What happened to the promise?

IssueDecember 2000 - February 2001
Comment by Lorna Richardson, Richard Pakleppa

Richard Pakleppa was a conscientious objector to serving in the South African occupation army, and went to Europe, where he worked as a camera assistant. He then moved to Cape Town, along with other young Namibian radicals, and became involved in “civic youth, working class student struggles, organising mass campaigns, the powerful use of culture, propaganda, theatre, music, stayaways, boycotts”. In 1986 he returned to Namibia and worked for some years as an activist and union organiser for the newly-formed National Union of Namibian Workers. He returned to film-making in 1990.

During the occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa's forces, their extreme and brutal repression of the liberation movement led by SWAPO fostered fears that the liberation movement was being betrayed from within. SWAPO's response in exile was to detain hundreds of Namibians after accusing them of being spies for Pretoria. The detainees were tortured until they died or confessed on video. An unknown number disappeared. SWAPO has never explained, apologised to, or cleared the names of those it detained.

”I was deeply troubled by reports of one of my friends, who had actually recruited me to SWAPO in 1976 when I was still a schoolboy in Windhoek, Some of the activists I met there subsequently went into exile. I met them again more than ten years later, and they were terribly scarred, and they had the most horrific stories to tell about the prison camps of SWAPO, and all the things that had happened. In this time [1987-1990] that I worked in SWAPO, I was the NUNW media and education officer. I published the Namibian Worker, and many leaflets. We built the whole capacity in that time, it was a very energetic time. [...] Towards `88 there were a lot of stories about SWAPO spies. I wrote propaganda defending this, saying that we had the right to hold spies, and saying they were treated well, denying allegations that were made. [...] We also had a propaganda war. We mustn't forget that a lot of our comrades died, or were often imprisoned. We knew South African tactics. I was a strong supporter of SWAPO, although not of nationalism. [...] So, a few years later, I meet these friends, and I realised that we were quick to make judgements.” “My first film was about a housing co-op of women, single mothers and domestic workers. They struggled to bring their families through in squatter camps, and with the kind of life of working under white madams, independence or not. I made a whole string of such films about the land question, about the war, war memories, war trauma, and all the time struggling and working in different ways with the problem of our heritage, the revolution that eats its own children. I waited a long time before I made this film.”

Independence was ten years ago. Why make the film now?

The people who survived this experience are still deeply troubled, in that they are still searching for their colleagues, their comrades, who did not return. [...] Many of them wish their names to be cleared. They also want the names of those who did not survive, who did not return, to be cleared. One must never forget that a lot of these people contributed very substantially to the struggle. [...] People were so traumatised. Some felt you need to deal with this within SWAPO. Some felt you can never compromise. Others took offers after a few years of poverty. Others compromised by working with the opposition, the DTA, the South Africans [...] So making a film was always going to be controversial and difficult. [...] I wrote this poem on Independence Day 1990: Why Vote SWAPO?. I speak about the sleepless nights, about being haunted by this betrayal of promise, and yet still to vote SWAPO, because you have to go out and make history, you have to go out and change reality, you can't let the South Africans win. [...] After the second election, five years past, I started to feel that there were tendencies being entrenched in the new government, in the values of the new nation, which were related to what had led to this catastrophic abuse of human rights over quite a few years. I started thinking it was very important to speak up. I wasn't alone - there were many people who were publishing articles, and ex-detainees who were writing things, then when this book Breaking the Walls of Silence was published... A big event, that's when I began filming [...] I had been networking with other film-makers in southern Africa [...]. All of us were activists in various organisations, as well as being involved in political film-making. All of us were very concerned: Where was our struggle going? What happened to the promise? What do we make of the leadership? And what responsibility do we have as film-makers to look at this? That's the origin of the series.

Did you deliberately make the film as a political tool?

It's a bit different from how film-makers would approach this in Europe. We see ourselves as a development organisation, SACOD, Southern African Communications for Development. We understand development as being very deeply rooted in culture, and in memory, and we see our work as cultural. [...] SACOD had all kinds of distribution deals with libraries, with trade unions, with cinemas, where our work was distributed outside the normal broadcast channels. So, it's not just for a one-off broadcast, but packaged to go into schools and organisations, to stimulate and animate discussion, dialogue, reflection. [...]

What were the first public screenings like?

[One private screening for church leaders and parliamentarians and National Council, was held, then four packed public screenings, followed by lively audience debate sessions, were held in Windhoek.]

I was nervous that it would be ignored. It was four months before the last election, and of course everyone is saying it is electioneering. [...] The climate was right. People from all sections came along. [...] You had family members, and this is one of the big reasons why I made this film. In so many families, I realised, having made other films about trauma, that people are talking to me, but not to their children and not to their parents. They are talking to me, a white boy, but not talking to their own mother, or their own sister and brother. [...]

What about after the screenings, when people have started to talk?

There are two organisations, one is Breaking the Wall of Silence Movement, an ex- detainee organisation, which lobbies for rehabilitation. [...] They are using the film, busy translating it into Oshivambo and Afrikaans. [...] The second group, headed by an ex-detainee, ex-combatant, [...] he went with the video, organised a big TV and so on, and got his church in Katutura [Windhoek's township] and organised over three weeks screenings. [...] And so the film had its own afterlife that way. [...] Scandal comes and goes, and the next one takes its place in the public consciousness. But this is a longstanding issue: the victims and the survivors continually still working on it. [...] Another organisation - called Peace - offers healing and trauma counselling. They came out of the Breaking the Wall of Silence group. It was clearly understood that there was the political work that had to be done, but there was also therapeutic work, not just for ex-detainees of SWAPO but also for victims of South African oppression, for everybody. Also very promising are things like [...] you had the leader of the Council of Churches in Namibia taking a stand, and subsequently really following that through, quietly, with one-to-one meetings ... with the purpose of “we've got to sort this out, it has gotten so big”. Remember the timing of the film. [...] Four months before I screened the film, photographs of people being tortured in Caprivi [secessionists] were all over the newspapers. [...] In civil society a film like that creates a little wave, but it acts in other ways, and it's a continuing issue and a continuing debate. And there's a point of reference. That's maybe the contribution.

What do you think of the argument that “talking about it will only make it worse”?

One problem with it is that this argument can be misused - it can be very suitable for people interested in entrenching power that we all agree we don't talk now. [...] Political power, economic power, the system can be entrenched, the economic status quo, and then we don't talk about it, and then when the time comes that we can talk about it, it's too bloody late! [...] Repression of memory happens in individuals within themselves, it also happens in a social context, the wiping away of memory, and the falsification of memory, as a collective process [...] It is both political and emotional. [...] So I believe although it's very painful, and may be also quite dangerous, it is better to deal with it. [...] And that's my work as a storyteller.