Comrade Editor: On Life, Journalism, and the Birth of Namibia

Gwen Lister, Comrade Editor: On Life, Journalism and the Birth of Namibia (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2021)

ON 11 June 1974 a small group of anti-apartheid Cape Town students disrupted a Southern Universities versus British Lions rugby match at Newlands, running onto the pitch with a banner. It was a symbolic act of great bravery in the face of universal hostility from rugby players, spectators and police. One of the protestors that day was Gwen Lister.

She came from a conventional English-speaking white South African background with a bank manager father, but from an early age developed an antipathy for apartheid. This, and a deep-seated determination not to look back that kept her moving on whatever the odds, have framed her life, about which she writes with candour.

Armed only with a degree from the University of Cape Town and no experience, she secured a job at the Windhoek Advertiser in 1976, moving to the Windhoek Observer in 1978 and the Namibian in 1985; while also acting as a correspondent for the British and Canadian Broadcasting Corporations. At the Advertiser and Observer she worked with the notorious J.M. (Hannes) Smith, or Smittie, a baptism of fire. Smith was a traditional muckraking and totally committed journalist, an Afrikaner with a Dorsland trekker background who loathed the National Party and other establishment institutions; but a man with huge character flaws. A womaniser and heavy drinker, a bully who displayed abrupt mood swings, he was known to many as ‘Mal Smit’. But Lister’s forbearance over eight years made them an effective journalistic team. She learned the hard way, on the job.

The Advertiser was bought out by interests close to the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance and Smittie and Lister started the Observer to preserve independent journalism in South West Africa (SWA). Significantly, it was launched on the day of the Cassinga attack, a turning point in the Namibian struggle.  It published an eclectic mix of politics, human interest and smut. Lister continued to develop the political beat, attending SWAPO rallies in Katutura and, until her military accreditation was withdrawn, visiting the operational area. This was a curious situation: SWAPO was fighting a war of liberation, but the organisation was not banned because of sensitivities around the mandate. Nevertheless, its rallies were routinely attacked by the police on behalf of an administration using increasingly dirty tactics. For example, on Easter Monday 1978, Clemens Kapuuo was assassinated supposedly by SWAPO but Lister places likely culpability at the door of the regime. She characterises SWAPO, its rhetoric aside, as primarily a nationalist movement.

The South African mandate over SWA had been declared void by the international community in 1966. Tactics designed to cling on to the territory involved a homeland system and the Turnhalle Conference that brought together most political parties except SWAPO. The aim was an internal settlement, excluding the latter, involving a scenario of shifting alliances that exposed many of those involved as political chameleons. Opponents of these machinations wanted to see a decolonised and truly independent SWA in terms of United Nations Security Council resolution 435.

This book, and the story of Lister’s life, is about maintaining the principles and practice of independent journalism and speaking truth to power. She developed close links with SWAPO, the Council of Churches in Namibia and even individual members of the Ovamboland administration, all crucial to balanced reporting, and earned the opprobrium of the authorities and their political allies. Sadly, she was eventually betrayed by Smith who crumbled in the mid-1980s under pressure from conservative business associates. The tipping point was her very successful coverage of the failed Lusaka talks of 1984, which led to a banning of the Observer by the Publications Board, a decision successfully challenged. Lister was demoted and seven other staff resigned with her.

With great determination, and the help of the human rights lawyer David Smuts, she founded the weekly Namibian, in the process becoming the region’s first female newspaper editor. It became a daily in 1990 and she remained editor until 2011. Its ultimate success came at a price, which Lister admits placed great stress on her personal life. The first edition appeared in August 1985, shortly after its South African equivalent, the Mail & Guardian, and was produced by a staff of ten. Blacklisted by white Windhoek, it was foreign funded with the approval of SWAPO, and dedicated to reporting that would advance national independence and to the training of local journalists. Its own independence was secured by the Namibia Media Trust and symbolically it had a red masthead. The authorities tried to strangle it at birth with an outrageous registration deposit but this was overturned by the courts. Perhaps its greatest scoop was the famous photograph of the abuse of the corpses of SWAPO soldiers published in January 1986, which did enormous damage to South Africa’s reputation internationally. The paper was then banned, but as a member of the Newspaper Press Union this had to be rescinded.

Lister must have been blessed with a particularly high-octane brand of adrenaline and writes that she eventually became immune to abuse. Gradually ostracised, she was charged in 1983 under the Publications and Internal Security Acts with possession of banned books, but was acquitted with the assistance of a heavyweight legal team of David Smuts, Jeremy Gauntlett and Ian Farlam. Surveillance, police raids (resulting in the copying of diaries and address books) and death threats became commonplace. Tampering with her mail led to a truly bizarre episode in which she publicised an interception order addressed in error to her. She was arrested under the Official Secrets and Post Office Acts and spent a while in the cells in December 1984. Charges were later dropped, but it was recognised at the time that bungling authoritarians could be especially dangerous. In 1988 she was detained under proclamation AG9 for refusing to name the source of a leaked document and became internationally known as a prisoner of conscience. There were no charges. The subject of unpleasant cartoons in other papers and smear pamphlets, she was accused in 1986 of being a British spy. The spies were plants she had to eject from her newsroom.

