Enough has been recounted about the life of Theo-Ben Gurirab at his 80th birthday on January 23 this year and again in the sad stories about his passing on Saturday,
July 14, 2018 at 12:30 pm at Mediclinic in Windhoek of heart failure with kidney complications.
I will not repeat the timeline of his life. Rather, I want to celebrate Gurirab, not just by repeating his well-earned praises, but also by looking at other aspects of the singularly complete life of this exceptional man.
There is no doubt that the legacy of Gurirab is one of remarkable achievement and historical relevance. It is also a stellar example of loyalty and commitment to his family, political party SWAPO, and to President Sam Nujoma personally.
As a member of the media for many years, I viewed him from a distance, and yet, I saw that he valued working hard and studying well. He was an extremely well-read man, unlike most in Namibia who disdain even reading full news articles or reports needed for their daily jobs.
The ever-approachable Gurirab was known for unexpectedly making a hilarious quip or joke to inject humour into various situations.
Those of us who interviewed him from time to time or threw a needling question his way occasionally, received humorous rebukes and repartees from the wily Gurirab as he avoided making direct responses on any controversial issue.
Most of those working with him were well-acquainted with his occasional, but rough-edged temper when things promised were not delivered, or once delivered, fell short of good quality. Puny excuses in these situations were discarded like a day old newspaper.
Some former staff members have recounted to me how they felt angst about not having completed a task to which they were assigned and they dreaded being forced to report their failings to Gurirab.
Theo-Ben Gurirab was intensely loyal. He never spoke out of turn or revealed ‘inner party secrets.’ He publicly supported all positions of his political leaders and he was never quoted publicly complaining or criticising anyone in government, even when things didn’t progress as he expected or desired.
His extreme loyalty to those he loved, those he admired, those he accepted as his leaders as well as those he recruited to be his assistants, was not only a valued strength, but also an Achilles’ heel.
At independence, his shocking support of the largely unknown Andreas Guibeb as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs caused many to blink in surprise. And yet, even after errors and scandals involving Guibeb, Gurirab defended him.
It is vitally important that those learning the lessons taught by the life of this outstanding Namibian and SWAPO diplomat, former prime minister, former foreign affairs minister and former speaker of Parliament, not place him on an unattainable golden pedestal to be admired from afar.
To learn from his life, he must be viewed up close as a whole (not in parts) and placed in the context of his times, personality, commitments, strengths and weaknesses. We learn from other human beings, not from untouchable icons.
Theo-Ben Gurirab would not want discussion of his private life with his beloved wife and children, his habits at home, his tastes for books, food, art, music, well-tailored clothing or other things to be a point of discussion when speaking of him. His private existence was intended to be separate from his public persona. All who respect him, must honour this.
As the premier diplomat of the SWAPO Party before independence and then the government of Namibia, it was never his role to engage in domestic political affairs.
When shocking and shameful stories about the SWAPO ‘arrests’ of accused spies and the dungeons of Lubango emerged (and have been constantly resurrected ever since), this great leader and icon of justice for Namibia, was significantly silent on the matter.
From 1998-2002, when the situation in the DRC under Laurent Kabila flashed in headlines around the world and Namibian troops, military planes and equipment were rushed in to defend that failing regime, Gurirab, stayed with the political position as espoused by the SWAPO Party regardless of national disagreement and negative international reactions.
Gurirab did not develop a domestic constituency, directly engage in cultural or political affairs in his home area, or stand on a soap box for anything other than the SWAPO Party line, and even then, only if he was given a duty by the leadership to do so.
A skilled diplomat, he never used words carelessly. Each statement made was measured. No sub-texts that could be misunderstood ever crept into his conversations or speeches.
As the international face of Namibia, it was vital that he be unshakeable in his support of everything that occurred regarding his president and his home country. This was a challenge sometimes, especially when things done by SWAPO or Namibia attracted criticism that needed to be deflected, defended or denied by Gurirab.
