Inside the House Namibia Built: Open Windows and a breath of fresh air
Just a quarter-century ago, Namibia was only, and frequently, in the news for conflict and a failure to compromise. But the Namibia of today holds lessons for South Africa.
The names of Windhoek’s streets are evidence of Namibia’s difficult past – but also its pragmatism.
Where Fidel Castro Street intersects with Independence (formerly Kaiser Street) Avenue, there are signs to Christus Kirche, Reiterdenkmal and Alte Feste. Kenneth David Kaunda, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, and Nelson Mandela are among those honoured with street names from Africa’s liberation history, and today they crisscross a pantheon of local heroes and German colonists.
The German colonial period was short, just 30 years, and brutal, including the slaughter of between 25,000 and 65,000 Hereros and 1,000 Namas, respectively 50-70 percent and 50 percent of their populations. This was followed by 75 years of South African occupation, reinforcing the colonial patterns of identity and racial privilege.
Today, place is made, deliberately, for both distinct German-Namibian and Afrikaner-Namibian cultures. Aside from Angolans, Zambians, and South Africans, Germans make up a significant proportion of Namibia’s 1.4-million international tourists. They go not only because of its natural beauty but because it feels safe and welcoming. There are German schools and their cultural quirks are not only tolerated but encouraged.
Yet just a quarter-century ago, Namibia – or South West Africa as some knew it – was only, and frequently, in the news for conflict and a failure to compromise.
Interviewed in State House on the corner of Robert Mugabe and Laurent Desire Kabila avenues, President Hage Geingob explains that the country’s notable if under-appreciated record of stability and improving prosperity is based on a combination of respect for a liberal constitution and democracy, as well as private enterprise. Says President Geingob:
“If you walk the streets of Windhoek, you will see that Namibians have reconciled. If you were here earlier, before 1990, you would see the difference with today. We now identify with one Namibian nation, and share efforts to build a single Namibian house.”
He singles out nation-building as the key attribute for Namibia’s successful transition from apartheid colony to independent state.
“The subject is my forte, the subject of my PhD [at Leeds]. We were lucky in being midwifed by the United Nations. We are perhaps also lucky by having a long struggle, which was perhaps a blessing in disguise in helping us to prepare for government.
“You know, after our transition, I sat with some white women in Keetmanshoop and asked them whether they thought our struggle to end the hatred, violence and racial division perpetuated by apartheid and the attainment of our independence was worth it. [We must] build this Namibian house [and include] different tribes and races.”
This explains why Geingob, among others, has gone out of his way to accommodate white Namibians. Stoutly built, and tall, he is a great rugby and soccer fan, and patron of both national associations.
“When the All Blacks came to Namibia, I went to watch them, though of course it was through the fence, as we were not allowed in back then,” he smiles, going on to mimic the rich Afrikaans radio rugby commentary “which made the game come alive.” Rugby, like soccer, is a cultural strength, and we must recognise it. When I see Afrikaner Namibians watching the Namibian team, I can tell they are Namibians, not South Africans.”
This also manifests, as one diplomat has put it, “in the remarkable Namibian solution. Blacks, who knew they were going to be in charge, agreed not to do certain things, to put certain issues about the war, for example, aside.”
But the other component to nation-building, President Geingob is keen to remind, is democracy:
“We were prepared to die to elect our own leader. We value and treasure that aspect in our strong foundation which is our constitution. Our constitution, which was regarded as the most liberal produced before South Africa’s, contains Bills of Rights in Chapter Three, which cannot be changed.
“Of course, people cannot eat good governance or freedom of speech. To deliver on the second generation of rights, including clothing and education and health and freedom from poverty, we need to act. I have declared a war on poverty, but it doesn’t mean that we will automatically defeat it.”
We run through a thumbnail SWOT analysis of Namibia together. Its strengths include political and economic stability among a small population of just 2.3-million, ranking 143rd largest in the world, rattling around a vast, resource rich territory, the world’s 34th largest. An exporter of gem quality diamonds and the fifth-biggest uranium producer, the country remains dependent on mining for more than half of its foreign exchange earnings and some 11.5 percent of GDP, though this sector employs just 2 percentof the workforce.
The economy continues to grow. While life expectancy went down from 1991 when it was 61.2 years, it climbed again during the 2000s to 64.7 in 2015, reflecting a rise in real per capita income from US$2,000 to US$5,210. As the government has accurately captured:
“At independence, the economy was very small and the majority of people excluded from any meaningful economic activities and effective participation in society. Poverty in some regions was as high as 90 percent …. In many respects, Namibia at independence and Namibia today are miles apart.”
But among the fundamental weaknesses, the president unerringly points out, is that the economy has not created enough jobs. Officially unemployment sits at 28 percent; unofficially it may be twice as high if indigent farmers are counted in.
In part, this reflects a rise in population. Windhoek’s population has, for example, swelled from around 150,000 in 1990 to 380,000.
