Remarks by Riaan Eksteen at Theo-Ben Gurirab’s 80th Birthday celebrations in Windhoek on 17 February 2018
The protocol I will observe and recognise this evening is brief. If you are a friend of Theo-Ben you are duly recognised.
I want to give all of you immediately the same promise as King Henry the VIII of England gave to his third wife – “I will not keep you long”.
When I am asked tonight to define genuine friendship I can supply a short and a long definition. Both I will give later. First let me say something about the years of non-friendship with Ben.
In September 1976 I succeeded Pik Botha as Ambassador to the UN in New York as he was due to become Foreign Minister early the next year. When I arrived Theo-Ben was already there. Professionally those were troublesome times for both of us. While Ben and I walked that difficult political road on opposite sides, I always observed this quiet but brilliant man and wished that I could know him better. Life went on for both of us.
For 14 years I waited to shake your hand, Ben. A month after Namibia’s independence I assumed my ambassadorial duties in Windhoek. From our first meeting we spoke a language that friends of long standing would speak to each other. We started making up for those years lost. I came face to face with Prime Minister Geingob in some most enjoyable and memorable meetings. Through you Ben I had encounters with Hidipo Hamutenya, Peter Katjavivi, Filemon Malima, Nangolo Mbumba, Nicky Iyambo and several others all of whom I still count as special friends. Thank you Ben for sharing your friends and comrades with me. Furthermore, I was privileged to have presented my ambassadorial credentials to the Founding President and also got acquainted with the then Minister of Justice who later became president Phohamba.
For me W.B. Yates, the Irish poet, said it all in one sentence:
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.
Regrettably my time in Windhoek lasted only 18 months. The day Pik Botha called me to inform me of my transfer to the UN in Geneva I implored him to let me stay. He explained that the previous day he and Pres. De Klerk had met Mr. Mandela to discuss foreign affairs and the foreign service as such. The future President of SA wanted the main focus of SA on the UN to shift to Geneva with all the Specialised Agencies headquartered there. I could not say no to my next President.
With my posting to Geneva and thereafter to Ankara another gap of 8 years in my direct contact with you followed. In 2000 I became a permanent resident of Namibia. From that time onward you and I have enjoyed countless encounters and several extended luncheons in Windhoek and in Swakopmund. I am sure many – even a few in this room this evening – would itch to know what we explored about the past and what made us laugh no end. The books we exchanged each time were special. Those you have given me stand on Ben’s shelve in my study.
Last month my wife and I moved into our new apartment in central Swakopmund. The location is very special to me. Less than a 100 meters to the left of our bedroom is the residence where our President stays when he is in town. From my study I look towards the sea and the start of Theo-Ben Gurirab avenue. So every day I am reminded of two dear friends.
Ben, tonight I want to repeat what I have inscribed in the book I sent you on your Big Day last month, namely that to you I want to echo what Winston Churchill said about President Franklin Roosevelt:
Meeting him was like opening your first bottle of champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.
Thank you Ben for always being so gracious towards me and for being a soul mate whenever we meet. What a delight it has always been to reflect afterwards on the wisdom you shared so unsparingly with me. Thank you for being BEN to me – Ben, in Scottish, the Mountain.
So my short definition of genuine friendship is encapsulated in one word – Ben. And the longer version is Theo-Ben Gurirab.
May God bless you Ben and your family. To them, and especially Joan, my sincere gratitude for affording me this opportunity to speak about a friend whose qualities are so difficult to match. And also, do take care of my Brother – he is one of a very special kind.
God bless Namibia and also our President.