It was not with routine interest that I opened a copy of the book volume on “Transitions in Namibia”. This year has towards its end brought visible efforts to redirect the way Namibia is going politically, and thus redirect the lives of Namibians. The recent congress of the ruling SWAPO Party made important decisions, that were already in advance challenged by a new party formed by people with a background of the very core of SWAPO for the last three decades. We do not know what happens with ...read more
It was not with routine interest that I opened a copy of the book volume on “Transitions in Namibia”. This year has towards its end brought visible efforts to redirect the way Namibia is going politically, and thus redirect the lives of Namibians. The recent congress of the ruling SWAPO Party made important decisions, that were already in advance challenged by a new party formed by people with a background of the very core of SWAPO for the last three decades. We do not know what happens with the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP). Will it experience the same as the Congress of Democrats, founded less than ten years ago, or will it be able to create enough support to really influence the way Namibia is developing? I would simplify the choices as either following the Zimbabwe way to disaster, or to find another, essentially more democratic and economically just and viable way of development.
Every analysis is based on history. I have found by experience that the government of Namibia is not really interested in history at all. They want something, which Chris Saunders calls “patriotic history”. The idea is to produce “the one and only” history. The right one, giving the only truth of what has taken place. It is almost written already. Sam Nujoma has published a book called “Where Others Wavered”, which aims to enshrine armed struggle as the decisive factor in bringing freedom and independence. As Saunders points out, the aim is to cement the arm of exile leaders in the present and coming power struggles in the power struggle establishing “liberation credentials” and labelling deviating opinions as unpatriotic and imperialist.
In writing about the centrally important issue of land, Phanuel Kaapama discusses also the surprising way SWAPO turned its coat from a quite rigid soviet version of socialism to all out capitalism just before the 435-process commenced at the end of the 1980’s. I do not question the wisdom of Hidipo Hamutenya, when he said in 1990: “democratisation of Namibian society was necessary before the process of socialist transformation could commence”. But contrary to what happened in South Africa, there was almost no public discussion whatsoever on this tremendous change of basic political line. Even the labour leaders adopted with little resistance a so-called “social partnership”.
Namibian leaders have repeatedly expressed their admiration of the Zimbabwean land distribution policies. I do not believe, however, that Namibia will in this question follow the disastrous footsteps. The government knows well the experience of the couple of hundred farms which have been bought by state or individuals through Affirmative Action Loan Scheme. The experience shows how all important is the professional competence of the new farmers. Instead of becoming prosperous, new farmers have impoverished and become dependent of continuous government support for survival. Some have found paid work in neighbouring farms. Some owners have rented the farm back to the previous owner. Without training and slowly accumulating expertise farms do not produce the expected returns. In this issue, Mr Kaapama is somewhat too optimistic, I suspect, in indicating that the experience gained in the communal areas is broadly sufficient for the task.
As a trade unionist, I was particularly interested to read Herbert Jauch’s account on labour policies. The Labour Research and Resource Institute, LaRRI, which would not exist without Jauch’s initiative and commitment, has produced invaluable analysis and data for trade unions and the general public. I remember in 1987 having to defend in a United Nations workshop in Lusaka the idea of a highest pay differential of 1:10 in the independent Namibia. It is about the actual situation in the Nordic countries. SWAPO leaders present said that they cannot accept such a large differential. Today the difference between the national minimum wage of a Ramatex worker’s salary, relates to the pay of managers in the civil service to something like 1 to 50, and more than 1 to 100 for managers of parastatals.
The Namibian elite wants to earn as much as their peers in USA and Europe, although the carrying capacity of the economy and productivity of work does not warrant it. It does not leave much money for anything else, especially when the civil service is relatively large. In his chapter on the new black Namibian elite, Henning Melber shows this in figures: the top 20% earn almost 80% of all income: “Independence did not produce a national bourgeoisie, but a crypto-capitalist self-enriching elite, which expends its energy on exploiting the public purse, a truly parasitic class.“
A long time issue in the labour movement in Namibia is the affiliation of the largest trade union federation NUNW to the ruling party. Just as has been argued, it has led to stagnation of efforts to defend the rights of workers. It has also led to spreading the internal struggles of SWAPO inside the NUNW. It has gone very far and contributed to an erosion of understanding of where the labour leaders belong. It is quite astonishing to read that trade union leaders have accepted board and management positions in private and parastatal enterprises. This way they adopt neo-liberal policies and with that, the NUNW loses its mass base, as Jauch states.
