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KWAZULU-Natal, on the opposite side of southern Africa from Namibia, has some connections with that country: Swapo Road in Durban North renamed after that country’s ruling party and an informal settlement, called Namibia, adjacent to one called Angola, at Mariannhill.
And there’s the connection through many Durban men having become familiar with places such as Eenhana, Ondangwa, Ogongo and Ombalantu in the far north of Namibia during their conscript days.
Goings-on up there were under-reported and South African spin had the upper hand of the distribution of information, prompting Windhoek journalist Gwen Lister to start The Namibian newspaper.
She survived arrests, once being thrown into detention while pregnant, and attacks by the South African security establishment for her sympathetic stance with Swapo, the enemy the South African conscripts fought during the “Border War”.
Later, she faced an advertising boycott from the post-independence government once Swapo was in power.
Now, she has just come out with her memoir titled Comrade Editor.
Referring to the SA conscripts, Lister told the Independent on Saturday in an interview from Windhoek: “Most of these young men thought they were doing their patriotic duty keeping communism at bay, and many – who I’ve spoken to over the years – have learnt with hindsight that this was not a real threat at any point.
“The whole aim was to prevent a Swapo government, which the South African government saw as a tool of the Soviets, from coming to power in then-South West Africa,” said Lister.
“Only a few of us realised at the time that SA wanted to control SWA for as long as was possible which was why they tried to impose a unilateral declaration of independence and install what Swapo would have called a ‘puppet’ government to do their bidding, and to protect their economic interests in the UN-mandated colony.
“The (primarily white) youth were successfully propagandised and brainwashed into keeping an internationally acceptable settlement at bay until the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, among other geopolitical events, turned the tide of war against the apartheid government.”
Lister endured numerous searches on her home and office, arrests, a campaign to ridicule her and, in 1988, a fire bomb attack on her offices.
The blast did not affect production.
The next scheduled edition of The Namibian nonetheless hit the streets.
In spite of the newspaper being sympathetic to Swapo, she firmly insists she has always been independent-minded.
“I’ve never subscribed to any political party or ideology, although Swapo and the newspaper found themselves allies in the Struggle to end colonial rule and give Namibians the opportunity to carve out their own destiny.
“I’ve always been independent-minded, and although some would dispute that, it is the truth.”
Asked whether, if she was fresh out of varsity now, would she have done things differently, she answered, “no”.
“Because I believe that good journalism, and advocacy or activist journalism as ours in the 1970s and 1980s would have been more aptly described, can make a difference.
“Most real journalists, wherever they are in the world, are those who are doing what they do in the public service and for the greater good, and we have manifold examples around the globe of many, especially those working under draconian governments, who have paid the ultimate price for trying to inform their communities to the best of their ability by speaking truth to power and trying to bring about societal change by shining a light into the darkness.”
Lister said, in Namibia, traditional journalism in newspaper form is at a critical crossroads for a number of reasons, the battle for sustainability being one of them, the exodus online another.
“But I remain hopeful that those who take the fight forward will look at innovative ways to get closer to their communities by giving them news they can use, and if possible, dissuade people from the increasing appetite for disinformation and click bait, by helping them realise that access to good information is critical in their own life choices and empowerment as citizens participating to the fullest in their own development.”
Meanwhile, activist journalism still has its place on the continent, she believes.
“It remains a necessary campaign everywhere today.
“Probably mostly in undemocratic countries, but not only.”
Africa’s democracies are fragile, she said.
“I have always said that press freedom is a battle that will never fully be won and constant vigilance is required, even in countries such as Namibia which presently tops the Reporters sans Frontieres Africa rankings.
“I continue to believe that high-quality, ethical and investigative journalism can and will make a huge difference in the world.”
With independence on March 22, 1990, it was far from “mission accomplished” for Lister.
A decade later, The Namibian felt the pinch of toeing an independent line with the new Swapo government banning government advertising in the publication.
It was later restored in what Lister described in her book as “a birthday present” on the newspaper’s 26th anniversary.
The year after independence the right wing remained a threat.
The office of The Namibian suffered a second bombing in 1991.
History repeated itself as Lister did not allow it to stop production and set out bringing out the next issue on schedule.
The charred, burned scar it left on the wall was framed as a memory to the incident.
“It looked like art,” remarked Donna Collins, a member of the Namibian media fraternity who originally hails from KZN.
- Comrade Editor, published by Tafelberg, retails for R330.
The Independent on Saturday