The Namibian elite, working in cahoots with their foreign capitalist allies, has since independence concentrated on state building. The people need a new consciousness to engage in a struggle for nation building.
The appropriate starting point for this discussion is to ask what a ‘nation’ is. What is meant with this concept? The classical Marxist definition of ‘nation,’ which was widely accepted at the time, stated: ‘A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.’
With regards to this definition, there are several issues to be raised. It should be kept in mind that this definition was formulated in the context of the rise of capitalism in Western Europe. And the epoch of the rise of capitalism ended with World War I. However, unlike Europe, there has never been a bourgeois democratic revolution in Namibia. In other words, tribal and feudal relations have never been overthrown. Capitalism was developed on top of tribal and feudal structures in this country, which makes it easier for the ruling elite to divide the working class and for ruling elite ideology to thrive. The capitalist system in industrialized nations was constructed in the context of the ideology of individual freedom, while capitalism here was built in a situation of racial, ethnic and tribal ideology. And this is the main issue to be considered in terms of this approach to the national question simply because of its massive potential to divide the working class and to catapult Namibia into another Rwanda or Yugoslavia. Marx was adamant about the working class not being loyal to any country, but that every working class must deal with its own ruling elite.
The classical Marxist definition stated unequivocally that ‘nation’ is not synonymous with tribe or racial group. This clarification is crucial in Namibia so that the people do not confuse ‘nation’ and ‘tribe’. The definition appropriately stated that ‘a nation is not a racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people.’
It should also be noted that the definition does not mention social class, colonialism or imperialism, which is a fatal weakness. Of course, Namibians live in a context of imperialist domination, not a rising capitalism. This is why the national question would remain relevant as long as imperialism exists since that system generates monstrous social inequality and consequently the ability to divide the working class. It is understood that social inequality in this country is linked to imperialism and that Namibians share a common experience of exploitation.
The contemporary debates around the classical definition of ‘nation’ centered on language. However, the Left in this part of the world rejected the classical Marxist definition decades ago already and developed a Leninist approach in which multilingualism and multiculturalism are essential elements. A leader of the Workers’ Organization for Socialist Action, Neville Alexander, argued in An Ordinary Country (2002) that: “…in the post-war African context, the word ‘nation’ is, and should continue to be used in order to denote the population that resides within a given independent state.’
There exists a highly dangerous and erroneous perception in Namibia that only Oshiwambo-speaking people benefit from the political independence of the country. This is unfortunately a very strong perception and should be addressed because it contains so many dangers and represents the road to another Rwanda or Angola if the people are not vigilant. Due to various historical reasons, the Namibian ruling class consists of a large number of Oshiwambo-speaking people. At the same time, however, the Namibian left-wing should be reminded that the majority of the Namibian working class also speaks this language. This is obviously a vital section of the working class that the Left have to win over. And, in any case, it should be emphasized that any language group is not frozen in time. One solution to tribalism in Namibia might be to harmonize or re-standardize all the dialects. This would make a huge difference in overcoming tribalism.
It is vital to put the historical record straight and to place this unacceptable perception about Oshiwambo-speaking Namibians in context. For this, an objective analysis of the Namibians situation is required. The wealth of Namibia is primarily owned by multi-national companies like Anglo-American Corporation. This is the real face of capitalism in the country.
Social inequality in Namibia is by and large manifested in racial terms. Due to colonialism, so-called white Namibians remain the wealthiest section of the nation. However, the Left should attempt to win over the ‘white’ working- and lower-middle classes to the anti-capitalist struggle. There is simply no debate about the fact that this struggle must be non-racial in character.
The main task of the Namibian ruling elite has been to further integrate the local economy into the global capitalist system; they act as intermediaries between imperialism and the nation. State-building is a priority to them. If anything, the neo-liberal state is unashamedly on the side of finance capitalism to the detriment of the nation; this right-wing authoritarianism is leading to increasing social fragmentation and an increase in tribalism and racism should therefore be expected.
