From horrors of Cassinga to mayorship

By Theresia Tjihenuna
March 2013
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Having narrowly escaped death twice during Namibia’s independence struggle in the 70s, Agnes Kafula knows what it feels like to have a close brush with death and still live to tell the story.

From her humble beginnings to becoming a household name in the capital’s internal affairs, Windhoek’s newly-appointed mayor, Agnes Kafula, now has the mother city’s burdens on her shoulder.

Kafula was one of the fortunate few who survived the Cassinga Massacre on 4 May 1978. She may have cheated death at close range but the emotional scars remain with her to date.

Born Agnes Mpingana Kafula on 1 November 1955 at Onuumba Village in Etayi Constituency, Kafula is the second of her parents’ five children.

“I was born at the time when Swapo was still Ovamboland People’s Organisation (OPO). My father passed away when I was two years old. My mother re-married and the family relocated to my stepfather, Thomas Amwaalwa’s village in Iipanda – Yaamiti,” she narrates.

She was enrolled at the Uuwanatshikare Roman Catholic School at the same village where she did her primary education until 1972 before moving back to Etayi later that year to stay with her grandmother. Two years later, she resumed studies at the Oshakati Secondary School.

She would apply for a teaching post at Etayi Primary School where she taught from January until September that year.

It was around this time that she befriended a colleague by the name Maria ‘Doctor’ Nambondi who would later became her companion in the escape to exile to join the liberation struggle.

“Maria and I met a group of young men from Oranjemund. They had come to the North for a soccer tournament. They were secretly planning to cross the border to Angola after the tournament, so we decided to join them,” recalls Kafula.

To get to the border, the group had to wait for two weeks for a troop of ex-combatants to escort them to their destination, as they were unfamiliar with the Angolan territory. In the meantime, they found shelter at Elombe Village where a Good Samaritan, a certain Tate Enias, accommodated them for a week.

“Someone unfortunately informed the South African authorities of our intentions to cross the border. We knew that we were no longer safe, so we escaped to Okanghudi Village the same day,” she relates.

They would later learn that the koevoet (Boers) had come looking for them and surrounded Tate Enias’ homestead, demanding to know their whereabouts: “I always wonder what could have happenned to us that day had the Boers found us!”

In October that year, the group arrived at the Cassinga Refugee Camp, which was being run by Swapo. Most Namibian refugees found shelter there. Kafula and a few others were given first-aid training within the first six months of arrival.

“After the training, I was assigned to teach a group of adults basic education, having already had my teaching experience,” she says, adding, the teaching post was short-lived because just a month into her new role; she was re-assigned to set up a day-care for the children at the camp.

As she recalls, “I was sent to the Jamba Settlement for a week-long training to learn how to run a day care. When I returned to Cassinga Camp, I set up the day care with a colleague of mine, Agnes Penda.”

For a while, life seemed normal for the Namibian refugees at the Cassinga Refugee Camp, as they carried on with their day-to-day activities; unsuspecting of any unfortunate eventualities.

No one could have guessed that in a week’s time, everyone would be running for their lives, leaving the camp in smoke and ashes.

On that fateful morning of 4 May 1978, Kafula was getting ready for the daily parade at which there would be a distribution of daily tasks for camp members.

“I felt homesick that day. So I decided to remain in my room while my colleague left with the children for the daily parade. I told her I’d join them later,” she says.

While in her room, she decided to page through a family photo album to nurse her homesickness: “While paging through my album, I remember hearing the sound of screeching car tyres outside.”

At first, she thought it could be the Cuban soldiers who travelled between Chamtete and Lubango; the road pass through Cassinga Settlement. But she would later learn that this was no ordinary vehicle because minutes later, she heard the sound of a bomb explosion and gunshots, followed by terrified screams. The South African koevoet were descending on the camp.

“Within seconds, the entire place had been engulfed in smoke and dust. I could barely see as I tried walking through the rubble,” she recalls.

Having undergone first-aid training, Kafula knew the first thing she needed to do; protect herself from inhaling the deadly smoke: “I found a bowl of water, wet my hands, then covered my mouth and nose with my hands.” And just like that, her ordeal had begun. She discovered dead bodies lying in pools of blood everywhere.

“I remember stepping on dead bodies. Then I came across the camp’s chef who was lying on the ground with an injured leg. I tried to assist him but he insisted that I run for my life,” she narrates, adding; when she looked up at the sky, she noticed more koevoet planes approaching. She would then join a group of other people who were also running for dear life. As she ran, she heard gunshots from behind her and saw people dropping dead right next to her.

“I could hear the Boers shouting, “Vang hulle! (Get them!)”. They wanted to capture some of us alive,” she relates.

Fortunately, Kafula was one of the few people who survived that massacre: “Those of us who survived were later taken to Chamtete for treatment and safety with the aid of the Cuban soldiers.”

The Angolan government gave the Namibian refugees another settlement camp at Omatara where Kafula would serve as a secretary in the office of the camp commander, Comrade Darius Shikongo. She later travelled to Havana, Cuba, for the Youths and Students’ Festival. She would return to continue with her secretarial duties when the group moved to another settlement called Ongulumbashe.

In October 1978, Kafula took up a women’s course on child development in Lusaka, Zambia, along with 14 other women from their camp.