As a believer in independent journalism, Lister was never a member of SWAPO, although it clearly regarded her as an ally and tried to recruit her at independence as head of the broadcasting corporation or a minister in the government; and to reward her with a farm for her role in achieving independence. All of these offers she wisely rejected. And in spite of the stresses of the struggle years, those that followed were just as challenging. Ignoring professed intentions, SWAPO followed a predictable liberation movement path.

Namibia had no truth commission, no safety valve for past conflict. So, the histories of the Lubango detention camp in Angola and responsibility for the massacre of SWAPO soldiers in April 1989 are still unresolved; as is the assassination of Anton Lubowski in September of the same year. A culture of entitlement, corruption and intolerance took hold of Namibia as SWAPO consolidated its power. The country adopted many of the characteristics of a one-party state with a highly questionable attitude towards political opposition and press freedom. In spite of its internal legal presence, SWAPO had been largely governed from exile and internationally recognised as the only legitimate representative of the Namibian people, a legacy that has proved toxic. A modicum of truth may emerge after the death of Sam Nujoma, who casts a shadow over national life even now, although liberation movement paranoia is deep seated.

The government has shown extreme reluctance to deal honestly with the past and created a warped history around many questionable liberation heroes and collaborators. Yet many significant contributions were forgotten. An inquest into Lubowksi’s killing found the South African Defence Force Civil Co-operation Bureau responsible, but failed to identify the man who pulled the trigger or whether there had been police collusion. Donald Acheson, an Irish mercenary, was a prime suspect, but the matter remains a cold case. What did emerge was that Acheson had been sent to Windhoek with orders to kill. The target was Lister.

On Independence Day, 21 March 1990, the Namibian’s headline read ‘Uhuru’. Lister admits that this was perhaps somewhat premature because she and the paper were now outsiders with a new relationship with SWAPO. That same year threats were made under the Police Act for printing a story about a possible right-wing coup. Shortly afterwards the paper’s premises were hit by three grenades. Nearly ten years later reporting on human rights abuses in the north, particular during the failed Caprivi secession, led to a government advertising ban for a decade. Journalism in a sense became more difficult after 1990 as the churches and trade unions now deferred to the SWAPO government.

Lister did not endear herself to the new regime by rejecting government control of media in Africa that emerged from the New World Information and Communication Order. Her guerrilla typewriter years were preparation for an independent media, encapsulated appropriately enough in the 1991 Windhoek Declaration on a free African press. She played a significant role in the Media Institute of Southern Africa having resigned from the board of the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation.

The journalism described in this book is already ancient history. Those were the days when reporters with designated beats went out in pursuit of stories and returned to the newsroom only to type them up; a far cry from today’s screens, big and small, and the confusion between real and fake news. (Lister dismisses the latter term on the grounds that only the genuine article deserves the term news). It was an anarchic system befitting the times, largely ungoverned by labour law and often characterised by managerial abuse, although notable for teamwork and the spirit of a distinct community.

Lister describes her working life as chaotic, and has a photograph to prove it, but clearly showed great ability as a manager running a ‘mean and lean’ operation with flat management that placed principle before profit. Newsrooms were then full of larger-than-life, seemingly crazy, characters for whom she showed tolerance and respect; although theft and dishonesty earned dismissal. Given the hazards of founding an independent newspaper under an authoritarian regime, her demanding and addictive personality was well-suited, and she stresses the importance of instinct.

This is a memorable and significant book, but the reader is left with a lingering sense that (like many contemporary publications) it could have benefited from a little more editorial rigour in terms of length and repetition. There are a few errors: what, for instance, is a suffrage bishop? And MI5 is British counter-intelligence.

The personal and often poignant consequences of post-liberation politics that emerge, creating increasing introspection in advancing years, will be familiar to many. Life under a racist, authoritarian regime produced testing challenges that brought out the very best in some people: Lister is a wonderful example. She writes of times of laughter, camaraderie and ‘happy hysteria’ when journalism like other activities was a calling, not just a job. Then after liberation comes the marginalisation, unease and a growing list of questions. For Lister, exclusion from the independence banquet in 1990 was mirrored thirty years later by sidelining from commemoration of the Windhoek Declaration. Such is the price of, to use her phrase, walking to the beat of your own drum.

Fortunately, none of this devalues having done the right thing at the right time when it really mattered. Heroism is usually attached to specific events, but it applies also to lifetimes. When someone has unswervingly adhered to professional ethics and principles, exercised their conscience vigorously and suffered for the greater good, the heroic has been achieved.


Book review by Christopher Merrett, reproduced from his web page,From the Thornveld