The ruling elite have put in place a network of patronage that consists of all language groups in the country. This is the real context of Black Economic Empowerment, the elitist Pan-Africanism, veteran pensions, etc. In reality, only politically-connected individuals benefit from this process and this makes it impossible for the ruling elite to represent the interests of the entire nation. This is why bourgeois nationalism is so limited. In referring to this elitist nationalism, in fact, the Tanzanian Marxist, Issa Shivji, acknowledged: ‘So the National Question remains unresolved. Nation-building turns into state-building. Nation is substituted by party and party by leader, the father of the nation.’
The Namibian elite are incapable of building national unity and the left-wing should contest their bourgeois nationalism. The nation-building campaign by the Ministry of Information called ‘My Namibia My Country My Pride’ is an example of such a subjective and a-political approach. Ironically, this is the same Ministry which is responsible for the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation where workers went on strike for better wages in mid-August and took television and radio off the air. The Namibian ruling elite also often argue that the nation is characterized by peace and stability since it is in their interest that the capitalist economy functions well. At the same time, of course, a class struggle is raging against the working class. So the elite really refer to peace and stability amongst themselves.
Although the Namibian working class – including the urban and rural workers – is in the majority, the country has a relatively small proletariat. In fact, the country has a widely-dispersed industrial working class in mining, quarrying, manufacturing in beverages, meat products and fish processing, etc. However, given the position of the proletariat in the process of production, it remains the most revolutionary force even in a non-industrialized society. The nation is also characterized by a large ‘peasantry’ or rural working class which consists of a mass of farm workers and small-scale communal farmers. Of course, this mass also suffers tremendous hardship but is limited in terms of revolutionary consciousness. The Left should be mindful that a sizable percentage of the working people – essentially lower middle-class – is employed by the Namibian state and without a doubt should be drawn into the anti-capitalist struggle.
A point emphasized in Cabral’s writings is that, in a non-industrialized society, the revolutionary middle class elements should play a leading role in struggle. So the urban and rural working classes and the revolutionary middle class elements should join together to engage in struggle and to build the nation.
It is vital to debate arguments against the Leninist approach to the national question:
1. Internationalism. What is the nature of this internationalism? A Marxist approach is never dogmatic and should question everything. Neville Alexander often referred to the hub-and-spokes model of internationalism that exists today, namely, the situation of a hub somewhere in a far-away city while we become the spokes. And in terms of practical politics it is impossible for the ‘hub’ to understand the politics on the ground and for the ‘spoke’ to be guided from far away. The point of departure should be that left-wing people must struggle from below, in other words, to engage in struggle first where they find themselves. A genuine internationalism should be equal, mutually respectful and should be willing to learn from others in a spirit of solidarity.
2. Nationalism as false consciousness. The Left cannot simply brush aside mass consciousness. Any practical politics should start with where mass consciousness is at that juncture. There is only a false consciousness in the sense that it refers to consciousness other than class consciousness. Of course, the challenge for the left-wing is to promote a proletarian mass consciousness that should become hegemonic within all social layers of the nation. But there is no pure mass consciousness, let alone an untainted class consciousness.
3. Another argument against this approach to the national question is that the national boundaries of African nations were drawn up arbitrarily at the Berlin Conference in 1884 and should therefore be rejected. However, this line of reasoning conveniently forgets that all national boundaries in the world, even of imperialist countries, were artificially determined.
Finally, the Left should struggle to realize the hegemonic position of the working class within the Namibian nation. This would ensure working class unity. A Leninist understanding of ‘nation’ serves the interests of the working class. After all, the slogan of ‘One Namibia One Nation’ remains relevant to the socialist struggle in post-colonial Namibia.
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* This article is a summary of a paper presented at the 1st Conference ‘Towards Socialist Action’ held in Windhoek, 21-22 September 2012. Shaun Whittaker is a member of the Marxist Study Group (MSG) that organized the conference. The conference was dedicated to the memory of Neville Alexander. MSG can be contacted at [email protected]