Colleagues and friends of Hannes Smith paid tribute to him as a legendary figure in Namibian muckraking journalism. He died at the age of 75 this week. 

Catherine Sasman writes in New Era:

Reporter-in-chief, editor, newspaperman, maverick, anti-establishment, aggressive, erratic, interesting, impatient, humble, friendly.

These are words people used when they described Hannes Smith, or Smittie, as his colleagues, friends, and the public at large affectionately knew him.

He was a close friend and confidante to those he loved. To others, he was an enemy; a man with grudges, to others an enigma, a teacher, and an icon.

"I'm sure if you would plug him into a power station he would light an entire town," said long-time friend, colleague and journalist, Joe Putz.

"He was relentless; he worked like an animal. I do not think anyone in Africa can work like he had. This is an end of an era in Namibian journalism."

Gwen Lister, editor of The Namibian and former colleague of Smith, described Smith as a legend of southern African journalism.

"Smittie, who might himself have coined the phrase of George Orwell that 'in times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act', was of the 'publish and be damned' school of journalism, who gave the baptism of fire into the craft when I started out in the mid-70s," remembered Lister.

"Love him or hate him (and many did in probably equal proportions) Smittie began to speak out against injustice at a time when it was not popular to do so, often coming into open conflict with the Afrikaner hierarchy in the apartheid years."

Smittie did not only rile the masters of apartheid colonialism. He always found himself up against "the establishment".

"He called South Africa the foreign occupational force and while this country was under South African rule, he always propagated for a free Namibia; he was always anti-apartheid," said Putz.

Smith was enraged by the apartheid era; he peeved off the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance transitional government during the 70s and 80s, and he was probably the most ardent critique of the Swapo Party government.

"I think he enjoyed the controversy, but he was very powerful when he knew he was right. That made him fearless. As a family we were always comforted by the knowledge that he was right when he said he was," said his daughter, Yanna Erasmus.

"He had an incredible nose for news. He would get stories where no-one else cared to look," said Erasmus.

Smith was born on March 17, 1933 from Angolan Afrikaners who had trekked down to Grootfontein where the family – "dirt poor" – lived in a resettlement camp.

According to Putz, Smith got his first pair of shoes by the age of 13, and had the ambition to be an Englishman because he viewed the English as better off coming from a family that was on the "absolute rock bottom of the social ladder".

Smith's daughter, Yanna Erasmus, said her father had always been very vague about his past, but remembered that he had come to Windhoek on his own as a 16-year-old boy, and at one stage found himself living in the water pipes – in the vicinity of Wernhill Park.

But he had a passion and lust for life unequaled in many of his peers.

Smith's passion for journalism started, said Erasmus, when he saw a journalist of the Suidwes Afrikaner newspaper [founded in 1926] through a window sitting with a sandwich in one hand and feverishly typing with his other hand on an old typewriter.

"My father said, 'That looks exciting'," remembers Erasmus.

After working as a railway worker and assistant in car sales business, Smith joined the Suidwes Afrikaner newspaper in the 1950s.

During the 1960s to 1978 he worked at the Windhoek Advertiser, first as a reporter and later as the editor.

In 1978 he formed the Windhoek Observer, that would chronicle with great passion and insight the liberation struggle, the period leading up to Independence, and in post-independence years, continue to propagate greater transparency and dignity for all.

The newspaper also became known – and in some quarters – very popular, for its "back pages" of nude girls and sexual fantasies, which Smith at some point defended as "a moment of relief at the end of a hard day's work".

"He was a true maverick," said director of the IPPR and former journalist, Graham Hopwood. "There is no other journalist like him. Sometimes Smittie's reporting bordered on the unethical. The sex pages of the Windhoek Observer were often regarded as distasteful. But he had a tremendous amount of energy as a journalist who brought to light political and business misdeeds and corruption, and for that he deserves respect."

Smith, he said, had contributed greatly to investigative journalism – with his own individual flavour and colour – zealously reporting court cases often in most gruesome details, but it illuminated Namibian society as it was.

And he will be missed in the corridors of the country's courts.

The staff at the High Court in Windhoek reminisced about Smittie, who they viewed as "one of them, a fellow worker".

"Smittie was professional throughout," said High Court Registrar, Edwin Kastoor. "He was the most experienced reporter on legal matters; he was always on top of things."

Senior legal clerk, Rita Ikuambi and Dorkas Ekandjo, translator at the High Court, who Smittie described as the "gold of the High Court", recalled how Smith would sit on the same chair at a desk in the registrar's office, peruse court files, make his mark in red of files he had gone through, and meticulously take notes of the myriad of court cases he had reported on in great detail.

"He was our father, friend, advisor. He was a good man," said Ikuambi.

But Smith was also known for his outbursts of anger, his intolerance for slowness and inaccuracy, and often careless and thoughtless remarks at those who got in his way.

His daughter remembers how he with a broad swipe of his arm cleared the desk of an administrative assistant who got the spelling of his surname wrong. At deadlines, his staff remembered how he would curse and throw incredible tantrums of anger and frustration.

"He was difficult and a perfectionist," said Michelle Crawford, who worked at the Windhoek Observer for 15 years.

"I think he pushed his staff hard because he saw some potential in everyone and he was keen to have everyone do better every time."

Smith, she said, was Namibia's best storyteller.

In his eulogy to Smittie, Namibia Society for Human Rights director, Phil ya Nangoloh said: "Smittie will for sure go down the annals of history as a tireless, thorough, heroic and legendary fighter for the right to freedom of expression and opinion and as a role model for most of us in this field."

"Smittie's body has gone silent, to most of us in the field of democracy, human rights and good governance, his spirit lives on eternally," ya Nangoloh said.

The cover of the first edition of the Windhoek Observer declared, Good Morning, Windhoek.

Another last wish Smith had, said Crawford, was that upon his death, the front page of the paper would read Good evening, Windhoek.
From the staff of New Era, good evening, Smittie!

* This article first appeared in New Era on