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With Namibia reaching 21 years of independence on 21 March, Henning Melber argues that the country’s government has failed to provide socio-economic opportunities for its wider population.

Once upon a time there was a country, whose people endured and braved more than a century of colonial minority rule. Their resistance against foreign domination resulted at the beginning of the 20th century in forms of genocide against parts of the people. When half a century later the ‘winds of change’ started blowing over the African continent, the people reorganised their anti-colonial struggle. Due to their relentless mobilisation, the diplomatic and military means applied, and the support of like-minded countries and people in favour of their right to self-determination, the liberation movement leading the struggle since the mid-1960s emerged ultimately by popular vote under United Nations-supervised elections as the legitimate government. On 21 March 1990 the Republic of Namibia joined the community of sovereign states. But only in fairytales do people live happily ever after.

In his inaugural address, Namibia’s first head of state declared after midnight on 21 March 1990: ‘Our achievement of independence imposes upon us a heavy responsibility, not only to defend our hard-won liberty, but also to set ourselves higher standards of equality, justice and opportunity for all, without regard to race, creed or colour. These are the standards from which all who seek to emulate us shall draw inspiration.’ Measured against such promises, Namibia comes of age with a mixed balance sheet. People enjoy relative freedom and civil rights they were denied before. But many of the hopes for a better life remain wishful thinking for most of the erstwhile colonised majority.

Not all is well in the state of Namibia. ‘Solidarity, freedom, justice’ as the leitmotiv of the struggle for emancipation sounds hollow when contrasted with the harsh realities Namibia’s people still have to cope with. There is a scandalous contrast between the many ‘have nots’ and the few ‘have lots’. That among the latter are a growing number of ‘fat cats’ (equating ‘black cats’) is of little comfort. Social inequalities might have become more nuanced than the restrictive category of race imposed by apartheid suggested. But the class structures remain as brutally discriminating as before. In the absence of better opportunities for all, independence took to a large extent the form of a self-enrichment scheme creating mainly better opportunities for few.

The first congress of SWAPO (South-West African People’s Organisation) held in an independent Namibia, adopted in December 1991 a new political programme. It remains among the documents accessible on the party’s website and declares among others that, ‘democracy and economic growth are not in themselves sufficient conditions for the elimination or deduction [sic] of the socio-economic inequality which still today characterize the Namibian society. They do not automatically touch on the equally important issue of social justice. Social justice in Namibia requires the adoption and implementation of progressive policies aimed at creating equality of opportunity in all the spheres of human life and dignity.’

The programme also emphasised the promotion of political empowerment: ‘To understand and popularize the ideas and ideals of solidarity, social justice and progress, as well as, the principle of democracy’, and declared, ‘To mobilize the people to participate in the affairs of the Government and society, and thereby help to develop in the Namibian citizenry a capacity for interpretation of political events in the country and the world at large’. It vows ‘to bring about a balanced and fair allocation of national resources, particularly, to the previously disadvantaged majority’ and commits the party ‘To work for full social justice in the distribution of resources, wealth, promotion of efficiency and proper management of human and natural resources.’

Twenty years on, this all sounds like wishful thinking in cuckoo’s land, measured against the real progress – or actually lack of it. Service delivery in the educational and health sectors is dismally defunct. It is revolting that people dependent upon intensive care in the state hospital risk their lives due to power failures. Reckless handling of public funds results in exorbitant losses through shady financial deals like in the GIPF saga or merely incompetent running of business affairs like in the case of Namcor. Corruption and other forms of misappropriation of funds spiral out of control and the political leadership seems more interested in covering up and sweeping under the carpet any of the scandals than cleaning the house.

Despite all these eroding tendencies, which severely undermine the credibility of and trust in those tasked to maintain public order and proper running of state affairs, Namibia is still ranked among the top countries on the continent in terms of good governance criteria. This is no reason for complacency while more people are unemployed more than ever before. Instead of providing the opportunities for all citizens to make ends meet, the demands by a popular alliance backed by church and trade union agencies for a basic income grant are rubbished as attempts to secure a free ride and exploitation of the privileged taxpayers by those battling daily for survival – as if people would like to be dependent on handouts from the state instead of securing a decent living through their own hands’ work.

The neoliberal gospel and Social Darwinism reign supreme under a liberation movement as government, which once seemed to suggest that independence should also translate into a decent living in self-respect for all citizens of the country. Despite all the setbacks measured against such a social justice yardstick, the fourth and hitherto last official congress of SWAPO since independence applauded its own policy by concluding that, ‘great progress was made in the reduction of poverty and removal of vestiges of social inequalities’. Do the comrades, who adopt such high-flying statements, visit the shacks in which people dwell? Do they note the growing number of street kids, the desperate young girls selling their bodies to sugar daddies, the rampant degree of domestic violence and rape as indicators of social and moral decay?

