Namibia: SWAPO wins presidency with 86% vote but grassroots frustration mounts

By Henning Melber

December 8, 2014 -- Nordic Africa Institute, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- On November 28, 2014, close to 900,000 Namibians of a registered electorate of some 1.2 million (a bit more than half of Namibia’s total population, estimated at 2.3 million) voted in the country’s fifth parliamentary and presidential elections since independence.

The result was predictable, though the dimensions of the overwhelming dominance of the former liberation movement SWAPO (South West Africa People's Organisation) did surprise. While SWAPO secured in every election since 1994 well above a two-thirds majority, this time the result crossed the 80% mark. The party’s presidential candidate Hage Geingob topped this by a whopping 86%.

Not that SWAPO was uncontested. Another 15 political parties campaigned for votes. Nine of these managed to secure 19 out of the 96 seats in the National Assembly for the next five-year legislative period, which starts on Independence Day on March 21, 2015. This opposition is more divided than ever before and underlines its weakness.

President-elect Geingob, who also takes office on March 21, 2015, scored bigger than his predecessors Sam Nujoma and Hifikepunye Pohamba against eight other contenders from the minority parties. More than ever, Namibia’s political sphere will be the arena of a one-party dominance. This translates the slogan from the struggle days that "SWAPO is the nation and the nation is SWAPO" into the dominant if not exclusive political culture.

Undemocratic democracy

A question, which unfortunately cannot be reliably answered, is the extent to which parts of the Namibian electorate refused to vote. Over-ambitiously, the Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) had decided to use electronic voting machines, the first African country to do so in a general election.

This not only provoked suspicions that these could be manipulated, it also resulted in an embarrassing logistical and technological disaster. Reportedly, thousands of voters were unable to participate in the elections due to various hiccups, despite often queuing for most of election day if not longer (some polling stations remained open until the next morning while voters waited throughout the night).

A considerable number of Namibians were denied their fundamental right to make a choice, which actually casts a shadow on the label democratic. While this might have not decisively affected the outcome, it makes it impossible to assess how many among the registered voters made a political decision not to vote.

Voters’ participation around 72% seems high, but is actually low in comparison with previous parliamentary and presidential elections. If and to what extent this might be a warning signal, that in the absence of any meaningful and credible political alternatives part of the electorate decided to stay at home, will remain a matter of speculation.

President Geingob will on Independence Day 2015 – March 21 – move into State House with even more executive powers than his predecessors. In late August 2014, the National Assembly adopted, with the SWAPO majority against the opposition, not only the new electoral law endorsing the use of electronic voting machines – it is noteworthy that the law stipulates that a paper trail is required to visibly confirm for the voter the choice s/he made – only to realise afterwards that it was impossible to comply with the law in the absence of a tested technology allowing to do so.

It also voted for far-reaching constitutional amendments, which consolidated party control over state affairs even further. They add to the power of an already strong executive president. Namibia’s de facto one-party democracy will now be even closer to a one-person democracy, depending upon the degree to which the office holder is willing to use – or abuse – presidential powers.

Already now the signs of democratic authoritarianism suggest that while the country fulfills all the formal criteria of a democracy (multi-party state, regular elections, democratic constitutional principles, civil liberties and a fairly independent judiciary, combined with independent media and a freedom of speech), there is no level playing field.

While observers testify to free and fair elections, at least the term fair seems to be a relative if not dubious category. The only party having an efficient machinery and financial means (not least through massive donations from a private sector, which benefits from business with government and state) can mobilise accordingly. The equation that the party is the government and the government is the state is a powerful formula, which also keeps the electorate at bay.

Evidence of the unfair practices within such an environment was among others that SWAPO bought considerable time from the state-owned Namibian Broadcasting Company (NBC) to transmit its final political star rally live via TV – as if a public broadcaster can be hired by political parties.

Self-enrichment of a tiny elite

But business as usual remains a risky endeavour. Protest at the grassroots is visibly growing over the abuse of power for self-enrichment of a tiny elite in government and state offices as well as the private sector linked to the party machinery by political or family connections (the terms "fat cats" and "tenderpreneurs" are common slang and have anything but positive connotations).

The massive social inequalities have hardly been reduced since independence. Rather, next to the old elite who benefitted from the apartheid minority regime, a new elite has emerged whose members prosper as a result of SWAPO’s selectively applied "affirmative action" (an euphemism for clientele relations of a patrimonial system). While political power changed, the class structure became only modified (and to some extent "de-racialised"), but not challenged in principle.

SWAPO’s slogan from the struggle days, "Solidarity, Freedom, Justice" (note the absence of equality) remained, after the seizure of political power, a hollow reminder of earlier days.

Meanwhile, confronted with the increased and unashamedly greedy self-enrichment of the new elite, frustration over the lack of delivery and hence the dismal failure to live up to the promises associated with independence is growing among the ordinary people as well as in parts of the younger generation, including those politically active in SWAPO.

The party has also never been free of internal rivalries and factions, also fueled by ethnic and inner-ethnic power struggles. After all, given its dominance and control over the political and administrative spheres of society, the access to power and thereby to the troughs needs to be go through the party machinery.

