President Hage G. Geingob, an unassuming giant of Namibian and African politics

By Dr Strike Mkandla

President Hage Gottfried Geingob passed away on 4 February 2024 while in his second and last term as President of Namibia.

Before I had seen the coverage, I got a few messages from friends, colleagues and one local journalist telling me and expressing their condolences, noting that I had worked with Dr Geingob. It so happens that there was indeed a strong personal loss because Dr Geingob became the foundation of my work with the United Nations system and he took pride in my progression after I had worked under him when he headed the United Nations Institute for Namibia (UNIN).

His death was a shock because I was not keeping direct contact with him as his health deteriorated. Thus, in expressing this in writing I take the opportunity to convey my condolences to the family, friends and numerous people who benefited from Dr Geingob’s wonderful humanity and unmatched service, not least the Government and People of Namibia under new President Dr Nangolo Mbumba.

Born in 1941 in Namibia and educated there before doing further education in North America and Britain, Geingob will be remembered for his tenacity for the independence of Namibia led by the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO). Of course, this streak of service and dedication is unbroken in his professional and political life because he made a smooth transition from preparing Namibia for independence and in stepping up to the mark to become the first Prime Minister of the country (under first President Sam Nujoma) when it formally cut off from South Africa in 1990.[1] His cross-cutting work covered research management, training and education of Namibians, political and global focus on post-independence planning. I was therefore privileged to see Dr Geingob and his friends putting their mark on Namibia and Southern Africa from 1985 to 1990, but my links with SWAPO and its struggle were predetermined by my activism in the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), the student movement, the solidarity movement[2], and the Journal of African Marxists (JAM) in Britain.

A Hundred Years of Colonialism in Namibia (1884-1984)

In 1984 the Namibia Support Committee, in cooperation with the SWAPO Department of Information and Publicity, convened a global conference on the history of Namibia.[3] Top leaders of SWAPO participated directly or sent contributions. It is germane here to point out that Dr Hage Geingob provided key support by bringing in the technical and organizational support of the United Nations Institute for Namibia (UNIN) and in co-publication of the edited work, Namibia 1884-1984: Readings on Namibia’s history and society (Namibia Support Committee in co-operation with the United Nations Institute for Namibia, 1988), edited by Brian Wood. This is only one of the important roles by Dr Geingob in his dual capacity of a key SWAPO leader and head of a research and training institution which was painstakingly committed to facts.  Even in this single one of numerous contributions, President Hage Gottfried Geingob fostered a wealth of insights for the students, researchers and future leaders who needed a timely and authoritative overview of how and why Namibia got its legacy that shaped its independent statehood acquired in 1990.

The time-line of the above book mirrored the scramble for Africa by European colonial powers that took various forms and different paces by imperialists, but took 1884 as the formal partition and drawing of boundaries according to negotiations and “spheres of influence” in Africa. The breath-taking arbitrariness of the colonial powers that converged at the Berlin Conference of 1884 changed the map of Africa because the independence movements eventually took the momentous position not to dismember the colonial territorial boundaries. Most importantly, the creation of new colonial entities was met with resistance by the African peoples, with new identities and legends created in the process. Five before the 100 years conference, SWAPO put this succinctly by borrowing a Mozambican saying, “To die a tribe and to be born a nation”.[4]

At the 100 years conference, there were Namibians at the political and technical levels, and Geingob was a key player in SWAPO leadership and interventions. This 1984 global conference brought together researchers, scholars and independent institutions, and international organizations (including the United Nations) for presentations and deliberations focussing on Namibia. I was chosen as one of 32 individual sponsors of that conference (at the time I was the Coordinator of the Journal of African Marxists- JAM). Among other things, the conference provided me a rare chance to mix and debate with a wide range of “gurus” of Namibian scholarship, activism, and informed development planning from around the world.  Although I studied and followed the politics of African revolutionary movements, I was this time thrust to the attention of many linked to the United Nations Institute for Namibia (UNIN). I recall an amusing moment when doyen of the nationalist movement Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo, the long-time Namibian detainee of Robben Island asked jokingly, “Are you an economist to argue with Professor H. H. Green as you did?” Indeed, it was after being thus quizzed by some Namibians that I was identified to join Dr Hage Geingob in 1985 at UNIN of which he was the Director in Zambia.

Dr Hage Geingob asks, “what kind of African man are you?”

