Bret Snider BackStory March 2022

Dirk Mudge and the Birth of a Nation

A few weeks ago, my wife and I, who have been spending a lot more time together, owing to the pandemic, were talking about what was happening in our respective lives in previous Novembers. My most interesting November was 1989.

That was when I was asked to be an Election Supervisor on a UN Mission to oversee the first free and fair election in Namibia. It had formerly been German Southwest Africa but after their defeat in World War I they lost all their colonies, based on the Treaty of Versailles signed in June of 1919. Several of those colonies were in Africa.

The former colonies became protectorates overseen by other countries. In this case South Africa got Namibia and after years of negotiations there was finally going to be an election that would lead to Namibia becoming and independent country. But part of the UN agreement involved active participation from other countries.

I got permission to get time off work and six days later I was standing in the Namib dessert on the outskirts of Rundu in northern part of the country looking across a river separating it from Angola. Canada had an extraordinarily strong contingent with fifty Election Supervisors, one hundred RCMP Officers and two hundred and fifty soldiers from various Canadian regiments.

For years South Africa treated Namibia as a province and controlled most of its politics through an Executive Committee. Namibian leaders had tried both peaceful and armed resistance to gain autonomy. Their military efforts had been fruitless against South Africa but finally diplomacy and world pressure had led to this moment.

The training was exhaustive and for us painful as the election rules were based on Canadian, British, and Australian rules and we knew them. The other countries had sent different types of people. The French sent judges, the most pedantic, the Dutch sent accountants, the next most pedantic, the East Germans, the Chinese and the Russians were “Diplomats”, so spies. One evening an East German tipped over a candle onto his mosquito net setting it alight. People started yelling “Fire.” By the time I was out of my bunk, the Russians had marched out in a very orderly fashion each one blocking a doorway with their very burly bodies to make sure that the Russians got out first. I thought “What well trained Diplomats.”

Each team was assigned security in case anything went wrong. The detail consisted of an officer, a couple of soldiers and a couple of local police. In our case the officer was a Finnish soldier named Captain Lumme. On route to the polling station he told me he liked Canadians because we were great hockey fans, and his son, Jyrki, was playing in the NHL for the Vancouver Canucks. He also informed me that the soldiers were not supposed to carry weapons but not to worry because he had a pistol in his sock. Good to know.

When we arrived at the polling station in Rundu we were all blown away. There were thousands of black Namibians waiting in line. And they had been there for hours. This was not what we were used to in Canada. But this was their first opportunity to vote – ever! We were introduced to our black and white Namibian counterparts and set up the station. A Brazilian UN secretary, not a secretary of state, a regular secretary announced to us all that because she worked for the UN that she was in charge of the polling station. Everyone shrugged and agreed.

A couple of minutes before opening our doors to the station three mini vans pulled up. Two camera crews got out of the second and third vans. Two muscle bond guys got out of the first van each carrying an adidas gym bag, but you knew they were not carrying gym equipment. Then, with cameras rolling, a big strapping guy emerged from the first van and walked into the station. Everyone froze. I looked at the Brazilian and she was just standing there with her mouth open.

After a couple of uncomfortable seconds, I approached the guy and said, “May I help you Sir?” “I’m here to vote.” “Do you have any identification Sir?” “Will a passport do?” “Yes Sir.” He handed me the passport which said Dirk Mudge. “Yes Sir, everything appears to be in order. Please follow me.” I processed him and handed him a ballot. He voted and then came over, shock my hand, thanked me for my service, then left.

I looked around the polling station and people where still frozen except Captain Lumme who was killing himself laughing. I said, “What just happened?” “Do you know who that was?” “Dirk Mudge, I saw his passport.” “Do you know who he is? He is one of the most important and influential politicians in Namibia and South Africa.”

The New York Times last week published the obituary of Dirk Mudge, who died of COVID-19 in Windhoek, Namibia on August 26, which was, fittingly, Namibia’s Heroes Day. While Mr. Mudge had retired from politics in 1993, he played a crucial role in Namibia’s independence and, as a result, in ending apartheid in neighboring South Africa. Blog Post by Guest Blogger for John Campbell September 9, 2020