Panduleni: A comrade they could neither destroy nor buy
SAD news in a message from Jade, a Namibian comrade.
" Pandu passed way this week Wednesday after a period of illness.
Good bye and Farewell dear Panduleni Kali. It has been an honour and a privilege to know you and to stand alongside you in the struggle for social justice. They imprisoned you in exile for five years without charges, they slandered and tortured you, though you were innocent. Pandu was innocent. Pandu was a committed revolutionary, even until the very end".
I met Panduleni and her twin sister Ndamona Kali briefly when they came to London, it must be about 20 years ago. Passing the plate of sandwiches at a party in west London I murmured "bon appetit". In reply they smiled and chatted amiably to me in fluent French, and were clearly amused when they saw I was surprised, as well as literally lost for words!
I learned that they had mastered several European languages, besides those of their native land. However, the twins were not here to entertain with their language and social skills, impressive as these were, nor to brighten up our party, though they did. They were here on a serious mission, to make people aware of the hidden side to Namibia's struggle for independence.
Like others of their generation they had left home full of courage and hope to take part in the freedom struggle against colonial subjection and white South African rule. Like others, though they had survived, they had suffered. But worse, they had suffered at the hands of what was supposed to be their own side, of those whose call to join and fight they had heeded. And they were not alone.
Panduleni and Ndamona Kali joined the South West Africa Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) in 1974, when they were 15 years old. In 1978 they left Namibia for Angola, where they underwent military training. Then in 1980 the sisters were sent abroad for education. They were studying in Cuba when their troubles began
"On 8 November 1984 we were called by the man responsible for foreign students, who told us we had to go and sign some SWAPO papers. A Cuban woman, who we later heard was State Security, ordered us to undress, without any explanation. She put on some gloves and examined us internally. We were ordered to put on our clothes again, and told that one of us had to go under escort to our hostel room and separate our things from the university property. All this time we were asking why this was happening.
"On the second day we demanded to see the chief official there. We said we needed an explanation because we were certain that we had never committed any crime on Cuban soil. It did not enter our heads that SWAPO had any hand in this. We even demanded to see our SWAPO representative so that we could tell him about all these things the Cuban government was doing to us.
"I was taken before two men, one black and one white. The white man I later knew was a Cuban and the black one a Namibian. The Namibian told me he was sent by SWAPO to tell us that we are needed in Africa. He said there was a small problem we had to solve in Africa and then after solving it we would come back and continue our studies."
When Panduleni was taken back to the cell Ndamona was ordered out to the room with the two men, and went through the same procedures. "It was such a shock to be one minute living the life of a student in what we thought was a socialist country, happy, studying, with friends — and the next minute to be taken by armed
security forces, locked up, strip-searched and handcuffed and transported miles away to a cell, with all my belongings packed by armed security guards. On the fifth day we were escorted to the military airport".
On the plane they were not allowed to go to the toilet without permission from the security guards, something they were to get used to. At mealtimes the stewardess was ordered to remove the plastic knives. They were flown to Luanda, in Angola, and the Cubans handed them over to SWAPO. Taken in a truck to a post in the bush, they were in the hands of SWAPO Security. They later learned the guards had been trained in the Soviet Union.
After a few days it was back in the truck, where they found two male comrades, seated with hands tied behind their back. After two days journey they reached Lubango, and were separated from the male prisoners, whom they did not see again for five years. The next morning the sisters were asked to write their autobiographies. After that they were separated and did not see each other again for two years.
Panduleni: "After I wrote my autobiography, I was told to go in a small room and I slept on the floor with only one blanket. About two o'clock in the morning I was called out. I went to the office, where I found six men, with a small lantern. They asked me to repeat my autobiography — speak it — which I did. They then told me that it was high time that I started to be serious: 'SWAPO knows everything about you — your whole activities inside and outside Namibia. Don't think that anything you have done is a secret.' They asked me if I was ready to talk peacefully or was I ready for violence. I said I had told them the truth and if they went to violence that was up to them.
"They stood up and ordered me to go out. The one with the lantern went in front of me, leading the way. I followed him and we went into an underground room. We were later joined by two others. In the room I noticed two poles and a horizontal pole. This did not immediately mean anything to me. I was ordered to undress myself. At first I refused and demanded an explanation. They went and collected some sticks, and they started beating me while I was undressing myself. They took a rope and tied my hands to the horizontal pole.
"My legs were tied together and they then tied them to the other pole, which caused a lot of pain in my back, and they beat me with the sticks until I fell unconscious. They then took me to the room and this was repeated throughout two months. Then I was transferred to another place, where I was again confronted with these questions: 'Where, when and by whom were you recruited to be a South African spy, and what did they promise you?' I told them that I was never recruited. This was the first time that anybody had even intimated why I was being treated like a criminal. I told them that I joined SWAPO to fight for the freedom of our country, and that I never had any connection with the South African regime.
"I told them that I was very well known, especially in the place where I came from, Luderitz, and at our school in Omaruru. I was sure they could get a lot of information about my political activities from those places. But they had written off our high school as a training ground for South African spies! Therefore they didn't trust any student coming from that school.
"They took out their ropes and a black cloth. They ordered me to undress, and the black cloth was tied round my eyes. This really scared me. I started shouting that they were going to kill an innocent person. They told me to go out, and because I was blindfolded somebody was holding me from behind. After walking for a distance I could feel that I was going in a type of underground, in a sort of hole. I was ordered to sit down flat on the ground and then I got a shower of sticks beating me. I didn't know where the next blow was corning from, and my hands were now tied as well. So they started beating while I was seated.