The SWAPO stalwart rarely commented publicly on anything occurring within Namibia such as the Genocide issue, land redistribution, school test failures, job creation or the housing crisis. Even during his three-year tenure as prime minister, responsible for administering the government, he never left the party path as instructed by the SWAPO leadership.
I recall his ascension to the position of prime minister back in 2002. That time was tumultuous as the clash between the Founding President, Sam Nujoma, and then Prime Minister, Hage Geingob, held the party and the country spell bound.
As a reporter back then, I covered all aspects of this situation. Many people in those days, observed that Geingob’s belief that he was irreplaceable and that all would collapse without his hand on the tiller of government, was shot down by Nujoma.
The ever-insightful and powerful SWAPO Party president showed the depth of talent within the upper levels of the party and selected the loyal Gurirab, a non-Ovambo, to replace Geingob (also non-Ovambo) with immediate effect. It was a brilliant political manoeuvre.
This calculated choice for a new prime minister was the correct one for Namibia based on competence as well as ethnic diversity, even though it bypassed the seemingly ambitious Hidipo Hamutenya and legislative giant, Mosé Tjitendero, both of whom at the time, would also have been able replacements for Geingob.
Elevation to the rank of prime minister in 2002, not only changed the lives of the great Namibian diplomat and his family forever, it re-assured a confused party cadre, the nation, and an afro-sceptical world, that 12 years after independence, all remained steady, transparent and stable in the governance of Africa’s newest democracy. Diplomats and political leaders across the world knew of the prowess of Dr Theo-Ben Gurirab and were soothed by his new assignment.
Gurirab liked being in a power position; he liked serving as a leader of SWAPO. He was qualified and motivated in this regard, but his desire to stay on the ‘inside’ and remain firmly on the path of acquiescence with the party, weakened the potential he could have played in advocating for alternative positions.
I recall throwing a question at him after the 2012 national tumult around Kazenambo’s highly publicized comment about having a non-Oshiwambo president in Namibia. Gurirab, with a twinkle in his eyes said, “This does not mean that there would be a Hage Geingob presidency.”
I noted that his public silence on key issues and his deference to SWAPO leaders was in fact, very loud. And yet, Gurirab often abstained in politburo votes. The abstention may have been his way to state his objection to certain policy decisions.
Recently, Citizen Nahas Angula made comments about the unsettling results of the 2014 SWAPO Elective Congress when Gurirab was ‘retired’ from politics by virtue of not being elected to any ruling party organ.
Many of us covering that congress saw the machinations that occurred and most people in the know, don’t want to acknowledge what actually occurred. But, that attrition-style, soft ‘ouster’ of the ever-faithful, intelligent and committed Gurirab, stung him and surprised many of us. Gurirab was a stalwart from the SWAPO heydays, and yet, he was quietly sent home as too old (as was said by some), as we all watched the rise of his age-mate, Geingob.
Even with that bee-sting result, Gurirab never spoke against the party or its leaders in public. He would respond to requests for comment on various political topics by saying, “I would rather not comment because I don’t want to contradict any government decision.” Such loyalty, even after unexpected disappointment, speaks to his deep-seeded integrity.
In reflecting on the passing of Theo-Ben Gurirab, I recall when I first saw him back in my school days at Döbra. We all knew his name and that he was a leader in Namibia, but few of us had actually seen him.
It was August, 1991, and he and his wife Joan were attending the wedding of Bience Gawanas to Tom Minney of the Namibian newspaper that was being held at Döbra. At 15 years old, I was one of the many kids who watched as they arrived in their big car, looking well-dressed and distinguished. To me, Gurirab was very impressive that day and ever after.
Gurirab was a loyal leader for the ages. But, no one can lead flawlessly and those of us in the media and in the public ought to not demand this; it is unfair.
Our leaders are human just like we are. Most often, they are ordinary men who have acted extraordinarily in difficult situations. We can respect their impressive achievements, and most of all, learn the lessons taught by their entire lives.