Ottilie Abrahams was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable personalities of contemporary Namibia. She led through example as a political leader, grassroots activist, feminist and educationist from early on in her life.
As with so many left-wing personalities, Ottilie’s political consciousness started in high school with a reading group, an issue that can never be emphasised enough for a new generation. During the early 1950s, she was a member of the Young Tigers Sports Club in Windhoek, a club that was a front for reading and discussion. The ideological leaning of the club was towards the Pan-Africanism of Marcus Garvey, as espoused by Clemens Kapuuo inside the country at that juncture. In fact, the young former President Sam Nujoma participated in this club for a while.
In 1953, Ottilie was a member of a student organisation called the South West African Student Body, which eventually became South West African Progressive Association. She acted as the deputy secretary-general of these organisations and was the only woman in their leadership. She also raised funds for the further studies of young Namibians and to help start the first black newspaper, South West News. These developments prepared the ground for the establishment of the South West Africa National Union—the oldest political party in Namibia.
The forced removal of communities from the present-day Daan Viljoen in 1955 made lasting impression on Ottilie, as her maternal family was affected. She witnessed the disintegration of communities and how women were stripped of their dignity. When Ottilie went to Trafalgar High School in Cape Town, South Africa her consciousness deepened there and she continued to provide literature from the Unity Movement and the South African Communist Party to the club. It was during this period that Ottilie’s political consciousness shifted from Pan-Africanism to Marxism.
By 1962 Ottilie joined another reading group in Cape Town, called the Yu Chi Chan club, the Chinese name for guerrilla warfare. It was during this time of studying guerrilla warfare that Ottilie discovered the anti-colonial resistance of Jakob Marengo. When some commented that Marengo was a “black Napoleon”, she retorted that “Napoleon might have been a white Marengo!” Marengo had waged an effective guerrilla war against colonialism from the Karas Mountains for several years. He was a commoner who took the initiative, had a non-tribal approach and unified the colonised people at grassroots level.
In referring to the Namibian reparations movement and the 1904-1907 genocide, Ottilie often remarked that “they failed to count Marengo’s people”. She was of the opinion that the reparations movement would have to consider the different language groups that were unified by Marengo, as well as the people who reside in the Northern Cape today. She understood the important role played by Marengo in the primary resistance of the country, and believed that Marengo’s remains should be brought back from the Northern Cape for a proper burial in Namibia. At some point in the 1980s she had conducted extensive interviews in Southern Namibia on the oral history of Marengo. She was clearly fascinated by him as an historical figure, and it was to be expected that the school would be named after him. For her, he was the embodiment of the Namibian national identity that should transcend the fault lines of language, colour, gender, sexuality etc. Needless to say, the Namibian child had a special place in her heart and this was expressed in the various projects at the school and the practicing of democracy by learners.
As a former member of the central committee of the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), Ottilie believed that the sole and authentic representative status of SWAPO led to a suffocating and stifling political climate in the Namibian liberation movement and that as a consequence no democratic ethos existed in it. Emil Appollus who authored her suspension letter, years later said to her: “You wanted to prevent us from eating.”
In this regard, she would often assert that, “honest and upright people are left to their own peril”. Fortunately, the autocratic nature of the liberation movement did not succeed in Ottilie losing her dignity and her commitment to the struggle.
Similarly, after Ottilie’s inhumane treatment in a Zambian prison with her baby son, Rudi, during the reign of a black president, she would state that, “injustice has no colour”. Ottilie managed to evade imprisonment in colonial South West Africa, but was unable to do so in a post-colonial black country. So much for pan-Africanism!
In Sweden, Ottilie could express herself as an activist, intellectual and feminist, and linked up with activists from all national liberation movements in southern Africa. This helped to develop a critical perspective on all the liberation movements, as well as to be able to witness the disadvantages of a welfare state. She studied towards a doctorate in English literature, with a thesis on the novel by Ghanaian author, Ayi Kwei Armah, entitled The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, which was published in 1968. The novel was about an honest railway worker in a post-colonial country. For Ottilie, this would be required in a post-colonial Namibia that should not repeat the mistakes of others and that should work hard.
Ottilie and four others hastily returned from exile in 1978, and an impromptu welcome occurred at the house of Gerson Veii. Great excitement existed that “Babietjie Schimming was back”. At the welcoming, Ottilie was the only woman and only one who spoke in local languages, while the rest spoke in English. The multilingual Ottilie comprehended the importance of speaking in local languages. In the same year, she was at the forefront of the end conscription campaign in South West Africa, and assisted in the production of pamphlets on the Photostat machine. She also participated in the setting up of another reading group, English in Africa, which focused on African literature and Namibian history followed by various symposia on nation building, education that culminated in the re-publishing of the Namibia Review.
With regards to the land question, Ottilie supported food sovereignty, in particular for women in order to give them their dignity back and for them to take control of their own destiny. She assisted in setting up four community gardens in the arid regions of Namibia (Wortel, Snyfontein, Abrahampos and Aroab) under the slogan “Let us make the desert bloom”. She drove long distances to these projects, which practiced agro-ecological methods. Ottilie was likewise of the opinion that the explosive urban housing issue was central to the land question, and disagreed with the notion of simply giving the land back to people. In the final analysis, Ottilie fathomed how vital the land question was to the liberation of women from patriarchy.
Dum spiro, spero! —While we breath, we hope!! As long as we breathe we hope – as long as we breathe we shall fight for the future, that radiant future in which children, women and men, strong and beautiful will become masters of the spontaneous stream of their history and will direct it towards the boundless horizon of beauty, joy and happiness.
Dum spiro, spero!
* Harry Boesak served as deputy school principal of Jakob Marengo Tutorial College from 1997-2007, and is a member of the Marxist Group of Namibia.