Logically enough, workers have had to take their mass power into their own hands and away from their compromised leaders. Volker Winterfeldt gives a very good account of what happened in the biggest single employer in Namibia, the Ramatex textile factory. Fed up with the stagnant wages, four years of inaction by their trade union and constant exposure to bullying by the management and the government, workers voted for strike. Surprisingly easily, after three days, they won a raise almost doubling their income and benefits. In a neo-liberal economy Ramatex has been able to exploit the opportunities offered by the Namibian state and its Asian and Namibian employees to an extent Karl Marx could vividly describe in his book The Capital. - And in addition to pollute the ground water.
On my latest visit to Namibia a year ago I was really astonished of the impressive Chinese presence in the country. In a very few years Chinatowns have emerged, bringing construction, shopping areas, investment for energy production. Obviously this has happened with the full consent of the government, tenders have been won, work permits and retail shop licences have been granted. Gregor Dobler has taken the trouble of finding out how the process works, including bribing the decision makers. The cost of a work permit is between 20,000 to 100,000 Namibian Dollars.
Dobler’s work is admirable. It came into my mind that the political system in China could be the ideal in the eyes of the present government of Namibia: One party in absolute power, enjoying the fruits of a free-wheeling capitalism, no real trade unions or effective opposition. - Preferably, no critical media either.
Lalli Metsola describes and analyses the situation of ex-combatants. It certainly deserves research. It is a rather safe prediction to say that the newest definition by the ministry of a war veteran will cause endless controversy and court processes. Even I myself qualify as a war veteran, according to the definition. Lalli Metsola describes the fate of the former SWATF/Koevoet members as being still pariahs. They are out from war-veteran definition because they were not members of liberation forces. On the other hand, it will be problematic to draw lines between those who have been in exile, but participated in different activities. Lots to do for lawyers, I bet.
Mattia Fumati is afraid of the vision of youth in uniform coming from Zimbabwe style training camps, marching before the President chanting SWAPO songs. We have seen it in Europe before. On the lighter side, he describes accurately the activities of the Shinyewile club in Rundu. The aspiring young elite organises activities that depict their capabilities as future leaders, taking care not to offend the present ones, although mocking them softly. And the club is the best way to have a good time together.
Wolfgand Zeller and Bennet Kangumu Kangumu have dug deep into the strange geography of the Caprivi strip, with which its problems are intimately bound. The separateness and particular identities have not given the Caprivi region and its people much chance to live common history with the rest of Namibia. The old modus vivendi between the Mafwe and Subia and their associates was shattered by the new power relations in independent Namibia. But now, with the construction of the Trans-Caprivi Corridor with bridges over Zambezi a real common blood vein has been established and with it, new economic and political structures may emerge.
Graham Hopwood explores the problems encountered in the effort to create a regional level of administration between central government and local authorities. Regional structures carry a bias from the Bantustan era. The central authorities are also otherwise reluctant to give away power from their own hands. On the other hand, administrative capacity to handle coordinating functions and especially accounting seems to be lacking. As a consequence progress to really delegate tasks to regional level has been slow, in spite of public pronouncements of intentions.
The book has a very strong gender equality tendency. It ends with three weighty analyses of where Namibia stands now in this important respect. Dianne Hubbard goes through the most important gender-related legislation and shows in detail, how traditions and opinions have found expression in the laws. She shows the difficulty in applying Western juridical concepts in another cultural environment. As an example we can mention parental leave, which is not really at home in Namibians social structures.
Lucy Edwards looks into the HIV/AIDS disaster from the female perspective and argues powerfully how it is linked to inequalities and gender relations. It was a surprise for me to read that only 13.4 % of Namibians are formally married and together with cohabiting 15.5% this kind of couples make up only 29%. The figures ridicule an effort to control HIV/AIDS through restricting sex life inside marriage.
Suzanne LaFont describes the real, rather promiscuous, sexual behaviour in Namibia. It is actually the tradition.
The legislation believes, however, that female sexuality needs to be contained and, if possible, controlled. Among lawmakers reverence of tradition and nostalgia compete with politically correct gender equality. Political corrected does not weigh much in the speeches of Sam Nujoma, who threatened homophiles with arrest, deportation and imprisonment, all illegal threats. Suzanne LaFont notes, however, that the HIV-pandemic has forced a discussion on sexuality, which would otherwise not be happening.
Now, as much as ever, we need to understand what is going on in Namibia. This book is therefore timely, clearly written for giving us tools for analysis today. I commend its editor for recruiting top-level researchers contributing to this book, and for his further commitment to the ongoing task.
Henning Melber (ed.), Transitions in Namibia. Which changes for whom? Uppsala. The Nordic Africa Institute 2007.
* Pekka Peltola lives in Helsinki/Finland. He is a long-standing trade union activist, who worked years in support of SWAPO in exile in Cuanza Sul and elsewhere. He published a PhD thesis on the Namibian trade union movement (“The Lost May Day”) in 1995 and together with Iina Soiri (in 1999) the book : “Finland and the Liberation of Southern Africa”.