On life, journalism, and the birth of Namibia  – Gwen Lister

In her captivating memoir Gwen Lister takes readers on a journey through Namibia’s struggle for liberation. As one of the most prominent journalists during that period, she is uniquely positioned to provide a firsthand account. Reading her memoir is an immersive experience, providing a front-row seat to the turmoil that shaped Namibia’s history. 

Lister’s upbringing in South Africa was marked by early exposure to injustice and inequality, which later fuelled her lifelong dedication to fighting for what is right and fair. As a young girl she willingly gave up her seat for an older black lady, a gesture that spoke volumes about her character and which her daughter Liberty calls Gwen’s aha moment. During her studies at UCT Lister’s activism took shape. Along with a handful of fellow students who were committed to protesting the exclusion of black players from a rugby game between the British Lions and the Southern Universities team. Without a plan or a leader, the motley group managed to disrupt the game and caused international embarrassment. 

In 1976, after one of the most unorthodox interviews with Hannes ‘Smittie” Smith, Gwen moved to Namibia to start her journalism career at the Windhoek Advertiser. Lister was thrown into the deep end, but it wasn’t long before she proved herself to Smittie and he entrusted her with the political sections of the paper. They were a strange combination but a formidable team. When the Windhoek Advertiser changed management, Smittie and Lister continued their journey at the Windhoek Observer, a paper that Smittie founded, with Lister’s assistance. In hindsight one would find the relationship between Gwen Lister and Hannes Smith endearing. But she worked under horrific conditions, with a slave-driving boss who no journalist today would have survived. The book brings to life the intense professional relationship that Lister and Smittie had. Scenes of Lister storming off after another of Smittie’s verbal outbursts, heading to Café Schneider for a cup of tea, that would eventually lead to Smittie sheepishly running after her begging “Gwenny Penny” to reconsider and stay – and she would, after finishing her tea. Later in his life Smittie paid homage to Lister in the Observer when she went on to start her own newspaper, The Namibian, and made a great success of it. 

The establishment of The Namibian deserves its own book. Lister left the Observer after Smittie was placed under duress from a new partner at the Windhoek Observer. This led to a walkout of Lister’s fellow colleagues who stood in solidarity with her after a demotion aimed to push her out. She felt responsible for her now unemployed and blacklisted former colleagues. With odd international freelancing jobs to keep her afloat, she set out to find funding to start her own newspaper. 

Comrade Editor is an important book. Even though many aspects of the liberation struggle remain shrouded in secrecy, it does manage to shed some light on some decisive events during the struggle. The book touches on the Lubango Dungeons and the mysterious disappearance of certain people. The book will have readers wanting to know if there will ever be any conclusive reports with regards to the fates of Tauno Hautuklipi, Sisingi Hiskia and Anton Lubowski. In reflecting on the struggle, Lister speaks of a collective amnesia and selective memory, which I believe is causing a great injustice in preventing future generations from fully comprehending this crucial period of our history. It reminds me of the quote: “History is not there for you to like or dislike, it is there for you to learn from it.” The release of Oiva Angula’s Swapo Captive in 2018 is a testament to the fact that there are many stories yet to be told about the liberation struggle. 

There is no way to tell the story of Namibia’s liberation struggle without including Gwen Lister’s contribution. Much like Immanuel Shifidi and Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo, I believe that Gwen Lister remains one of the unsung heroes of our liberation struggle. In 2016, at a World Press Freedom Day celebrated in Finland, Martti Ahtisaari’s home country, the seasoned diplomat paid tribute to Lister’s role in Namibia’s independence process. He modestly said that it had been a bigger contribution than his own. 

Comrade Editor shows that the Namibian story, especially the part pertaining to the birth of our nation, remains largely untold. May the book inspire more Namibians who were in the thick and at the front of our liberation struggle to tell their stories so that we can attempt to piece together a complete picture, lest we forget. 

Laimi Elago