HALE HEARTY: Andimba Toivo ya Toivo attended a wedding in South Africa. © Unknown.
HALE HEARTY: Andimba Toivo ya Toivo attended a wedding in South Africa. © Unknown.



In the dark days of the struggle against apartheid, long before the alliteration of identity as in Salim Ahmed Salim, Xanana Gusmao Xanana and Boutros Boutros Ghali gained currency, there was Andimba Toivo ya Toivo.

Born 84 years ago in a small village in the Oshikoto region of the then South West Africa, Comrade Andimba, as he prefers to be addressed, would pay the ultimate price for his opposition to colonialism - a hefty jail term on Robben Island. When he was released in 1984, he'd served just four years short of the 20 he was originally sentenced to.

On Saturday, he was back in the country from his home across the border in Namibia to attend, not a rally, but a wedding.

He stole a few hours before arriving at the home of his host to pay old prison mate Nelson Mandela a courtesy visit but found the frail Madiba indisposed and unable to receive him.

A lot slimmer but definitely in good health for a geriatric, the tiger has certainly been tamed, well enough to find time for an innocuous occasion such as the nuptials of a comrade's daughter.

The trouble with Africa, he reflects, is her power-hungry rulers who cling to positions even when the writing is on the wall, warning them their time is up. He does not have to look far for examples. In his own backyard, past President Sam Nujoma remained party leader even after he left the government.

Incumbent head of state Hifikepunye Pohamba is a Nujoma nominee who did very little by way of campaigning for the highest office in the land, leaving his ascent to power in the hands of the man who wanted him there.

Robert Mugabe, also 84, who Andimba calls by his other name - Gabriel - is another embodiment of the malady bedevilling the Mother Continent.

"I really don't know what's in his mind. Staying on will only destroy his good reputation."

One of about 80 Namibian prisoners on Robben Island at the time, Andimba's incarceration is proof of the bully-boy role apartheid South Africa had arrogated itself in the Southern African region.

As early as the 1960s South Africa could grant or deny permission for schools to be built or not and determine whether the area, if allocated, was in the "black" or "white" part of Suidwes-Afrika, a country they treated as an extension of their own.

On the day of his conviction in 1968, Andimba would make a speech as remarkable as Mandela's own Rivonia Trial submission, "denying South Africa the right to try South West Africa's (SWA) citizens or to rule their country".

Just a day earlier, the United Nations (UN) Security Council had, for the very first time, "made interventions in SWA affairs, in the form of a condemnation of South Africa for instituting court cases against SWA citizens based on SA's new anti-terrorism laws".

Seated on a comfortable couch inside a suburban residence in a free South Africa, Andimba speaks, barely audibly, about the jailers' brutalities on the island.

He was beaten to a pulp a few times, the same way the likes of Japhta Masemola were assaulted. He saw Govan Mbeki collapse from the shock of witnessing the warders' savagery.

As he contemplates the cold can of ginger beer in his hand, he no doubt realises the measure of his luck as, in a manner of speaking, he has lived to tell the tale. Some of his comrades, such as Joseph Shimuefeleni and Festus Nehale, would later die of negligence and mistreatment in jail.

As leader of the Namibian posse of prisoners, a "terrorist", Andimba would later be moved to B Section, where luminaries such as Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and others were held.

"We'd talk about politics mostly," he says, "and about our release, if it would come, independence and the democracy of our new states."

When he joined this elite group in 1972, there were 38 in the entire section: "There were only 16 when I left in 1984."

Just before Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor, a new class of younger prisoners landed on the island - Tokyo Sexwale, Saki Macozoma and Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota, says Andimba. In the midst of the new batch were also Black Consciousness Movement followers Strini Moodley, Aubrey Mokoape and Saths Cooper.

What occupies him these days?

"I just sit, eat and drink," he says, laughing at his own joke.

The truth is that many companies seek out his expertise, luring him to their boards.

He takes a moment to shake hands with Trevor Fowler, chief operations officer in the Presidency, and journalist Jimi Matthews, who reminds Andimba that he (Matthews) was on the dock when the old freedom fighter was freed from the island.

The village boy, who now has a street, the old Krupp Street, named after him in Windhoek, is married to Vicky, who Fowler asks after.

They have twin girls Nashikoto and Mutaleni.

It's certainly been a long walk to freedom, Andimba.