When moving into office, President Geingob has not an easy task. At 73 years of age he might be the last of the first generation to hold the highest office. He joined the anti-colonial organisation during its founding days and was in exile for more than a quarter of a century.

While celebrated as a unifier (he is the first president to be who does not come from the dominant Ovambo-speaking population group from the northern region, which might explain the additional votes from other population groups), he has a lot on his checklist to achieve this goal.

Given the overwhelming majority secured by the party and the personal power vested in his office, it remains to be seen to what extent he translates political success into a success story for the Namibians.

[Henning Melber joined SWAPO in 1974. He headed the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit 1992-2000. His book Understanding Namibia. The Trials of Independence has just been published with Hurst (London) and Jacana (Auckland Park). He is senior advisor at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation and of the Nordic Africa Institute, extraordinary professor of political sciences at the University of Pretoria and the Centre for Africa Studies, University of the Free State in Bloemfontein.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 12/12/2014 - 13:27


By Shaun Whittaker

December 11, 2014, Pambazuka News, Issue 706

At first glance, the outcome of the recent Namibian general elections represents a great victory for the ruling South-West African People’s Organisation (Swapo). However, after observing the festivities of Swapo supporters subsequent to the elections of the 28th of November, 2014, a well-known Namibian journalist tweeted that these followers were celebrating today only to be begging in the streets again tomorrow. Swapo increased its votes from 74 percent (2009) to 80 percent, the highest it ever got, as it continues to bask in the glow of having liberated the country from colonialism. Yet, this increasing popularity of Swapo does not make intuitive sense in a situation of ever-worsening socio-economic conditions and massive corruption. So how should this contradiction be understood?

For the first time, the country made use of electronic voting machines (EVM), but it still took three days to announce the poll results of 900,000 voters. And the outcome was impossible to verify as the EVMs, which have been rejected by several countries, leave no paper trail, while the corroborating process conducted by the Electoral Commission of Namibia remained undisclosed. The EVMs experienced a myriad of technical problems during the elections, while mobile polling stations neglected to show up at 77 sites. Adding to the intrigue, the Coordinator of Information Technology at the electoral commission is the chairperson of a Swapo branch in Windhoek. All this undoubtedly casts serious doubts on the credibility of the elections. And against the background of the 2009 national elections, when the end results were challenged by the opposition parties but thrown out by the Namibian Supreme Court due to a minor technicality, the question marks will continue to hang over these election outcomes.

Nonetheless, the electoral triumph only temporarily conceals an organic crisis in Swapo as the organisation was in the process of fracturing prior to the balloting. Due to intense factional enmity, especially between the older and younger generations over entry into State resources, about half of the members picked at the Swapo Electoral College were relatively unknown youth, while those from the old guard were shoved far down the parliamentary list. All four candidates of the foremost trade union federation, the National Union of Namibian Workers, did not make it onto the parliamentary list which reveals the comprehensive loss of power of the trade union movement that is in an alliance with Swapo. Then again, the landslide win of Swapo not only ensures that many of the older cadres retain their parliamentary seats, but also maintains, for now, some level of harmony in the political party.

Concurrently, the rival organisations cannot match Swapo’s resources and its total dominance of the national television channel and radio stations, from which most Namibians obtain their information. In addition to having unfettered access to State assets, the Swapo leadership has consistently over the years terminated television and radio programs that are too critical of the party. In one incident, a Swapo councillor assaulted, in a radio studio of the national broadcaster, a presenter who happened to be a central committee member of the then main opposition party, the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP). All this makes a wide-ranging dialogue about alternate ideas an exceedingly onerous task in that society. Regrettably, after 100 years of colonialism, there is no viable left-wing alternative in a country characterised by a disconcertingly conservative mass consciousness.

Several of the opposition parties, that is, the RDP, the Congress of Democrats (COD) and the All People’s Party (APP), were led by former Swapo members who quit the ruling party due to its autocratic culture. Though their political programs do not diverge from that of Swapo, the RDP, for instance, espoused in its manifesto a free market system and upheld the strengthening of English as medium of instruction despite the deep-seated education disaster created by this.

The just-elected primary opposition party is the previous colonial party, the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA), which has a significant resource base but lacks political credibility. This outfit, which is considering a name change in order to shake off its colonial baggage, won only 5 seats compared to Swapo’s 77 seats in the National Assembly. The other previous national liberation movement, the South-West African National Union (Swanu), is undoubtedly waning and was fortunate to garner one seat through the surplus votes system. The prominent ex-president of Swanu, Vekuii Rukoro, of late became embroiled in a tussle over a tribal chieftaincy. The Namibia Economic Freedom Fighters (NEFF), a party of homophobia and xenophobia, flopped and could not secure a single seat.

As a first, a tiny left-wing party, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP), which formed an electoral pact with the Communist Party (CP), acquired two seats in the National Assembly. What was different about this election for the WRP was that its political base shifted completely as almost its entire parliamentary list, actually drawn up by the CP, consisted of ex-members of the colonial army, the South-West African Territorial Force (SWATF), and Koevoet, a special counter-insurgency police unit during colonial occupation. So, the parliamentary seats will be taken up by figureheads of the former SWATF/Koevoet who have felt aggrieved about pension pay-outs blocked by the Swapo government.