President Geingob was a man of banter even though there were many lessons in “innocent” conversations. I got straight into one of those when I reported for work at UNIN in June 1985. My family (spouse Mildred, children Nozikhali, Ndabayezwe and tiny Nonhlanhla) came with me from London to Lusaka. We were efficiently and cordially housed at the Pamodzi Hotel prior to my getting a house to rent. When I went to the UNIN Director Dr Geingob, one of his remarks after welcoming me was “What kind of an African man are you, who brings the whole family before preparing ahead?” He said this without sarcasm but in his jovial manner which softened the jibe. There was actually a serious concern on his part that the family should get proper care and attention while hard and serious work was in progress. However, in our case there was an excellent coincidence that there were families of Zimbabweans Mtshana Mazibananga Ncube (UNIN) and Sindiso Ngwenya (PTA/COMESA) in Lusaka who tirelessly gave their personal logistical support.

“You have a country, Zimbabwe, for your Home Leave”, Geingob insisted

While I was completing installation procedures at UNIN, one of the issues that arose was that I had been recruited from London. Geingob was vehement in stating that he expected me to use my home country as my annual home leave base. He stated in many ways that whatever the state of politics in Zimbabwe I was supposed to keep contact with my roots and reinforce my nationhood. This was stated because he knew that there had been ethnic killings in my part of the country (Ndebele-speaking parts of the Midlands and Matebeleland provinces) under the Genocidal army campaign within the first five years of independence. This “Gukurahundi”, apart from normal criteria for home leave entitlement based on place of recruitment, could be one reason why I could opt for London. As a nationalist and Pan-Africanist active in our region’s politics, he was unhappy to see manifestations of tribal politics and discrimination. However, he took the stand, “I can’t sign for UK as a home country for you, your home is now independent”. He said this has nothing to do with the people in charge at the moment. Fortunately, our Embassy in Lusaka under Dr Mtetwa and the likes of Rodney Kiwa made it easy to relate once Dr Geingob’s line was taken. His personality made Dr Geingob’s prescription seem natural and patently principled. It would be amiss not to mention that Dr Geingob did not only lead in politics and development planning but provided personal example in self-management and inter-personal relations. He was simultaneously humorous, industrious, efficient and, above all, approachable and devoid of unwarranted pomp. Combinations of these qualities were demonstrated to me from the outset when I arrived in Lusaka in 1985 at the time a comprehensive study was being prepared under the aegis of UNIN, with Geingob in the driving seat.

Dr Hage Geingob spearheaded the Comprehensive Study on Namibia

It is rare that a single volume can cover and dissect the state of development of a country and at the same time point to practical options for crafting a more progressive future. This is what was done by the work: Namibia: Perspectives for National Reconstruction and Development (United Nations Institute for Namibia), 1986, Lusaka, Zambia. In the foreword to the work, the SWAPO President, Dr Sam Nujoma, put it succinctly and wrote, “Without a sound grasp of those past events which lie behind the present difficulties in our country, Namibian revolutionaries and patriots would not be in a position to formulate appropriate strategies for dismantling of the prevailing social order as well as for its replacement”.[5]

Dr Geingob presided over a high-powered Advisory Committee for the preparation, steering and management of the Comprehensive Study process, and a Technical Committee to look into all technical aspects. He was uniquely qualified by his control of technical inputs and skill base of UNIN as well as his clout from being in the SWAPO leadership.  In terms of the political profile of the work it was of the highest standing in the light of Namibia being under the UN Commissioner for Namibia answerable to the Council for Namibia through the UN Secretary General, reporting to the General Assembly. This political significance of the study arose in part from the direct responsibility of the international community after the 1966 termination of South Africa’s (British) League of Nations mandate by the UN General Assembly. Organs and agencies of the United Nations system, including the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) whose Executive Secretary chaired the UNIN Senate, were closely involved in the provision of technical inputs and proposing development options and perspectives. At a personal level, nothing could have been more fortuitous than my joining UNIN in June 1985 during the second and last workshop for the presentation and consideration of papers submitted for the final document.

If ever there was an academic and planning baptism by fire, the Comprehensive Study offered Namibian politicians, trainees, students and planners such a forum. This is perhaps what Dr Geingob had in mind when he addressed the study to the Secretary- General of the United Nations, Mr Perez de Cuellar, and said, “it is my belief that this study will contribute significantly to the body of knowledge for use by the policy makers of independent Namibia – both prior to and after the attainment of independence”.[6] The political level, in addition to the pervasive presence of Dr Geingob, maintained a strong presence in the plenary and had SWAPO leaders like Mr Nahas Angula, Mr Hidipo Hamutenya, Dr Peter Katjavivi, Veteran Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo, Mr Ben Amadhila, Mr Theo Ben Gurirab, Dr Nicky Iyambo and others who were not doubling as UNIN staff. Significant ones included Dr Mose Tjitendero, Dr Nangolo Mbumba (now President after Dr Geigob), Mr Joseph Ithana, and Ms Pendukeni Ithana (nee Kaulinge). Others came to the working groups or to facilitate them. On a broader plane, there was also a strong presence of people from UN agencies coming for their sectors, like the UNIN staff who put in a lot of work in various fields. The UNIN staff included the Deputy Director Mr Mark Bomani, Mr Billy Modise, Dr Hugh Africa, Dr Ivy Matsipe-Cassaburri, Dr Ngila Mwase, Mr Mtshana Ncube, Mr Richard Jacobs and Mr Collins Parker, to name some of them. Working from home ground, Zambians were present in many spheres, complementing the Africans from Southern, Eastern and West Africa. As in the 100 years conference, some of the papers and background work came from established writers and researchers from outside Africa.