Keeping up this rate of growth and fuelling employment has necessitated borrowing money. The current account deficit reached 14.3 percent of GDP in 2015. Successive fiscal deficits have seen debt climb from around 15 percent (of GDP) in 2009 to around 36 percent in 2015, much of it spent on the public sector and on infrastructure. As a result, the size of the public service is unmistakably large at over 100,000 for a country of Namibia’s size.
“A contributing factor to this scenario is the fact that at independence, the government, in the spirit of national reconciliation, retained those civil servants who had served under the apartheid system and added to them from groups that had previously been excluded,” Geingob says.
President Geingob remains “particularly concerned with rising youth unemployment, over 50 percent”, adds the president. “This relates to jobless growth, to the nature and standard of education, and mindset. We are a land of job seekers rather than job creators.”
While unemployment is a weakness, possible opportunity and, if not handled correctly, a distinct threat, the same could be said for Namibia’s “entwined” relationship with South Africa, “culturally and economically”, notes the president. Namibia imports more than 70 percent of its requirements from “down south” and receives around one-third of its government revenues from the South African-administered Southern African Customs Union (SACU). “When ‘South Africa sneezes’, as the saying has it, “we catch a cold’. But we also invest in South Africa, through our Pension Fund, so this is a two-way partnership that requires transparency and accountability, which equals trust.”
To keep things moving, especially in the face of a regional economic slowdown, the government has responded with the Harambee (literally, “pulling together”) Prosperity Plan released in April 2016. Says Geingob:
“The problem in Africa with development planning is a lack of implementation. We have meaningful ideas which come out in visions and glossy documents but it ends there, and there is no implementation to back it up and see it through. We need to learn,” says the man who established a formidable reputation during his 12 years as Prime Minister from 1990 in instituting a management ethic, “to distinguish in this regard between efficiency and effectiveness. You can efficiently send an e-mail to make an appointment, but it may not be effective, the person may never arrive for the meeting. As long as goods and services fail to reach our people who need it most, then government is not effective.”
Designed to run in a first phase until 2020, Harambee details 15 goals and 41 targets across five key thematic pillars: Effective Governance, Economic Advancement, Social Progression, Infrastructure Development, and International Relations and Co-operation.
In building on Namibia’s legacy of political stability, an independent judiciary, sound economic management, and an active media, Harambee aims for Namibia to “become the most competitive economy in Africa by 2020”, in the process reducing the country’s debt to GDP ratio to less than 30 percent.
The focus, initially, is on the things that don’t cost money – for example, by reducing the number of days it takes to register a business, or regulation of the energy market by promoting independent power producers. Specific targets include constructing 20,000 new houses and 50,000 rural toilets nationwide in four years, and ensuring that there are 121 new businesses owned by rural youths by 2020.
With a small team of advisers within State House responsible for writing and implementing the plan, Dr Geingob is personally seized with its success. “I have matched the ministers’ experience and qualifications with their portfolios, within limits. I have identified fixed timelines and established performance contracts. But the main driver,” he acknowledges, “is the presidency. If it were anyone else it would be a problem. If I do it, then government will listen.”
At the centre of the plan is the private sector.
Despite Swapo’s Marxian rhetoric [during the early years of the independence struggle], and the education of a cadre of now 50 to 70-somethings in many countries that no longer exist -- including the former Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Yugoslavia – “even former revolutionaries realise that the private sector is not the enemy, that it and not the government has to create jobs”, says the president. It’s that pragmatism thing again.
He admits there are a lot of priorities, but narrows his top three down to “instituting governance architecture”, providing “reasonably priced housing”, and “fixing the education system”. He describes the school system as “horrible”, while there is a need to shatter social taboos.
“Because of our apartheid background, people think that it is demeaning to use their hands in work. But we need to learn from Germany and others regarding the value of these tasks.”
Hence a stress on vocational training.
While legislation for a New Equitable Economic Empowerment Framework (NEEEF) stipulating the transfer of 25 percent of ownership of white-owned businesses to previously disadvantaged Namibians has been postulated, Geingob dismisses this as a bad idea.
“Already we know that it is not going to happen. We are not here to work against one group. We need to learn to hold hands. We don’t want to send the wrong signals to investors. Rather, we need fair play.”
Harambee was discussed at town hall meetings in all of Namibia’s 14 regions.
“We are a resource-based country, and many of the investors who come here come for these. We need to find ways to add more value to them, but to do that, we need to provide a conducive investor environment.
“You cannot say ‘foreigners are exploiting us’ when you cannot see or you have never seen the diamonds and uranium you say they are taking from us. We have to provide investors with an environment to do so; and they in turn have to help us to address the divides in our society. This is a social responsibility, since if we fail to do so, it will defeat us all.”
Dr Mills, the co-author of a forthcoming handbook on ‘Making Africa Work’, has been in Namibia.