Panduleni Kali: Swapo activist who survived torture and imprisonment to become a high-ranking official in Namibia

Panduleni Kali was an outstanding and emblematic woman of contemporary southern Africa. Her life embodied the schizophrenic contradictions of the region, torn between suffering and modernity. Kali was chief statistician in the Division of Labour Market Information in the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, but her distinguished professional service was remarkable for having taken shape after a terrible experience when she and her twin sister, Ndamona, were in their 20s.

For almost six years in the 1980s, the twin sisters and well over a hundred other Namibian women endured torture and imprisonment in pits in southern Angola at the hands of men who led the organisation to which they had dedicated their youthful political energies, the South West African People's Organisation (Swapo). Since 1990 Swapo has been the sole governing party of Namibia; over the previous 24 years it had been engaged in a guerrilla war against white South African rule.

Born to Owambo-speaking parents in 1958, Panduleni and Ndamona Kali attended Martin Luther High School in Omaruru, north of Windhoek, from 1974-78. At school they took part in political activity in the Namibian Black Students' Organisation (Nabso). In 1978 the political situation was tense and, harassed by the South African police, they left the country for Angola to join the military wing of Swapo, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), from whom they received military training.

Ndamona was then sent to the Soviet Union for political training, Panduleni to Cuba. Both studied Lenin, Marx and Engels: Ndamona at the Komsomol in Moscow, Panduleni with the Federation of Cuban Women. After completing her course, Ndamona returned to Swapo bases in Angola and was then sent to join Panduleni at the University of Camaguey in Cuba, where they studied economics. Ndamona was a leader of the Swapo youth at the university, Panduleni a leader of the women's council.

They were arrested at the University of Camaguey by Cuban state security police in November 1984, stripped, internally examined and flown to Angola, where they were handed over to Swapo. From Luanda they were driven by Swapo security officials, handcuffed and in pain, to the Karl Marx Reception Centre at Lubango in southern Angola. There they were separated, not to meet again as prisoners for another two years. Each was tortured by being stripped naked, handcuffed and hung stomach-downward between two horizontal poles. They were then beaten with sticks by male security officials, with a cloth being put in their mouths when they screamed in pain. They were ordered: "Tell us what you have been hiding".

This continued for months; They were then kept in damp pits in the ground for five years. "There was a small layer of bricks at the top of the hole to serve as windows," Panduleni told me. "We covered ourselves with empty rice bags, sleeping on boxes. In one corner there was the toilet, and we were so overcrowded that the last person had to sleep only a few centimetres from the toilet. There was no fresh air. The dug-out served as hospital, dining room, toilet, and even in one case as maternity room."

In April 1986 and May 1987 the women were visited by the Swapo president, and subsequent President of Namibia, Sam Nujoma. Though he was told about the falsity of the allegations, and even after being shown the marks of beatings, Nujoma's visits brought no relief. Instead, according to Panduleni, "Nujoma said that we were enemy agents, that we came with poisons to kill the combatants of PLAN, some of us even tested our poisons, we put them in the water and food of PLAN combatants, and these people died. He promised that they would fight more than ever before to liberate Namibia, and to take us to our mothers and fathers, and we would be paraded at a revolutionary square where they were going to hoist their flag and the nation would decide what to do with us."

The women were finally released in 1989 as part of the negotiation process leading to Namibian independence.

Kali made a successful transition from prisoner to senior government official. In her official capacity, Panduleni accompanied the then Minister of Labour, Andimba Toivo ya Toivo – a founder of Swapo, a long-term prisoner on Robben Island and one of the most revered of Namibian political leaders – to a conference of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva in June 1999. Only 10 years earlier the sisters had been forced to make "confessions" on video, after which Toivo presented the women to journalists from Germany, France, Angola, Cuba and Namibia, introducing them as "traitors who had betrayed the nation" who had been forgiven and were going to be returned to Namibia.

Panduleni is survived by Ndamona, who is now a senior statistician in the National Planning Commission.

Panduleni Kali, statistician, activist and political prisoner: born Omaruru, Namibia 1958; died Windhoek 14 June 2010.

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