Pauline Dempers - Her story

A survivor of torture during the war of liberation tells about her experience as a SWAPO detainee

Claske Dijkema


  • conflict transformation
  • Namibia


Interview part of an interview series on political activists in Southern Africa

Pauline Dempers is one of the survivors of the “Spy Saga” a dark page in Namibia’s history of its armed struggle for liberation from the apartheid regime. She tells her how she got involved in the struggle, what happened to her during detention and how difficult it is to break the silence about the less glorious sides of Namibia’s armed struggle for independence. It is a good reminder that there are no winners in war, not even one that is fought in the name of liberation.

The former German colony had been placed under South African rule by the United Nations at the end of the Second World War. Pauline was one of those who wanted to get rid of the racist policies of South Africa. She and her fellow “comrades” were organised under the flag of the South-West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO). Pauline is one of the few who speaks out about her experience in “the dungeons”, underground holes that served as prison for SWAPO members that were accused of being “enemy agents”. There are a number of indications that the accusations of being a spy for the South African government was merely a tactic to eliminate potential competitors for power.

Photo: Ian Henderson

Pauline Dempers, June 2008

The story of Pauline’s family is a telling example of the social complexities of dealing with armed conflict. Her brother Ronnie remembers the moment she came back from exile. The house of the family had been decorated in Swapo colours and the whole family had united to welcome the come arrival of this “hero of the liberation struggle” from Angola where a part of the Swapo camps were based. When Pauline tore down the decorations after arriving, her family found it difficult to understand her anger. Her letter informing them about what had happened never arrived. That night her mother asked her eldest son what to do now. Both children had been marked by different sides in the conflict. While Ronnie and her other brother Uhuru has been detained as a SWAPO member by the South African apartheid regime, Pauline had been detained by SWAPO in Angola. During the period running up to the first elections in independent Namibia, the family was split politically. While her brothers left the house in the morning to campaign for Swapo, Pauline and other former detainees were creating a party to oppose it. She tried to get recognition from her family for the physical and emotional scars of which she suffered, her family could not overtly support her.

The euphoria of the independence which was at the doorstep and for which all had sacrificed so much induced people to brush away an uncomfortable truth. The first democratic elections were THE priority. The traditional chiefs of her tribe said that the detainee’s issues would to be addressed later, but in the end they never were. Years later, when Swapo’s authoritarian tendencies became more visible, her brother Uhuru admitted that “we did bad as a family, not to come out in your support but we pledge our support now”.

Pauline joined SWAPO as a young mother, leaving her baby boy behind with her family. The headman of Pauline’s tribe, the Nama, who originate from the south of the country, committed the people under his responsibility to the struggle. It was common for Nama traditional leadership to mobilise and encourage their people to go into exile to reinforce the liberation struggle. They associated themselves officially with Swapo in 1978. Pauline was a SWAPO member and a political activist. When she went into exile she was not given an opportunity to choose either the diplomatic, political or military wing of the liberation movement. This decision was made by the SWAPO leadership and they chose military training for her. She left the country into exile with a group of 8 people. She was the only woman in the group. They crossed the border and were placed at the Dukwe Refugee Camp in Botswana for almost a month. They proceeded with a SWAPO convoy to Zambia, spent a day in Zambia and proceeded to Angola by plane.. After her training, she was not immediately sent to the front but she was stationed at a rear base until her arrest in 1986.

Pauline is a heavy woman. Does her body carry the weight of her memories of those years in detention? She disregards taboos about speaking about the violence she underwent to make sure it is not forgotten. When arrested, people were tortured until they confessed that they were spies and in their statement that they had to sign, they also had to indicate other -supposedly- spies. They were called in when a new detainee had arrived. “This was a very painful process. When you arrived in that office, the person sitting there is full of blood because of the torture that was going on there. And this person is getting so excited when they see you, thinking that you have come to their rescue him, seeing that you are the person that they know.” Yet what Pauline was forced to do was to confirm that the person under interrogation is a spy. “It is so painful for you to do that dirty act and to see the person who feels heavily betrayed by you”. The numbers confirm that it was an act of survival. Out of the estimated 2000 people detained, only 169 came back. The others are still missing, unaccounted for, among which Pauline’s husband.