Riaan Eksteen – A life evolved around Namibia
News – National | 2014-11-10 Page no: 6
by Adam Hartman
UNLESS one knows who he is, Riaan Eksteen (RE) – or ‘Kudu’ to his friends – will seem like a regular in Swakopmund.
He also attends public meetings where issues are raised that could have an impact on the town or beyond. The Namibian (TN), however, got to know Eksteen a little better and realised that this man’s involvement in Namibia has been far greater than that of many other Namibians. This interview will shed some light on how involved Eksteen really is in Namibia’s past, present and future.
TN: You have travelled the world and lived in many mega cities. Why settle in Swakopmund?
RE: Since 1992 my wife and I maintained a holiday flat in Swakopmund. In 2008 we settled here permanently. My wife has her own links with this country in wildlife and nature conservation. We have become fully integrated into Namibian society and that of Swakopmund in particular. Namibia is part of my DNA. Swakopmund is – with its appeals and attractions – also an uncomplicated town with a quality lifestyle.
TN: What is your family-connection to Namibia?
RE: I am fortunate to have a history which is linked to Namibia in more than one way. My association with Namibia runs in my family and goes back nearly 90 years. In 1925 my father came to Otjiwarongo where he owned a shop. In 1929 my parents got married there. Today, members of my family on mother’s side still farm extensively in Namibia – the fourth generation to do so.
TN: How and when did you become involved with the Namibian issue?
RE: After university I joined the South African Foreign Service in January 1964. Six months later I was included in the South African legal team involved in the International Court of Justice case of Ethiopia and Liberia vs SouthAfrica in The Hague. It was at the tender age of 21. That brought me to Windhoek for the first time in 1965. In 1967 and in 1974 I travelled throughout the country for three weeks compiling material for the publications on Namibia. While ambassador to the UN in NewYork (1976 – 1981) I was intimately involved in the negotiating phases leading up to the adoption of Resolution 435. During that time I travelled twice with Marrti Athisaari on his survey missions. I also accompanied many foreign dignitaries such as Henry Kissinger on their visits. As Head of Planning in the South African Foreign Ministry (1981-1983) I continued to devote my undivided attention to the implementation of Resolution 435. From February 1990 to January 1992 I served as South Africa’s first ambassador toNamibia.
TN: What were the low points in your career as SA’s ambassador to the UN?
RE: Having experienced South Africa’s credentials being rejected by the General Assembly on three occasions when I sought to speak on the issue of Namibia.This is perhaps a world record not to be beaten soon!
TN: And highlights?
RE: Addressing the Security Council twice. Five years of non-stop work in helping to bring Resolution 435 about. The event I will never forget was when Iwas introduced to Pope John Paul II at the U.N. on 2 October 1979. The endearing look in his eyes, his smile that reflected eternity – so engraved in my memory.
TN: And in Geneva?
RE: Two personal meetings with Nelson Mandela (he was not yet elected president) were moments to treasure for life. To be elected chairman of the Africa Group at the UN for six months was a singular honour being the first South African to head that group. What an experience!
TN: As SA’s first ambassador to the newly independent Namibia, what are your thoughts about that period?
RE: Obviously, it was a difficult task for the new country and its leaders to address the wrongs left behind and to start correcting the many political and social ills they inherited. They had to carve out a place for Namibia internationally as sympathy was not going to last forever. Slowly but surely, they moved along that long and arduous road. They never gave up. Namibians are not quitters.
TN: And now, Namibia at the present time?
RE: Many challenges still remain. Again, challenges have never kept Namibians from tackling them.
TN: You have known Hage Geingob (Namibia’s possible future president) for 24 years. What type of leader will he be?
RE: I have been privileged to have had a personal relationship and friendship with him. From the day in June 1990 I met him I was impressed with his foresight and sound perspectives. Over the years we have on many occasions exchanged views and opinions. I became increasingly aware that he had a particular and convincing vision of how Namibia should position itself to be a beacon of hope and a success across the African continent.
TN: What were your impressions of the recent meeting Geingob had with farmers and business leaders in Windhoek?
RE: His engagement with the audience was very skilful and successful. It was a masterful performance – a class act. He spelt out his credo: no more business as usual. He used tough language. But, something else impressed me more – much deeper, of more significance. Reverend Pienaar read from the Bible, made some potent remarks and said a prayer. In his speech the Prime Minister unashamedly endorsed those elements. He did so four times. Each time the audience was truly touched. When he remarked that the reverend had said what he wanted to say, he received an ovation. Where do you still get this type of recognition of religion at a gathering like that?
TN: What can Namibia expect from him?
RE: He will lead this great country across new horisons. He will guide it into an era which is now happily free of most of the unfortunate events of the past. He instils confidence. And is dynamic. He has always been pragmatic, forceful and energetic. He champions fresh ideas. He is eager to achieve what all Namibians wish their country to be. But, to achieve all of this, he needs support.
TN: And for that matter, Southern Africa?
RE: Also on the Southern African scene, he will be a fresh breeze. Now as Prime Minister, he is primus inter pares (first among equals). Soon he will be that amongst leaders in Southern Africa. He has wide international experience and exposure. All of that will enable him to guide the course of our region. He has a presence that exudes confidence and conviction.
He will be that forceful and resourceful leader the region needs. He will market the region. He will be the prominent presenter and promoter of our region. He will argue – not plead –for more benefits to flow into the various countries on the basis of their worth and potential. He will leave behind him the outdated rallying call which has for so long been used to no avail: “The world owes us”. He will tell the world boldly: “We will show you”.
TN: Who are you in the greater scheme of things?
RE:My faith sustains me. I am grateful to have work to keep me more than busy each day. I stay abreast of local and international affairs by reading profusely. I enjoy excellent health. I am happily married.Unfortunately, our three sons and eight grandchildren are far away –Pretoria, Amsterdam and Dallas. I treasure friendship. I place a very high premium on loyalty. Stimulating conversation is invigorating. A good sense of humour is essential. Doing fiendish Sudoku daily is challenging. Watching sport is a most enjoyable pastime, especially when a favourite team wins! Music is important – as a German poet wrote: “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”.