Obituary: John Ya-Otto

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The Independent Online
John Ya-Otto, trade-unionist, politician, diplomat: born Ovamboland 10 February 1938; married 1966 Ali Akwenye (two sons, two daughters); died Luanda 25 May 1994.

NAMIBIAN independence in March 1990, a month after the release of Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, fully declared the surrender of the apartheid regime. South African rule in Namibia could not have ended, however, without the efforts of the group round the aged Herero chief Hosea Kutako and the young Ovamboland workers' leader Sam Nujoma at the time of the Windhoek shootings in December 1959, which preceded South Africa's Sharpeville by four months. Among the youngest and most dedicated was John Ya-Otto, a newly appointed teacher at the Old Location primary school.

Ya-Otto's Battlefront Namibia (1982) describes vividly those years of struggle against tremendous odds, as it does his upbringing in the black underclass that then existed to do the white man's bidding. It tells also of his arrest in December 1966, with 38 other activists of the South West Africa People's Organisation, following the first clash between Swapo's guerrilla forces and the South Africans. The notorious Pretoria Trial resulted in life and 10-year sentences on Robben Island for 35 of the defendants, but for Ya-Otto and two others there was virtually no case. After 14 months of gaol and torture he received a five-year suspended sentence, and served only another month.

Confined to the north under the eye of a puppet chief, he managed to continue with youth and trade- union work, despite the threat of a return to gaol for 'creating hostility between the races'. The 1971 Contract Labour strike, in which he had a hand, awoke the world to the Namibian struggle. The end of Portuguese rule in Angola in 1974 expanded Swapo's exile role and its guerrilla army right on Namibia's border, across which Ya-Otto led the first party of escaping Namibians. From then on, based in Luanda, he ran the National Union of Namibian Workers, the country's embryonic labour movement, a respected figure at the ILO in Geneva and among union leaders in many countries.

Though Ya-Otto wrote of his hazardous escape, 'What scared me most was the idea that I might never return to my country', he came home in 1989 and was elected an MP in the country's first democratic elections, continuing also in his NUNW post. When his health broke down he was moved to the quieter diplomatic field, becoming his country's ambassador to Angola, whose support rated such a high-profile envoy. He had lived to see both freedom and Namibia's success story.