Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, a Namibian nationalist leader who fought a long and dogged campaign for his land’s independence and was jailed for 16 years alongside Nelson Mandela in South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison, died on Friday in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. He was 92.
The newspaper The Namibian and other news outlets in Namibia reported his death, drawing tributes from the Nelson Mandela Foundation and other African organizations.
While his international stature did not attain the fabled aura that surrounded Mr. Mandela, Mr. ya Toivo nonetheless secured enduring status among Namibians as the inspiration for their uneven struggle against South Africa’s disputed control of their land, once called South West Africa.
Like Mr. Mandela, Mr. ya Toivo was skilled in courtroom oratory, which offered opponents of white minority rule a rare public platform.
“We find ourselves here in a foreign country, convicted under laws made by people whom we have always considered as foreigners,” he said during a Supreme Court trial in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, that lasted from August 1967 to February 1968.
Standing before the bench, Mr. ya Toivo cataloged his reasons for challenging South Africa’s refusal to heed United Nations demands for Namibia’s liberation.
“We are Namibians, and not South Africans,” he said. “We do not now, and will not in the future, recognize your right to govern us, to make laws for us in which we have no say, to treat our country as if it were your property and us as if you were our masters.”
Mr. ya Toivo’s repudiation of South African hegemony was so resolute that he and his compatriots incarcerated on Robben Island refused to seek better prison conditions, for fear that their complaints would be taken as de facto acknowledgment of Pretoria’s authority.
Indeed, Mr. ya Toivo acquired a pugilistic reputation after punching out a white prison guard during a search of prisoners’ cells. In return he was beaten and given long spells in solitary confinement, in which his jailers would even black out the windows to prevent him from seeing the sky or sunlight.
He “shows no respect or cooperation,” his captors said in declassified records published in Namibian newspapers after independence in 1990.
“He does not submit to any authority and is unsatisfied to be held in a South African prison,” the records added.
They described him as “a martyr leader” and “a very good orator.”
For all his credentials, though, Mr. ya Toivo fell short of the reward that accrued for many other liberation heroes.
When Namibia finally became independent, the presidency went to a fellow campaigner, Sam Nujoma; Mr. ya Toivo was appointed minister of mines.
Both men had been central players in the founding of the insurgent South-West Africa People’s Organization, widely known as Swapo, which came to be recognized by the United Nations as the sole legitimate representative of the Namibian population.
But while Mr. Nujoma left Namibia to become Swapo’s exiled leader, Mr. ya Toivo remained in southern Africa to face arrest, trial and incarceration on Robben Island until 1984.
There were forecasts that divisions between Mr. Nujoma and Mr. ya Toivo would blunt Swapo’s bid for power, but the public confrontation never came. Still, rivalries lasted. As late as 2014, when Mr. ya. Toivo celebrated his 90th birthday, the newspaper The Namibian reported that Mr. Nujoma had “pointedly declined” to offer a public tribute to him.
The destinies of both men were intertwined with events far beyond their native land. South Africa had taken control of Namibia, a former German colony, under a League of Nations mandate after World War I. But its refusal, much later, to give up control of what had become a virtual South African colony — run on the model of South African apartheid — played into a Cold War confrontation that drew in Cuban troops and superpower diplomacy.
Over time, American and other Western officials sought to broker a peace that would deliver independence to Namibia in return for a withdrawal of Cuban troops from neighboring Angola. The Cubans, sharing Marxist sympathies with Angola, had been deployed there to support their ideological allies around the time of Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975.
But it was only after a showdown in the late 1980s between the Cubans and South Africa, and its surrogates, in a battle for the Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale, that the peace deal was cemented.
In all this, Swapo’s guerrillas in the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia — backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union — played a relatively limited role. But, as in many African bush wars, the guerrillas’ aim was simply to endure.
“In the kind of anticolonial struggle they have been waging,” Joseph Lelyveld wrote in 1982, when he was the southern Africa correspondent for The New York Times, “survival and victory are virtually synonymous.”
Herman Andimba Toivo ya Toivo was born on Aug. 22, 1924, in a village near Ondangwa, in northern Namibia, an area known as Ovamboland after the territory’s biggest ethnic group, the Ovambo. He attended Christian mission schools, qualifying as a carpenter, then studied to be a teacher. During World War II he joined the segregated, all-black Native Military Corps of the South African Defense Force, which fought on the British side.
After a spell teaching and running a store, Mr. ya Toivo left for Cape Town in 1951 and worked there as a railroad police officer. He soon became active in political groups, like the Modern Youth Society, which was run by college students and labor unionists. In 1957, he and other nationalists founded the Ovamboland People’s Congress, the forerunner of the Ovamboland People’s Organization and Swapo itself.
Much of Mr. ya Toivo’s energy went into challenging South Africa’s quasi-annexation of Namibia and seeking better conditions for migrant workers. In 1958, the South African authorities sent him back to northern Namibia because of his activism. Two years later, he and other nationalists, including Mr. Nujoma, formally created Swapo.
In 1966, Swapo guerrillas launched the first military operations of their uneven armed struggle against vastly superior South African forces. Within months, Mr. ya Toivo was arrested and imprisoned in Pretoria, where his captors repeatedly tortured him, he said.
In February 1968 he was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment and sent to Robben Island.
“He wanted very little to do with whites, with the warders,” on Robben Island, Mr. Mandela recalled in an interview after his own release in 1990. Mr. ya Toivo, he said, “wouldn’t cooperate with the authorities at all in almost anything.”
Even when the South African authorities released him in 1984 after 16 years, Mr. ya Toivo was reluctant to leave his cell while fellow nationalists were still jailed. According to Michael Dingake, a fellow prisoner, “the prison authorities had to trick him out of the cell and then lock him out” to make him leave.
When he returned to Namibia, thousands of jubilant supporters were there to greet him, pouring into the streets of Katutura, a segregated black township near Windhoek.
Soon afterward, on a visit to New York, Mr. ya Toivo met Vicki Erenstein, an American labor lawyer. They married a week after Namibia finally gained independence, in March 1990. In 1993 they had twin daughters, Mutaleni and Nashikoto.
While Mr. Nujoma served three terms as president, from 1990 to 2005, Mr. ya Toivo held three successive ministerial portfolios — mines and energy, labor, and correctional services. He retired from active politics in 2006.
But even later he seemed to sense that his mission was incomplete.
“The struggle to develop our beloved Namibia and to share its wealth among all of our people,” he said in 2014, “will take longer than the political struggle, but where there is a will, there is a way.”