By David F. Rooney
Anyone who knows Antoinette Halberstadt knows she wears her political convictions on her sleeve. Now she’s returning to Southern Africa to relive a piece of her political past.
“This whole thing began a few months ago when I put something I had written about Odibo (a Namibian town where she briefly taught) onto the Internet,” she said. “I had named all the students, copied from the classroom seating plans that they’d all written their names on.”
The daughter of one of those students discovered her mother’s name there and the former student initiated an e-mail correspondence with Antoinette.
“As soon as I emailed her back equally excited, she said ‘I’m turning 60 in June and I want you to celebrate my birthday with me!'”
So next Monday the South African-born social and political activist is flying to Sweden to meet that former student, Veronica Hiyalwa, and then the two of them, along with Hiyalwa’s daughter Primrose are off to Namibia where she had one of the most profound experiences of her life.
In July 1971 the then-very young Halberstadt went to northern Namibia to teach at St. Mary’s Mission Highschool in the town of Odibo, about half a mile from the Angolan border in Ovamboland, to fill the space left by other Anglican church workers the South African government had expelled.
“I was the highschool principal, simply because I was its only teacher,” she said in a blog recounting her adventure. “It was the only school in SWA that taught in English, which the Owambo people valued highly for two reasons:
“1. because it enabled them to understand BBC World Service radio newscasts, especially those about what was going on in the rest of Africa and what the United Nations was saying about S.A.’s occupation of their beloved land, and
“2. so that they might eventually be able to pursue a higher education, for instance in other countries if they could get there.”
These were the years of Apartheid in South Africa. Blacks and others were oppressed by a white minority intent on maintaining power. Namibia — then called South West Africa — was a protectorate of South Africa’s.
“My entry permit from S.A.’s Ministry of Bantu Administration included conditions that ‘Lodging by whites or coloured with natives is not permitted;’ ‘under no circumstances may a permit holder interfere with the domestic affairs of the native’ (read: no talking politics with any Owambo people); ‘No agitation may be started and the administration of the Government or any of its officials may not be criticised’ and ‘the wearing of ultra-mini skirts or shorts by women in the Native Areas is prohibited.'”
“During the three months I was at Odibo before I, too, got kicked out, my students made it clear that they hated Apartheid, wanted independence from South Africa, supported the United Nations World Court decision that S.A. was illegally occupying their country and that they especially hated the Contract System.
“Basically because my students were very articulate, and organized others in Ovamboland, and because I didn’t shut them up but rather found subtle ways of helping them research such things as the U.N.. Declaration of Human Rights when they asked where they could find it, and facilitated their Voice, I was expelled on October 15, 1971.”
The experience marked Halberstadt deeply and though she maintained a fragile contact with some of her students, such as Veronica Hiyalwa, she never returned to Namibia or saw them again. And within three years she had immigrated to Canada
Now, though, that is about to change. Best of luck, Antoinette, I hope this proves to be a happy event in your life