The global level of interest is not surprising given that the work associated with SWAPO had an unusual standing after the UN General Assembly recognised the liberation movement, designating SWAPO the sole authentic representative of the Namibian people in 1973. This step was followed by the appointment of a Commissioner for Namibia and the establishment of a UN Council for Namibia which legally replaced Apartheid South Africa as the governing body of Namibia until independence. The formal termination of South African de-facto presence inside the country happened in 1990 when independence was attained under a SWAPO government with Dr Sam Nujoma as President and Dr Hage Geingob as the first Prime Minister.  

Geingob strengthens socio-economic resources

 Prior to independence, one project that that came knocking to the doors of Dr Geingob as Director of UNIN was the establishment of the Namibia Socio-Economic Database Project. The majority of the   formulators were based in England, but the financial and technical support was mainly channelled through the Christian Michelsen Institute (CMI) of Bergen, Norway. Dr Geingob called me after the lobbying and presentation to tell me that the people pushing this project were my friends from London. He had accepted the project because he saw it as one tool for accessing original material and avoiding secondary opinions on socio-economic sectors. He then said that since my “friends” had confidence in me, I had to be in charge of the project.  The team from London (coordinated by Richard Moorsom) and the technical backup from CMI (Einar Magnussen) were happy but surprised (and maybe amused) because this meant that they had to change the implementation plan in order to factor in my acquisition of knowledge of desk-top computers.  Dr Geingob then left me to put together a team to do a comprehensive programme of work in Bergen and to come back with the hands-on capacity to run the program, beginning with formatting new hardware provided and installing working programs. This went with devising a schedule for acquisition of material, classification of sources, abstracting and creating access, as well as selecting statistical tables and product time-series!  In short, multiple skills were required beyond the initial crash program on the nature of IBM desk-top computers and mastering of the manuals designed for the database program.

In addition to the manager (Strike Mkandla, Head of Information and documentation), the multi-disciplinary team from UNIN had the steady hand of the economist Dr Wilfred Wasi Asombang, Mrs Catherine Zulu the Documentalist formerly from the University of Zambia, and two young economists from Namibia – Ms Bernadette Shipingana and Mr Tukonjelane Nghihalua. Upon return to Lusaka, they were buttressed by the statistician Mr Richard Singini (Malawian) and Documentation Assistant Mrs Hilda Mwaba. This full team worked tirelessly with backup from London and CMI (Bergen). This made the database project the chosen depository of personal materials and research papers from UNIN and other institutions, giving ready access to research and training information on Namibia. Missions from UNIN to countries in the region could get reliable statistics and sources at ease. I can attest to this because of experience in trips to inter-governmental meetings and workshops as a representative of Namibia. Indeed, this tool lived a new life in post-independence Namibia as the Namibia Economic Planning Research Unit (NEPRU). 

Last UNIN graduation and Namibian Independence

 It is difficult to imagine any individual being so prepared and so ready to manage the administrative transition of a newly-independent country as Dr Hage Geingob was shaped by experience, institution building and political poll position in the SWAPO leadership. To cap the already formidable criteria, the last graduation of his Lusaka-based institution (UNIN) was going to take place in the independence period in 1990. Dr Hugh Africa and myself were sent to Windhoek to prepare while the occupying South African administration was getting ready to lower their flag and see the Namibian one hoisted. We managed this delicate job by working with the big hotel to supply the red carpet and other paraphernalia because the graduation was going to be attended by Zambian President Dr Kenneth Kaunda, SWAPO President Dr Sam Nujoma, and South African President De Clerk., among other dignitaries. Needless to say, those who graduated in this historic environment were ready to hit the ground running in the building of a new Namibia, thanks too to their knowledge of how the new Prime Minister Dr Hage Geingob led by example and no pomp. But his legacy was alive while he shaped his country’s history, and the more we saw the more we appreciated because power failed to make significant dents in his personality.