"They ordered me to lie on one side and then after finishing they ordered me to lie on the other side and then again on my stomach and they kept on beating until they were tired. So I was in pain and they left me there and took off the blindfold. They left me in that hole and later every time I wanted to lift up my head I collapsed.
"After I don't know how many hours I lifted up my head again and saw a girl sitting a distance from the hole. I asked her for water and she refused. It started raining and I was still in the hole. A male guard came and then he told me to go into a hut. By this time 1 could not walk because my whole body was swollen. So I had to crawl up to the hut. This interrogation continued like this, with beatings and solitary confinements, for eight months. After this eight months I could not bear the pain any more.
"I really had confidence that justice would one day prevail and that the truth would come out. So I decided to make up a story. I knew that my story would be a lie. Maybe it would last for a month and then the truth would come out. Of course later I realised that that lie lasted for five full years, and maybe for the rest of my life because SWAPO has never shown any willingness to investigate the case.So I 'confessed' that I was a South African spy. I gave them impossible dates. I told them I was trained in Rehoboth, at the 'big building with writing on the front "South African Training Centre" — a place that does not even exist in Rehoboth. I gave them names of people who do not exist, but even then SWAPO did not investigate to find that this was a lie, leading me then to the conclusion that SWAPO was never interested in arresting enemy agents.
"After I 'confessed' I was put together with other alleged enemy agents. We were sleeping in a dug-out. Then there were about 30 of us. This number grew to over 100. The dug-out is a hole dug in the ground with a layer of three bricks round the edge. Usually it was so overcrowded that we had to arrange ourselves in lines facing different ways to find the space to sleep. During the day, when we were not forced to do hard labour outside we had just enough space to sit down on the ground. The roof was made of corrugated iron. It was very hot. There were small holes which served as windows with iron bars. In that dug-out everything was done. Once the door was closed it was the toilet and the eating room. It was also the hospital at the same time. Small tins were used for the toilet.
"There were diseases like asthma and bronchitis, beri beri, skin diseases and some peculiar stress illnesses. There were many people who suffered mental illness. One woman gave birth in the hole, without water, without scissors, without so much as a clean cloth to lay the baby on. The baby died, the mother was taken away - and was put back in the hole after a couple of days.
"I remained in this place until May 1989 (that was almost five years from the time I was first arrested in Cuba in November 1984. In all that time we had no chair, no bed. It was a privilege to get an empty rice sack to sleep on, or a milk drum to sit on outside the hole. We had nothing to read. We existed on talk about our childhood, and fantasies and dreams — to such an extent that we felt guilty if we did not dream because we would have nothing to tell the others".
(Revolutionary Times, Revolutionary Lives, Index Books, 1997)
Reminiscent as this is of Stalinist repression in the Soviet Union where SWAPO security had been trained, there may have been particular factors behind the African organisation's distrust of its own young people, and use of brutal state power without a state. In the previous decade SWAPO fighters had been ordered to join the South African-backed Unita forces opposing the MPLA which eventually won in Angola with support from the Cubans. Sam Njuma and the other SWAPO leaders already faced unrest from the SWAPO youth league, in camps in Zambia, which they had to suppress with the help of the Zambian army. Concerned to re-assert their authority, and prove themselves to their Cuban and Soviet allies, the SWAPO leadership needed to find "spies" to scapegoat, and crush any dissidents, even if it meant pretending that two bright young women who showed signs of independent minds were dangerous South African "agents", evidently recruited and trained before they were 15 years old!
(see 'The SWAPO 'Spy Drama'', Paul Trewhela, Searchlight South Africa, No.6, January 1991)
With strikes and unrest among Namibian workers playing their own part in the freedom struggle, the SWAPO leaders may also have wanted to make sure they were in control, the regime in the camps a foretaste of the order they might need to impose with independence, to ensure their own privileges and reassure international capital.
Once they were free and re-united, the Kali sisters did not forget those they had left behind. They campaigned for the release of any remaining prisoners, and joined with parents who wanted to know what had happened to their young people. They gained support from the newly-formed Workers Revolutionary Party (now the Communist Party) of Namibia, which recognised truth and democratic, human rights as essential to the political independence of the working class.
It was another matter winning this recognition from the Left outside. In South Africa even self-claimed Trotskyists told the Namibian comrades to subordinate everything to helping SWAPO win elections.
Here in Britain, many people who had supported the struggle against the Apartheid regime from afar did not want to hear criticism of their heroes, even from those who had been in the struggle close-up. Here too, there was perhaps the lingering influence of the kind of thinking which once accepted the Moscow Trials, because it wanted to believe them. At a sparsely attended press conference, a leftie journalist from the Guardian threw a hostile question at the sisters then flounced out without waiting for their reply.
Things have moved on, the Left, or at least parts of it, have become a little more sophisticated. In Nambia itself the stand taken by Panduleni and Ndamona Kali and their comrades may have helped safeguard some political pluralism and liberty, and the abilities of both twins appear to have been recognised in the positions they obtained. Yet remarkably, just as their earlier bitter experiences failed to break them, so their later careers did not take them away from the aims and principles formed when they were young. As Jade says: "Pandu was a committed revolutionary, even until the very end".