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News > OD Publications > A Namibian mystery: Who killed Chief Elifas in Ovamboland in 1975?

A Namibian mystery: Who killed Chief Elifas in Ovamboland in 1975?

The Killing of Elifas is a compelling and informative narrative of the murder of Elifas and the trial of the Swapo Six written by Gavin Cooper (1978O)

A Namibian mystery: Who killed Chief Elifas in Ovamboland in 1975?
Media 24, 22 September 2022
Review by Kenneth Moeng Mokgatlhe

Around 20:00 on the night of Saturday, 16 August 1975, Chief Filemon Shuumbwa Elifas was shot down outside a liquor store in Onamagongwa, 8km from Ondangwa in what was then South West Africa and is today Namibia. Elifas died of wounds from a PPSH-41 submachine gun. He had inherited the chieftaincy after his father’s death, becoming the chief of the Ondonga in 1970 at the age of 38, and at the time of his death was the chief minister of the nominally independent Ovamboland region. In the wake of the chief’s murder, the South African security police (South Africa being the occupying power at the time) arrested more than 200 men and women. Many were tortured by the police as they attempted to extract information about the murder. In the wake of the mass arrests, many left the country.

Ulitmately, six people, operatives of the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo), were accused of the murder, although no direct link could be found: they were in the region of Ondangwa, using a blue Land Rover and armed with Tokarev pistols. During the trial, they were accused of helping the assassins. These were known as the Swapo Six, and they would be tried for the murder.

They were Aaron Mushimba (Swapo’s secretary for Ovamboland), Andreas Nangolo, Hendrik Shikongo, Rauna Nambinga, Naimi Nombowa and Anna Nghihondjwa. Two of them, Mushimba and Shikongo, would be found guilty and sentenced to death, but the verdict was ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein, South Africa, when it was revealed that police had obtained information from within the law firm representing the accused, which meant that attorney-client privilege had been violated.

From the start, Swapo leader Sam Nujoma denied the organisation had been involved. Instead, he charged that Elifas’s own people could be responsible because they were unhappy with his autocratic leadership. The South African government and military also denied any involvement in Elifas’s death. Yet it would use the fact of his death to escalate the border war, which would affect South Africa, Namibia and Angola for decades.

The author of this deeply researched book, Gavin Cooper, is the son of the advocate who represented the Swapo Six in what became known as the Swakopmund Trial. In fact, Cooper answered the phone call from the Windhoek-based law firm, Lorentz & Bone, seeking to retain his father, Wilfred Cooper, as advocate, in December 1975. (Gavin Cooper’s previous book, Under Devil’s Peak, is a biography of his father.)

Gavin Cooper’s own story helps to enrich the narrative by, among other things, showing apartheid’s effect on young white men who had to do national military service after matric. As a photojournalist for the South African Defence Force magazine Paratus he covered stories in South West Africa.

Given the unjust laws of apartheid and South Africa’s manipulations, the trial of the Swapo Six was not credible. Advocate Wildfred Cooper was not given enough time to prepare: he had insufficient documentation and was not allowed to talk to certain prosecution witnesses. He also had the problem of a language barrier: he spoke Afrikaans and the accused spoke Oshiwambo. They had been held incommunicado for five months, interrogated and tortured. The judge was manifestly biased.

After the ultimate acquittal of the six accused in the Swakopmund Trial, there was no further investigation and no one was charged with the murder. The South African government had the resources to probe the death of Elifas, but they were so obsessed with finding Swapo guilty that they looked no further. Yet, ironically, the best explanation of Elifas’s murder is that he fell foul of internal tensions in Namibia’s liberation movement. Swapo, after its formation in the early 1960s, drew much of its support from Ovamboland, where Elifas was the tribal leader.

Elifas was allied to the South African apartheid government because of his acceptance of “homeland” status for Ovamboland, as offered by South Africa. When he became president of South Africa in 1966, John Vorster made it known that he wanted to effectively make SWA the fifth province of apartheid South Africa, and as part of that plan would set up homelands or Bantustans in SWA, just as South Africa would set up “homelands” for black people there. The “Odendaal Plan”, from a commission set up by apartheid South Africa’s government, had suggested the creation of 10 homelands in SWA.

Ovamboland was already a centre of conflict between Swapo and the apartheid powers, primarily because of its large population, and because it was on the border with Angola, which Swapo used to infiltrate operatives of its army, Plan. Elifas and his council agreed that Ovamboland could be turned into Bantustan like Transkei.

They visited Transkei in 1965 to see if they wanted to be part of a similar arrangement. And, despite the condemnation of the United Nations, Ovamboland was established as a homeland. Elifas then led his Ovamboland Independence Party (OIP) into the 1973 elections in that nominally independent homeland, and the OIP’s victory meant he became chief minister of Ovamboland. OIP was apparently the only party that could campaign without being harrassed by the police. Yet Elifas and his party were not popular among the Ovambo people. His leadership style was autocratic and he was seen as a stooge of the South African government. Cooper describes him as “the archetypal tribal chief: conservative, autocratic and happy to go along with a government that pandered to his dignity and paid him for it”.