Instead of being visibly concerned, the aging political elite self-righteously continues to base its claims to represent the people on its struggle credentials dating more than 20 years back and thereby rapidly turning into a gerontocracy. The party leadership moves politics into a sphere of untouchables, surrounded by cronies who cash in their loyalty as political entrepreneurs. Public office bearers are accountable only to themselves. Those who betray the ideals of a struggle claiming to advocate social emancipation can rely on patronage as long as they do not question the dominant policy. Those who dare to challenge the hegemonic status of the party dons are labelled unpatriotic traitors. Others, who identified with unconstitutional and indeed criminal acts as political sympathisers, are merciless punished without any legal verdict.

The high treason trial against those accused of supporting a failed secession of the Caprivi in 1999 drags on. Most of the accused are since more than a decade under harshest imprisonment only for their political affiliation to the secessionist movement and are hence considered as political prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Without being sentenced, more have in the meantime died behind bars than during the secessionist attacks. The fundamental principle of being innocent until proven guilty is not applicable for those accused. Their ordeal is based on the opposite assumption, namely being treated as if guilty until they can possibly prove their innocence – unless they die in custody before. This is a legal scandal of a magnitude which hardly existed even during the notorious apartheid days.

Triumphant outbursts celebrating the rule of law (all too often wrongly so welcomed only if in conformity with the law of the rulers) are also misplaced when it comes to the legal battles over election results. These seem to have become a regular feature following National Assembly elections. Namibian policy makers should use these tiresome disputes as a reminder that democracy requires rules and regulations meticulously designed, implemented and observed. Any shadows of doubt can only result in losers on all sides. The biggest loser will be democracy. There is therefore no reason for celebrations, except maybe for the fact, that despite the worn-out legal battles over poll results, the relative political stability of our country has never been at risk. Namibia is not Zimbabwe, Tunisia, Egypt or Libya. The time is not up for the political elite of the day, and the expiry date for those in government is not yet in sight. This is a precious asset we have to use as the most important investment in strengthening a vibrant democratic culture, which takes all on board as Namibians and proud of it.

What Namibia needs foremost is a thorough reform of the agency tasked to institutionalise, administer and execute proper democratic elections based on transparent practices. Namibians also need the comfort of mind to have political parties which do not abuse their influence and power over running the state of affairs through undue interference in the professional execution of such elections. We cannot afford to leave substantial democratic procedures in the hands of political pawns or opportunist, incompetent officials rendering a disservice to the nation and its political culture. We cannot afford to provide opposition parties and voters even the slightest doubt in the credibility of the electoral process and result. The mere fact that they had a case sufficiently justified to result in such lengthy legal wrangling is toxic for any trust in our political system.

Despite all the hiccups denting the image of our political system, Namibia’s democracy is bruised but not battered. It has so far survived, if only because the one-party dominance has, despite challenges, not yet been decisively in danger by dissenting political forces. But democracy cannot have a sustainable long-term future if it is dependent upon one hegemonic political player who pays lip service to democracy as long as it does not collide with its own claims for absolute dominance. It is easy to recognise democracy while the political culture displays authoritarian tendencies and the rules of the game are considered to be the party’s affair.

In contrast, the political programme of 1991 postulated, ‘To organize the people to demand for accountability from their elected representatives and to defend their hard-won democratic rights and liberties against any threat from whatever quarters’. As loyal citizens and supporters of the government, we should take this seriously and also challenge the party in political control, if it does not pursue the implementation of such defined noble responsibilities. The real litmus test for Namibia’s maturity will be how those in political control executing the power of definition over socio-political affairs in the country will respond to any meaningful challenges of their rule.

While once upon a time the people of one of Africa’s last colonies achieved the fruit of their long and bitter sacrifices in their struggle for Independence, they did not really live happily ever after. Namibia is blessed with relative peace and stability but far from being what some of us had expected in terms of turning the project of liberation into emancipation for most if not all. Reality is not a fairy tale. It requires a daily commitment to and struggle for justice, human decency and civil rights, liberty and equality rooted in the material wellbeing of all instead of only a few. This struggle requires engagement as a daily civic duty by the people, for the people. Independence is not the end of history. We therefore should pursue actively further the agenda expressed in the motto that the struggle continues.


* Dr Henning Melber is executive director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala, Sweden. The son of German immigrants, he joined SWAPO (South-West African People’s Organisation) in 1974. After independence he returned from exile as director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (1992–2000).
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