On the surface, the story of Namibia’s attainment of independence from South Africa looks smooth from the outside if one overlooks the hard and harsh fight waged in the battles between the colonial forces and the liberation army, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) which was the cutting edge of SWAPO on the ground. In various phases from 1966 and intensifying after the collapse of Portuguese rule in neighbouring Angola in 1974, SWAPO slowly turned the tide of the war in the country’s northern front. Thus, the withdrawal of South Africa from Namibia in 1990 was the culmination of multi-faceted struggle including resistance under horrendous conditions in various parts of Namibia, encompassing traditional leaders and new formations like those that bred SWAPO through the trade unions. In the fanfare of transfer of power, it was possible to overlook the remarkable success of SWAPO under Dr Sam Nujoma to unify the universal support of the United Nations and the global community, the undivided backing of the African Union in spite of inevitable pressures, and the institution-building that was quietly taking place under the stewardship of Dr Hage Geingob at UNIN while a brutal war was in progress. It is therefore fitting that the latter, who died in office as the third President of Namibia (after Founding President Dr Sam Nujoma, followed by H.E. Dr Hifikepunye Pohamba) is getting full military honours in the State Funeral.

Prime Minister and subsequent President Dr Hage Gottfried Geingob

The mark of Dr Geingob will linger among those who worked with him at close quarters as Namibia marched towards its independence. Some of the people from UNIN naturally continued beyond our memorable attendance of Independence Day and stayed on. I am one of those who chose not to ask to remain in independent Namibia, but opted to come visiting later with family after being taken from 1991 by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Gr Geingob made us aware that those of us who did not join him in Windhoek were welcome if there was space in the Prime Minister’s schedule. His staff who knew us from the UNIN days would ask if the PM had been told we were visiting. His camaraderie with former staff survived even after he relinquished the post of Prime Minister. When he took a short break from Namibia in 2004, he passed through Addis Ababa where I was now a representative of UNEP.[7] He used every short moment to chat about “your friend so-and-so” is now this or the other, and relived the times we had in the 1980s. He left a friendly trail remembered even by those who did not know the former PM.  But by the time Dr Geingob became President of Namibia in 2015 I was back to full-fledged politics in Zimbabwe under the leadership of “the Black Russian” Dr Dumiso Dabengwa of ZAPU. Another friend of SWAPO and specifically Hidipo Hamutenya, Mr Mtshana Mazibananga Ncube did come to Windhoek before he passed away although he too was close to Dr Dabengwa. 

There must be many reasons why Dr Hage Gottfried Geingob’s memory will be remembered by his compatriots and friends from many countries. For me the dearest memory is his steadfastness in refusing racial, tribal and narrow nationalism in judging individuals and selecting friends. He was also courageous in reminding sanctimonious Europeans that they committed the first genocide in history when Germans adopted a “shoot to kill” campaign against the Herero people in 1904. But I am forever happy also to have known in him someone who, as far as I know, never enriched himself from ill-gotten wealth from public coffers. Over and above all, Dr Geingob was never power drunk and vicious against competitors. He preferred to sink or swim in his own right without drowning anyone. May his example empower human rights and cleaner politics in Africa at large.

Namibia is lucky and the country is doing well to give him a state funeral on 25 February 2024, 20 days after he passed away on 4 February 2024.

25 February 2024

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

[1] South Africa got control of Namibia (South West Africa) under a League of Nations mandate following the defeat of Germany in the First World War in 1920. South African occupation resulted from executing British imperial orders in the fight against Germany but was in a defined and limited task. See Namibia: The crisis in United States Policy Toward Southern Africa (TransAfrica 1983). 

[2] I was an active supporter of activities coordinated by the Namibia Support Committee (NSC) and by the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), among others.

[3]  The conference on ‘Namibia 1884-1984: 100 years of foreign occupation; 100 years of struggle’, London 10-13 September 1984, was organised by the Namibia Support Committee in co-operation with the SWAPO Department of Information and Publicity.

[4] To Be Born A Nation. The Liberation Struggle for Namibia. Department of Information and Publicity, SWAPO of Namibia (ZED Press, London, 1979). P.ii of foreword by Dr Peter Katjavivi.

[5] Namibia: Perspectives for National Reconstruction and Development. Ibid. Preface by Sam Nujoma, President, SWAPO.

[6] Namibia: Perspectives for National Reconstruction and Development. Ibid. Note from Hage G. Geingob for transmitting the study to the United Nations Secretary-General dated 30 April 1986.

[7] Dr Strike Mkandla, UNEP Representative to the African Union (AU), UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and Ethiopia. 2003-2010

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