Despite harsh treatment by the police, including flogging, as endorsed by the tribal leadership, Swapo and the Democratic Co-operative Party (Demkop), a small party that initially opposed South African rule in Namibia, challenged his leadership and that of OIP. It was not only Elifas who died mysteriously. Chief Ushona Shiimi, chief councillor of Ovamboland, died in a mysterious car accident. He was regarded as a sellout because he supported Namibia being part of South Africa.

The Killing of Elifas gives a broad picture of the political and historical pasts of Namibia, which under German colonial and later South African rule, until its independence in 1990, was South West Africa. This is a very useful and readable account of this history, which is the context of Elifas’s murder.

The book goes back into history to discuss the oppression of the indigenous people suffered genocidal attacks by the Germans and oppression under the South African government. The South African security police applied lethal methods to punish or extract information from any dissidents they detained; the first to die at the hands of the security police in Namibia was Ephraim Kapolo, in 1967.

In the same year, South Africa enacted controversial legislation known as the Terrorism Act. Soon after it was implemented, 36 members of Swapo, including Herman Toivo ya Toivo, later the party’s secretary-general, were arrested and put on trial for treason. All 36 were sentenced to be jailed on Robben Island.

In 1975, the year of Elifas’s death, elections were held in South West Africa. Yet this election took place while something akin to a state of emergency pertained, and Swapo and Demkop boycotted because they feared they would be subject to intimidation. Swapo later declared the elections fraudulent.

The Killing of Elifas is a compelling and informative narrative of the murder of Elifas and the trial of the Swapo Six, which are focal points in its wide-ranging account of Namibian history and, indeed, Southern African history.

To read the review in the Old Diocesan Magazine, Issue 8, please CLICK HERE.


Below is a review from the Cape Times (dated 16 September 2016) of Gavin Cooper's earlier book, Under Devil's Peak.  This was written by Jennifer Crocker

Tribute to a man of substance

Wilfrid Cooper grew up as the son of a railway man, a fact that immediately endeared him to me before I plunged into his son Gavin Cooper’s biography. There is something about railways and small towns that holds a particular appeal and nostalgia for a time when trains linked the country.

He was born in Observatory and the family later moved to the hamlet of Klawer, a place where the young Wilfrid learned to appreciate nature and mingle freely with people who lived in the town, but the young boy was aware that the black or “coloured” people were far worse off than the Cooper family.

The author scribes this childhood experience as one of the reasons why Cooper deplored inequality and indeed apartheid. He could not have known then that one of the biggest upheavals in apartheid South Africa, the assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd, would play in his career one day.

The young Wilfrid went to Stellenbosch to study law and stayed in residence in Dagbreek. There he came up against racism that he found repugnant.

A fascinating fact that I am ashamed to say I had no idea about was that in 1946 he was part of the setting up of Nusas at Stellenbosch. The prevailing mood of the time meant that most meetings had to take place at UCT, which introduced Wilfrid to another group of students with very different ideas to the prevailing ones at Stellenbosch.

It is perhaps ironic that when Nusas was re-established in the early 1980s in Stellenbosch, the attitude towards it had not changed that much.

Wilfrid qualified and was admitted to the Bar. But, he chose a road less travelled in that he took on the unpleasant cases; the ones that advocates with an eye on the Bench would not have taken.

So it came to pass that he represented Verwoerd’s assassin, Demitrio Tsafendas. It was a huge case but not one that made him popular with the apartheid regime.

He was part of the trial of the infamous “Scissors Murderess” Marlene Lehnberg, heard cases in South West Africa, one in particular where it appears that the state used the killing of a man to declare Swapo illegal.

He defended Steve Biko, who died on September 12, 1977, at the hands of police torturers.

Throughout the fascinating story of the cases Wilfrid took on, his struggle to balance doing the right thing and having to earn enough to look after his family are all interwoven into this book.

It is more than worth mentioning that his wife, Gertrude, started her career at the Cape Times and was the social page editor by the time she retired.

The couple apparently had different views on that type of book Wilfrid should write, although ill health scuppered his attempt to write his own book. She wanted it to be more about their family, he wanted to tell the history of his cases. In the end his son has done a job of creating a book that both recalls a lifer growing up with his parents who were fun, and a father who had a job that took him to dark and dangerous places.

We often forget, or in the light of what seems to be more urgent  and troubling business of our lives today both politically and personally , that there was a generation  before us, and that many of them gave up the possibility of lucrative, comfortable lives to adhere to their beliefs about the value of all human lives.

Of course as a white advocate Wilfrid would have had privileges denied of others, but the reality that we also have to be honest about is that he tried to change things, and that these attempts at respect for all and human decency mattered hugely.

There are light moments in the book that tell of a different time, a time children played freely, a time when parties at home were the thing and one entertained oneself. There is also the admiration of James Joyce and excerpts and quotes of Wilfrid writing of his life in a style after Joyce.

“And his career was his head too and his head watched over everything he did. Julian tried to understand himself and what was happening around him.”

Under Devil’s Peak is a brilliantly written book and the author has painstakingly researched his father’s life without allowing himself to become the focus of the story. It is a true tribute  to a man who stood firm, a man who deserves a place in the history of South Africa.

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