As the leaks continue to dribble out about the U.S. Secretary of State’s Israel/Palestine peace negotiations, I find myself thinking back to conversations I had in Windhoek, Namibia, in 1982, with Hannes Smith, the legendary editor. Back then, South Africa continued to call the bewitching desert territory South West Africa, and ruled it illegally in defiance of the United Nations. But even Western powers that were untroubled by apartheid in South Africa itself were forced to recognize that the occupation of Namibia violated international law.
When I stopped in to visit Hannes Smith, who was universally known as “Smittie,” international negotiations that were supposed to end the occupation had already been going on for several years. Most people believed that South Africa was merely stalling, and Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s Great Britain were either part of the charade or semi-willing dupes.
Smittie was a white Afrikaner, but he was a ferocious anti-racist and Namibian patriot, who thundered every week in the Windhoek Observer that the giant South African expeditionary force of 100,000 troops sent to fight SWAPO, the liberation movement, should leave his country.
In my book Freedom Rising I described how Smittie happily failed mainstream media standards of objectivity. Above news reports of positions by his political enemies, he would write headlines like “The Latest Twaddle” or “Absurd Little Propaganda Trick.”
Smittie, who was then 49, mistrusted the continuing leaks in Western capitals that suggested the peace process was about to lead to a cease-fire and a genuine settlement. He called the positive noises “a hoodwinking, a political trick of such magnitude that one can only describe it as the most cold-blooded deceit yet launched by the cynical masters in control of the country.”
One afternoon in his office, I asked him, What if you’re wrong? What if the talks actually do lead to genuine independence for Namibia?
Smittie answered with no hesitation. “Then I will emblazon the Windhoek Observer with giant 72-point headlines that say, ‘Hannes Smith was mistaken.’ I will shout my error from the rooftops. And I will be overjoyed to be wrong, because it will mean an end to this terrible war.”
Hannes Smith was not wrong. The talks dragged on and on, and Namibia did not become independent until 1990, just a few years before the end of apartheid in South Africa itself. He soon got himself in trouble for criticizing the new government. He stayed rambunctious until he died, aged 75, in 2008.