ya Toivo was a Namibian independence fighter, his close links to the South African struggle puts him among the list of the most notable of the anti-apartheid stalwarts. It is only fitting that we say, hamba kahle comrade Toivo Ya Toivo.”

All in all, it can be summed up. Ya Toivo was never interested in power or glory, but he was just a person who preferred to live a simple life. Rest in Peace Tate Kulu !!!

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