Top-down mandates hinder democracy

15 February 2019
We look with interest at the ongoing saga of dictates from the SWAPO leadership articulated by Secretary General Sophia Shaningwa, being challenged by officials on local councils and regional authorities.
At nearly 30 years as a free country, it may be time for Namibia to consider a change in how leaders are selected. Local people should ‘own’ their decision-making system via direct elections at the ballot box. 
This internal SWAPO political hiccup began late last year as Shaningwa recalled all SWAPO councillors at Oshakati Town Council for defying her directives. 
At the same time, the ruling party SG directed the party regional coordinator for Otjozondjupa to install targeted individuals as Okahandja local office bearers, displacing existing office holders.  
The Walvis Bay Municipality postponed the swearing in of office bearers because SWAPO officials in the district did not agree with the directive from Shaningwa about who should be their mayor.
In Rundu, SWAPO has now recalled three of its councillors for not following party orders about who should hold office.  
There were court cases initiated against the party directives in some instances.  This public relations nightmare for the ruling party is in full bloom. 
This top-down, “do this or else” system does not take into account the need for effective service to the people and hinders democratic development in Namibia. 
Imposing discipline becomes the focus of the party’s energy and efforts, instead of addressing the issues that affect people’s lives.
We have further concerns about any party that espouses the, “we are democratic’ rhetoric, and yet, takes actions that appear to the contrary.
Prior to last year’s SWAPO party congress where elections for office were held, President Hage Geingob presented his declaration in support of his slate of candidates saying that these four candidates were, “the only people he could work with.”
Regardless of support by fellow party members, regardless of their capacities and abilities, the four were to be voted into power because they were the only people Geingob would work with.  Even if they were not the best for the party or the country, that didn’t matter.
Is that what is going on now when party members serving as local officials are being recalled or demoted?  Is a statement being made that those who are being inserted on regional councils and city councils or as mayors are, “the only ones the party leadership will work with?”
 Where then does the requirement to diligently and effectively serve the people and listen to their concerns fit in?
Elections are coming and local leaders are needed to campaign for the party.  What will those former local party officials that have been side-lined (and their constituents) say and do during the campaign period? 
They’ve been benched at a time when the party faithful are needed to garner a larger campaign victory than in previous years, particularly in a time of drought and economic depression. 
We are uncertain if consultations with the various local leaders affected by decisions taken at party headquarters, have taken place.  If respectful discussions did not take place in advance of the public announcement of the final decisions, then this is a faux pas that can engender long-lasting animosity. 
Even those who remain in local office can feel insecure in their positions (even though they appear to fall in line) and may not be as willing to implement dictates with vigour. 
Following a mandate to the letter to keep your job is one thing, following it because you believe in it and support the spirit AND the letter of its requirements, is something else. 
In the top-down system, those who obtain posts may not be the most qualified or talented in management, financial oversight, project implementation or leadership/people skills. 
There are officials appointed or on party lists with questionable literacy and comprehension levels who are asked to read and evaluate significant reports, budgets and financial statements in order to make major decisions.
Lacking skills, they remain silent much of the time in meetings, usually voting, but not understanding what is before them.
Direct elections of local authorities will sort out who is capable and who is not.  Being appointed to a top governance job is easy and can be handled by limited leaders – they need only meet the expectations of the appointing authority. 
Representing the people who make a judgement each election cycle is much harder.  Diligence and attentiveness to the electorate (not only the party) becomes the priority. 
Attending local events and being in the districts to meet with the people face-to-face will become a daily job for any leader who wishes to be re-elected.
Even with direct local elections there would be a major role for political parties.  Parties set the platforms and identify the key issues. 
Parties would be empowered to sort internal squabbles and arbitrate amongst its members who hold leadership positions locally.  They would have political incentives and patronage, ‘whips’ and purse strings to capture their members’ loyalty.
Political parties would have to work harder to be in agreement with their members who are elected officials. 
While parties will resist any rule change that is perceived to diminish their reach, we argue that party influence over local matters would increase as its members are elected with a mandate from the cross-party majority of the voters in a particular local area. 
More people, party members or not, would perceive their needs as being served by the party of the winning candidate as he/she addresses their needs. This could strengthen the reach of the party and win new members.  
People who may not ever vote because they don’t believe the party system cares about their needs, might now vote because they see an individual who they know, running for office and fighting in support of their local concerns. 
Consider the rural Namibians who are living with elephants that destroy their crops and lions that kill their cattle or have broken sewerage pipes that sit for months unattended or have no cell phone or internet coverage.
These citizens have local issues as their top priority. Arguably, they have a right to have officials that live amongst them, who know their problems and can use the system to find solutions. 
The current democratic disconnect in the top-down system for local authorities, begs for change.


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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