“Fifteen more women from Nyango joined us. We attended a six-month English course at the National Resource Development College (NRSDC) of Zambia,” she says.

Agnes was also one of seven women - among them the late local businesswoman, Ella Kamanya, Ndapandula Shikongo, Penny Maxwilili (Uukunde), Maggy Natanga, Pelagia Emvula and Magdalena Nhatanga, who is currently the director at the Ministry of Health and Social Services - who were nominated for a journalism course. After a preliminary test in Ndola, only Kamanya, Shikongo, Maxwilili and Emvula were selected for the course while Kafula and Natanga returned to the NRSDC.

She and 14 of her colleagues were later sent to Boonville College in Birmingham, England, for a 12-month child care course. The group also included the wife of the current Oshana governor, Clemence Kashuupulwa, Patricia.

“There was also another request from our headquarters in Angola for five people in our group to do a private secretarial course. Miriam Haulyondjamba, Sara Namwandi, Saima Nakashole and I did the three-year course at Boonville College.

“After completing the course in 1984, we returned to Angola where I was assigned to work in the office of the Swapo administrative secretary, the late Moses Garoeb,” she explains.

While under the supervision of the late Comrade Thomas Nekomba, Kafula worked at the Swapo Transit Camp in Angola until August 1985. The same year, Kafula was assigned by Swapo to attend the Party School in Moscow, Soviet Union (now Russia), from August to July 1986; “I obtained a certificate in social science.”

She would return to Luanda, Angola, to resume work in the office of the administrative secretary until July 1987 before being assigned as the personal assistant (PA) to the Director of the United Nations Vocational Training Centre for Namibians (UNVCT) in Sumbe, Angola.

“I was Vitalis Ankama’s PA [from 1987 to 1988] who, soon after independence, became the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Education,” she says.

She also became the administrative assistant to the director who took over from Ankama, Moses Tjitendero, in January 1989 until July of the same year.

“When we returned to Namibia to prepare for the national elections, I continued working for Tjitendero as his PA when he was appointed as the regional director of the elections in Otjozondjupa Region, Otjiwarongo. I worked for him until December 1990 after the elections,” she narrates.

Shortly after Namibia’s independence, Kafula was appointed as a private secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where she served from January 1990 until June 1991.

She later moved to the Ministry of Health and Social Services as a senior private secretary to the Directory of Pharmaceutical Services, Tangeni Angula (wife to the former Prime Minister, Nahas Angula) from July 1991 to October 1994.

Kafula would return to the Ministry of Home Affairs in November 1994 as a private secretary to the permanent secretary, who was then Shetu Amunyela.

In July 1996, she became the control officer at the Department of Civil Registration (Population Services) where she headed three regions; Khomas, Hardap and Karas till 2004.

That year, she became the head of division of birth, marriages and death, at the Ministry of Home Affairs, until present day.

She joined the City of Windhoek in 2010; “I became the councilor at the City of Windhoek through the Swapo party local authority elections in 2004. I’m from the Khomasdal Northern District; that is where my Party structure is. I served as an ordinary councilor until May 2008. I also served as a member of the management committee of the City of Windhoek,” she enthuses.

From then until November last year, she served as the chairperson of the management committee. On 3 December last year, she was appointed as the Windhoek mayor. She will be serving in this position until the end of November this year.

“While I was the city councilor, I served as a member of the University of Namibia (Unam) council from 2004 until July 2012. I also served as a member of the Unam physical planning committee and as a member of the UNIPOLY (a collaborative programme of Unam and Poly that looks at the issues concerning the staff at both institutions),” she said.

In July 2011, she was elected as the president of the Association of Local Authorities in Namibia (ALAN) but after that, she served as a member of the management committee until July the same year. During her role as the ALAN president, she also served in the executive committee of UCLGA in Pretoria.

Asked how she has been fitting into her new role as the city mayor, Kafula says it’s a challenge she is willing to tackle: “I’m expected to perform my duty as the mayor and Head of Division of Birth, Marriages and Death at the Ministry of Home Affairs. It’s concerning that I’m expected to perform 100% in both roles. Our central government should amend the policy to allow one councilor to be released from one of the duties to concentrate only the other.”

She says the city is full of challenges and the public has its expectations. She receives agendas every now and then that she has to look at and provide regular solutions for to the officials. “It’s not easy,” she insists.

Regardless of the challenges, Kafula is determined to address the several issues facing the City during her term in office. Among those is the land scarcity facing the city residents; “One of our goals is consultative governance. Meaning, we have to involve the community members in all our planning at constituency levels.”

She also says she wants to involve regional and central government, policy-makers and councilors of local authorities, through consultations, to provide basic services to areas that currently do not have access to fast-track land delivery; intensify the Private Public Partnership project (PPP) with the focus on low-cost areas; monitor the implementation of the Targeted Intervention Programme for Employment and Economic Growth (TIPEEG) project; explore ways to come up with affordable housing and implement the environmental management clean-up initiative that will involve consulting with schools, taxi-drivers, regional councillors, businesses and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

“It’s all about team work, not only for the city but also for community members. I will try my level best to lead the team to make a difference in our city; the community will have to guide us with regard to their expectations of us in executing our tasks,” she concludes. PF