Namibia 25 years on: What happened to our dreams?

By Henning Melber

[April 9, 2015 -- The following article appeared in the Namibian newspaper’s March 21, 2015, 25th independence anniversary supplement. Henning Melber joined the South-West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) in 1974. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Melber’s permission.]

In Namibia … we are clear … No exploitation of man by man. That will not be allowed here – Namibia’s President Sam Nujoma in an interview in a Namibia special report of the New African magazine in 2003.

We Africans fought against colonialism and imperialism and successfully overthrew colonialism and white minority rule to achieve genuine social and economic emancipation -- founding father Sam Nujoma in his opening address to the congress of the SWAPO Party Youth League, August 17, 2007.

“We must take time”, urged SWAPO president Sam Nujoma in the 2007 speech to the party’s Youth League congress, “to consider where we have come from as party and country, where we are today and where we would like to be as a nation”. After a quarter of a century into the sovereign Republic of Namibia, this time to take stock is more than justified.

I remember…

When the final election results were announced in November 1989, the anxiety was replaced by an outburst of relief and euphoria. The good scores by the [pro-apartheid] Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) in the less densely populated regions initially created some uncertainty and worries. Then came the results from the north and we knew, that indeed “SWAPO is the people and the people are SWAPO” – at least in its home base with the majority of the country’s population, that is.

We were dancing in what was then still Kaiser Street, strangers were hugging each other, toyi-toying and singing liberation songs, observed by international journalists and under the weary eyes of helpless police ill at ease. We celebrated a new beginning. Full of hope, we trusted that the future could only be good. That we would leave behind discrimination, exploitation, disrespect, inhumanity, intolerance, injustice, and build a society based on all we associated with liberation. We understood emancipation as a deliberate effort bringing to life the catchwords in our slogan “Solidarity, Freedom, Justice” – which, by the way, remains the welcoming motto when opening SWAPO’s web site. But who were “we”, and what happened to the slogan in reality?

Solidarity, freedom, justice

Activists in the South African labour movement once popularised, that “an injury to one is an injury to all”. When the Namibian flag was hoisted in the first minutes of March 21, 1990, to the tune of a national anthem, some of us in the stadium believed that we will live up to this claim. Maybe we could have been warned when witnessing earlier the evening how Sam Nujoma, hand in hand with Werner List, entered the SKW hall (then still at what was Tal Street where nowadays stands a grocery market) for the festive banquet with dignitaries. List, a local tycoon, had sponsored generously part of the festivities. Only a few months earlier his South West Breweries (renamed Namibia Breweries after independence, and removing the silhouette of the equestrian monument as logo to adjust to the change of times – patriotism for the sake of business) had sacked hundreds of workers who were on strike in protest against unacceptable working conditions. Maybe we should have seen the writing on the wall?

Since then, words like fat cats and tenderpreneurs as well as sight holders (instead of right holders) have entered the Namibian vocabulary. Behind the steering wheels of the Bentley and Maserati culture sit the nouveau riche. Those parading the wealth amassed are not white racists sucking the blood of the exploited (not that they have ceased to exist, but they are far less visible in the public sphere). They are a new generation of parasitic gamblers. As “previously disadvantaged” they turn public assets into private wealth. And the farm worker chained to a tree only a few weeks ago was not humiliated and tortured by a white farmer (though not all of them have turned into decent employers). His baas was a black public servant.

Those locked away since 15 years behind bars accused of high treason without a verdict were not the victims of the apartheid regime and its laws, which allowed political prisoners to be held in custody for unlimited times. More among these have died in prison without being found guilty than all victims during the misguided Caprivi secessionist rebellion itself. Namibian realities are a far cry from justice in almost every aspect.

A member of parliament’s salary (fringe benefits included) is up to the 120-fold the monthly old-age pension. But the Honourables complain that this falls short of making ends meet. They feel treated like pariahs, and insinuate that the real pariahs should accept that they as representatives of the people have to be adequately compensated for the sacrifices in office and during the struggle days.

I wonder…

Was the “we” I used at the beginning not truly a collective desire by most Namibians? Was it only a handful of us, who thought “we” would spend our energy our passion and determination on the transformation of Namibian society for the benefit of most if not all? That solidarity, freedom and justice would go beyond individual civil liberties and political rights and translate into material wellbeing too? Was “One Namibia, One Nation” not a slogan that propagated unity of purpose in decisively reducing the divide between people?

Twenty-five years later such dreams appear to have been naïve. Some of those “liberated” even say that life under apartheid was not worse.

But despite all disappointments the struggle for human dignity achieved a lot. Colonial repression has not been replaced by a similar inhuman regime. However, that people express their frustration in such statements is tantamount to an ultimate defeat of our ideals. We clearly have not even remotely lived up to what these promised.

So, have we achieved enough to celebrate? For some among us, our dreams remained wishful thinking. Namibia is a far cry from living up to the values of solidarity, freedom and justice. We still have a long way to go.

And maybe that is another meaning of the slogan a luta continua. It had translated into “the looting continues”, but should actually remind us that the struggle continues. A struggle led by other means, but in pursuance of the same values and goals for which we once decided to fight a racist minority regime based on injustice.

[Henning Melber joined the South-West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO) in 1974. He was director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU), research director of the Nordic Africa Institute and executive director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, both in Uppsala/Sweden, and is extraordinary professor at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. His book, Understanding Namibia: The trials of independence, was published in late 2014.]