While helping his father to look after the cattle he had a little schooling at the Finnish Protestant Mission and then was sent to help his aunt at Walvis Bay in April 1943. He moved in September 1949 to stay with an uncle at Windhoek where he had his first lessons in English at St Barnabas’ Mission run by Anglicans.
His first job was with the state railways. He started as a sweeper and rose to what he called a “semi-clerk and tea-boy”. The railways brought him up against apartheid imported into the mandated territory in all forms from South Africa. When he saw an African denied compensation after an accident at the shunting yards which caused a leg to be amputated at the knee he vowed to campaign until there were equal rights for black and white.
He left the railways in March 1957 for a clerical job in the municipal offices at Windhoek. Six months later he became a clerk at a wholesale store, spending his spare time studying pamphlets on the liberation struggle from Ghana and Zambia. A political spark ignited all the latent aspirations in April 1959 when he and Herman Toivo ja Toivo founded SWAPO. From then on he was a marked man. Police shadowed him to every meeting. Trouble arose when he helped to organise bus boycotts in protest against government plans to transfer the African location to Katutura, a new township 10 miles outside Windhoek. African anger boiled over in riots. Police opened fire, killing 12 Africans, on December 10, 1959. Nujoma was arrested on December 12, 1959, but he was released a week later.
A secret meeting of the SWAPO executive decided that he must go into exile and present his people's case to the United Nations rather than stay and have his voice silenced by a long term of imprisonment. He left Windhoek on February 29, 1960, on a perilous journey for thousands of miles zigzagging across Africa on foot, on horseback, by bus, train, and plane, dodging border police, military patrols and immigration officials. Once he was hidden in a hospital ward as a patient. Another time he filed past a checkpoint as a mineworker. At Dar es Salaam Julius Nyerere later to be President of Tanzania gave him a letter which he used instead of a passport to enter the Sudan and eventually reach Ghana. He reached New York on June 12, 1960 to appear before the UN Committee on South-West Africa.
After six months in New York he set up SWAPO provisional headquarters at Dar es Salaam in March 1961. Then he decided to challenge South African claims made at the International Court of Justice at The Hague that anyone was free to move in and out of the country. On March 20, 1966, he arrived with Lucas Pohamba, deputy administrative secretary, in a chartered plane at Windhoek. They were seized by police and taken straight to prison. At 5 a.m. on March 21, 1966, they were driven back to the airport, formally ordered out of the country, and forcibly pushed back on to their plane.
The International Court of Justice’s verdict on July 18, 1966, rejecting a complaint against South Africa, so embittered the SWAPO executive that he was forced to abandon non-violence and turn to guerrilla warfare. On August 26, 1966, he launched the armed struggle against the South African administration beginning with attacks in the north. In the first 18 months there were severe setbacks reaching a climax with harsh sentences on 37 freedom fighters at the Pretoria trials in February 1968 but he regrouped his guerrilla forces, intensified the recruitment, and launched a new campaign. He stepped up the ambushes and with more landmines obtained from campaign funds he began to register his impact, particularly in the Caprivi area.
Right from the start of his liberation movement he had the acumen to give priority to increasing political pressure on South Africa from the rest of the world. He made his first big impact on the UN Security Council when he was mvited to give evidence in person in October 1971. The Ovambo strike of 20,00 in December 1971 against the contract labour system focussed world attention on his case. This boosted his appeal for world support at the preparatory meeting in February 1972 for the Namibia Conference in Brussels in May 1972. He got a further boost from the Organisation of African Unity at their summit in Rabat in June 1972 from King Hassan of Morocco, the OAU President.
Tall, thickset bearded leader of the nationalist movement with a natural sense of authority. A man of democratic ideals with no fanaticism, he can laugh at himself as well as others. Although driven into guerrilla warfare he remains convinced that independence cannot be achieved by military means alone.