The Life and Times of Gerhard Tötemeyer

Gerhard Tötemeyer

Born in 1935 as the son of a missionary, Gerhard Tötemeyer saw the first light at the Red Cross Clinic in Gibeon along the banks of the ephemeral Fish River.

In 1939, the family left by boat for Germany to enjoy his father’s home leave.

They experienced the madness and fury of war and destruction.

This left a deep imprint on Gerhard’s psyche, for much later he completed a master’s thesis in history on the ideology of Nazism at Stellenbosch University.

In February 1950, the family returned to Keetmanshoop, where Gerhard attended the local high school.

Subsequently, he completed his school education in Stellenbosch in South Africa and read for a bachelor’s degree at the local university.

This marked the beginning of an extended relationship with the university (and with South Africa), which culminated in advanced diplomas and degrees, notably a doctorate awarded in late 1974, which explored traditional and modern leaders in the erstwhile Ovamboland, published in 1978 by Hurst and Company in London.

By then a principled critic of apartheid South Africa, Gerhard shifted his political allegiance from the National Party to Swapo and championed the cause of Namibian independence.

STUDIES

In 1969, he took up a lecturing post at the University of Stellenbosch, where our paths intersected for the first time. This was the start of a friendship that was to endure for 55 years.

In January 1977, Gerhard took up an invitation by the United States State Department to visit that country. He travelled via London, where he met representatives from Amnesty International, as well as Peter Katjavivi, Swapo’s representative to the United Kingdom.

During his visit to the United States the South African security agencies kept a close watch on his movements.

ARREST AND DEPORTATION

Gerhard, his wife, Andree-Jeanne, and children then migrated to the University of Transkei, where he took up a senior academic position.

His research findings that the vast majority of students at the university supported a majority-ruled and non-racial South Africa pitted him against the university authorities and the dictatorial political leadership of Transkei.

In May 1984, Gerhard and his wife were detained and subsequently deported from the Republic of Transkei.

ACADEMIC JOURNEY

Gerhard then took up an academic position in the department of political and administrative studies at the University of Cape Town.

While there he was invited as a visiting professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, from October 1985 to February 1986.

In late 1986, the former Academy for Tertiary Education – the antecedent of the University of Namibia (Unam) – advertised a professorship for administrative studies.

Gerhard took up the position on 1 April 1987.

This was the start of his academic career in Namibia that saw him rise to influential positions at Unam, including that of vice chancellor and inspirational lecturer.

Gerhard deepened his involvement in local politics by joining the Namibia Peace Plan 435 Group (NPP-435), which he chaired.

From 18 to 22 June 1988, he was a member of the NPP-435 delegation which met Swapo representatives in Sweden under the leadership of Swapo president Sam Nujoma.

The exchanges in Sweden were followed by a conference on Namibia at the University of Bremen in Germany. The theme of the conference was ‘Education for Liberation’.

Upon his return to Windhoek, a South African orchestrated campaign of fake news, alleged that Gerhard and fellow academics were undermining academic freedom.

He received death threats.

The notorious South African Civil Cooperation Bureau continued with its campaign of fake news that alleged that Gerhard, and among others Gwen Lister, then the editor of The Namibian, were neocolonialists.

Gerhard also received written death threats from the racist Wit Wolwe (White Wolves).

Late in October 1988, midnight raiders carried out attacks on the homes of prominent attorney Peter Koep and that of Gerhard and his family.

Both had windows at their houses blasted.

At the beginning of October 1988, Gerhard and several other Namibians met with Swapo representatives at a ‘consultative conference’ in Kabwe, Zambia, in preparation of the country’s independence.

Increasingly, Gerhard brought the matter of German-speaking Namibians into sharp relief, and through the pioneering work of the Interessengemeinschaft Deutschsprachicher Süwester (IG) founded in 1977, and later in August 1988, the Namibisch-Deutsche Stiftung für kulturelle Zusammearbeit (NaDs), which he chaired from 1991 to 1994.

Reconciliation between white Namibians in general and German-speaking Namibians in particular, and their fellow citizens, became the leitmotif of Gerhard’s very existence.

POLITICAL TRAJECTORY

Gerhard in mid-1992 became the country’s first director of elections.
He was asked to stay on by founding president Sam Nuyoma to organise the National Assembly election in December 1994.
Gerhard became the chairperson of the organisational committee for establishing the forum of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) election commissions.

He was also a committee member of the Association of Electoral Officers in the Commonwealth countries, and observed several elections in the SADC region.

When he stepped down as director of elections in 1998, he rejoined Unam.

His productive academic career came to an end on 13 March 2000 when Gerhard was appointed as the deputy minister of regional and local government and housing by Nujoma until July/August 2004.

In July 1994, he was awarded the Budesverdienstkreuz (Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany) in acknowledgement of his tireless contribution to democracy, German culture and reconciliation in the country.

ACTIVE RETIREMENT

Since his retirement from active politics, Gerhard continued his unwavering interest and engagement in the politics of reconciliation and the linked issues of genocide and reparations.

He became a founding member in April 2021 of the Forum for German-Speaking Namibians.

His active community service continued unabated as chairperson of the Namibia Housing Enterprise, and a member of the National Council on Higher Education.

He represented Namibia on the SADC Electoral Advisory Council and was a patron of the Swakopmund Museum and the Basel Africa Institute based in Basel, Switzerland.

Gerhard breathed the air which the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, graphically described in one of his poems:

“I want to see the change of times,
When radiant signs are in the sky at night,
New bells are ringing for humanity
And ring and ring”

  • Andre du Pisani is an emeritus professor of politics at the University of Namibia, and a friend and former colleague of Gerhard Tötemeyer.

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