‘IF you can’t beat them, join them,’ so goes an old political adage. We have seen how in this country groups of people, even prominent individuals, would defect from their parties to join mainly the ruling Swapo-Party.
That’s a submissive and opportunistic approach to political life. But others might say that’s rational self interest because people are looking for their bread to be ‘peanut-buttered’ and there is thus no ideological consideration here.
The other form is what I would call ‘reactionary radicalism’ – namely, political assassination. This is based on fear and the feeling that the only way to deal with a prominent political figure is to get rid of that person. Here I’m not talking about political killings carried out by a specific regime like the murder of the political critic Ken Saro-Wiwa by the military regime in Nigeria, or Bantu Steven Biko who died at the hands of the apartheid police force.
(Please allow me an aside here. I find it ironic that a commemorative event on Biko’s life should exclusively be addressed by Swapo politicians who in exile could not, on the whole, sit at the same fire with members of the Black Consciousness Movement, which emerged to concretise Biko philosophy. But that’s political opportunism because Biko has become a legend of our time in the likes of Che Guevara, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Malcolm X and others).
In this piece, however, I reflect on the ‘top ten’ political assassinations of our time from ‘my political encyclopaedia’. Where do we start? Perhaps the appropriate starting point would be home and that should begin with the year 1978 when one of Namibia’s prominent and charismatic political figures, Chief Clemens Kapuuo, was assassinated while sitting in his shop at ‘Central’ shopping centre in Katutura. The murder remains unsolved. Then in 1989 an assassin gunned down a prominent lawyer and Swapo political activist, Anton Lubowski in Windhoek. The assassin is still at large.
Closer to home, Chris Hani, a central figure in the ANC and someone who might have succeeded Mandela, was also assassinated in 1993. Another South African political activist and member of the South African Communist Party, Ruth First, was killed by a letter bomb while exiled in Mozambique. Further north in 1981 the charismatic Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated. Egypt under Sadat fought the Israelis but also made peace with them and he paid the price. And in West Africa, Amilcar Cabral, the scholar, intellectual and founder of PAIGC was assassinated in 1973 just before Guinea-Bissau independence in 1974.
Let’s cross the continents now. This other ‘political’ figure might not be known to many people except to a few political activists of an early generation and to some students of history and politics. I’m talking about Professor Walter Rodney, the author of: ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’. He was a professor of history at several universities, including Dar-el-Salam. Later he turned to politics but was assassinated by a bomb planted in his car on the streets of his home town, Georgetown in Guyana, during a campaign rally.
In Europe, the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, who after his re-election in 1982 tried to reinstate socialist economic policies in Sweden, was fatally shot by an assassin in 1986 and his murder also remains unsolved.
And in the USA, one of the most eloquent speakers and activists, Malcolm X, who spoke with such anger against white exploitation of blacks and derided the civil rights movement and integration, calling instead for black separatism, black pride, and the use of violence for self-protection, was shot dead at a rally in Harlem in 1965.
Let me end my ‘top ten’ of political assassinations on a very high note. It has to because all the individuals that I’m chronicling here were dreamers and idealists. The political giant that I have in mind here, to conclude this rather unconventional column, became one of the embodiments and advocates of non-violent politics of struggle and helped to change the complexion of American politics both figuratively and literally.
Martin Luther King, like Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle for Indian independence before, would urge black Americans to engage in active but non violent campaigns to achieve civil rights for themselves. King was arrested in 1960 for protesting segregation at a lunch counter, and jailed. The case drew national attention, and the then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy (who was also assassinated in 1963) intervened to obtain his release.
In 1963 King helped organise the March on Washington, mobilising an assembly estimated at more than 200 000 protestors. That’s when he made his famous and oft-quoted speech ‘I Have A Dream’. The march influenced the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and King was awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
In later years, he broadened his advocacy to address the question of poverty affecting all races, and like Muhammad Ali, he also opposed the Vietnam War. In 1968 he went to Tennessee, to support a strike by sanitation workers. It was during that year on April 4 that the prophet of nonviolence politics was assassinated just like Gandhi was.
That is the high price of politics.