Possibly not expecting to attain seats, both leaders of the WRP and CP were absent from the parliamentary list and no prior discussions were held with parliamentary candidates about the right to recall and only earning the average income of a worker from the lucrative seat, with the rest going to the organisation. Winning two seats covers up the fact that the WRP and CP will in the longer term pay a heavy price, ideologically and organisationally, for this tactical blunder of drawing in former militarist elements that are spurned by the majority of the Namibian working class. Unfortunately, the miniscule left-wing parties abandoned their ideological direction long ago due to their conflation of ethnocentrism and the right of nations to self-determination. After all, the left-wing should be able to differentiate between, on the one hand, building national unity and, on the other hand, identifying genuine social forces that could bring about a fundamental social transformation.

Swapo, if truth be told, has never been a socialist or Marxist organisation, but was since its inception an organisation of conservative Pan-Africanism. It had an ineffectual armed struggle as the older leadership seemed to be more concerned about being surpassed by the militant younger generation of the 1971 general strike, the key turning point in the anti-colonial struggle of Namibia. And, following the stalemate of the battle for Cuito Cuanavale, which was all about defending Angola, Swapo was compelled to accept a limited decolonisation with serious compromises that kept the wealth in the hands of the former colonisers while simultaneously agreeing to the implementation of neoliberal economic policies.

What is often overlooked is that the political independence of Namibia came about through a negotiated settlement with Swapo not even being present at the negotiating table. So, compromise was dressed up as victory. Behind the smokescreen of national reconciliation, issues of social inequality have been deliberately glossed over by Swapo elites, who have been self-congratulatory about the alleged peace and stability in the country. This, of course, is disproven by the increasing militarisation in that society. Besides several military bases from the colonial era, the Swapo government is in the process of constructing five new army bases for a population of two million people.

The previous editor of The Namibian newspaper, Gwen Lister, in her weekly column, not long ago accused Swapo of not having kept true to most of the national liberation promises since political independence. She writes: ‘In the consolidation of power accompanied by rising levels of greed and entitlement over the years, leaders have become arrogant and complacent and out of touch with the people’. Regarding the rest of the political parties, Lister refers to ‘… the plethora of mainly unimpressive opposition parties’. The situation is that these rival groups vie with Swapo on the basis of centre-right policies and the promise of less corruption, but are wholly tongue-tied about neo-liberalism and fundamental socio-economic issues.

This is truly astonishing given the state of affairs that Namibia, after South Africa, has the highest level of inequality in the world. Sixty percent of Namibian households live on an income of 1,000 Namibian dollars [1,000 South African rands or about 100 US dollars] a month or less, while only 1.2 percent of households earn more than 10,000 Namibian dollars [about 1,000 US dollars] per month. An estimated 25 percent of the Namibian population reside in informal settlements. Moreover, Namibia has the second highest house-price inflation in the world. A recent survey showed an inflation rise of 29 percent every year, second only to Dubai. And less than 10 percent of households can afford a property in the lower range

Namibia inherited a branch-type economy and imports virtually everything from the former coloniser, South Africa. No significant manufacturing takes place inside the social formation and the economy is largely based on mineral extraction. With the latest Husab uranium mine, Namibia will become the second largest uranium producer on the globe, once again confirming the enormous mineral wealth in that society. However, the Namibian working people hardly benefit from this as can be seen, for instance, in the fact that the country’s oldest uranium mine, Rossing Uranium, which has been operating there since the 1970s, only started paying royalties to the government from 2006. Perhaps this shows the extent to which the Swapo government is in the pocket of the multinational corporations (and, generally, finance capital).

The lesson for the working people of Namibia from the 2014 general election is, once again, that liberal democratic balloting is undoubtedly not some neutral event; it reflects power relations at that juncture and serves as camouflage for social inequality. Voting in such elections does not translate into food, jobs and houses for the working class. In fact, the working people will have to prioritise building a grassroots democracy through community organisations, workers’ committees, feminist formations, radical study groups, etc.

Lastly, one of Namibia’s discerning public intellectuals, Ndumba Kamwanyah, maintains that: ‘There is also the reality that almost half of our population depends on wells for their drinking water; their daily diet consists mainly of grain; and their cooking is done on wood fire… We cannot ignore the growing evidence that a plague of catastrophic proportions is looming. Time is running out.’ A week before the latest elections, at least 3,000 young people, mainly Swapo members, demonstrated in front of the Swapo-controlled Windhoek municipality against the unaffordable housing prices. The Affirmative Repositioning group handed in 14,000 applications for plots and gave the municipality until July 2015 to respond. What should be of great concern to the elite is that the same discontent can be found in informal settlements throughout the country. Of course, the restlessness of the youth about the explosive housing/land question is sooner or later going to be trailed by that of the working people. So, despite having won the national elections, is time indeed running out for the Swapo elite?

* Shaun Whittaker is with the Marxist Study Group of Namibia and was a member of the Workers' Organisation for Socialist Action (South Africa).