Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana made history in 2012 when she became the first female in SWAPO Party’s history to contest for the presidency position against Jerry Ekandjo and eventual winner Hage Geingob.
Five years later, the “Iron Lady” of Namibian politics, has declared her willingness to run again for the ruling party’s top job. Iivula-Ithana (PII), SWAPO Party stalwart and the current Minister of Home Affairs and Immigration, shared details of her candidacy in an exclusive interview with the Windhoek Observer’s Sonja Smith (SS). In this interview, the Minister explained the ministry’s turnaround strategy, the importance of closing ranks after an elective congress and why people should not see her and International Relations and Cooperation Minister, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, as rivals. Below is an excerpt of that interview:
SS: It has been six years since you were appointed as the Minister of Home Affairs and Immigration. Can you please highlight some of your successes and challenges so far?
PII: Well, I came here some six years ago when I got reassigned from the Justice Ministry. Some people felt that I was demoted, and at one point I had felt that I was really assigned to a ministry that is full of problems and the perception was just so bad. The queues that used to be here were always very long. People would wake up as early as 04h00 to apply for an ID or passport.
After being assigned here, I felt that in as much as there are a lot of problems, one of us must face these problems and this time around it happened to be me.
Then I asked what I should do in order to alleviate some of these problems that the public have been talking about. I visited some of our counterparts in the region just to see how they were dealing with some of these issues, and that is when I gathered various ideas.
This happened at a time when the technology in our country was also advancing. Then I thought that if we can get some funding we can replace the manual system with a computerised one, which would take us, as a country, some steps further.
We got assistance from South Africa, who lent us their technology and personnel, and helped us to turn things around. Officials from South Africa came here and looked at what we have and how we should turn things around. But then money was a consideration, therefore, the scoping report came out first.
After the report came out, I then sat down with former President Hifikepunye Pohamba, and luckily for me he had served in this ministry before and so he understood the problems and was very supportive.
He [Pohamba] felt that other key ministries and offices should be called in to listen to us, such as the Prime Minister’s Office, National Planning Commission, Finance Ministry and the Public Service Commission. We all sat and a decision was made to embark upon the turnaround process. Money was allocated and we started training staff for them to understand the process, particularly in the front desk areas, where people apply for their specific documents. When I look back, IDs and passports used to take up to six months, but they take less than a week now. There is now efficiency.
The turnaround took place between 2014 and 2015, and it was immediately in the face of the public. Some people were totally taken by surprise. When some people came to get their documents, they began to ask, where is the minister’s office we just want to say “Congratulations Minister, thank you”. Up to now, people are still congratulating me. It really makes me feel good and happy. At least the public can see what Government can do.
SS: Most ministries and Government agencies have not been spared from the budget cuts announced by the ministry of finance. Has this affected your operations or projects?
PII: All of the ministries were cut. That budget cut came after many of us had committed ourselves to the Performance Management Agreement that we had signed. In the agreement we gave indicators that by such a time I would have achieved this and that and the other.
When the budget cuts came, we had to put everything on hold, with the exception of big projects that cannot really be stopped. But the milestones that we were supposed to achieve have been affected.
SS: What projects specifically would you say were affected?
PII: Well, for now it will be difficult to remember immediately. For example, we had lined up amendments to various laws that we wanted to implement. To manage such legislative process, one need to involve experts outside the public service, but with the budget cuts, what do you do? I know we have about three to four Bills that could have been finalised by now.
SS: We understand that the construction of your new headquarters has stopped, how will this affect your plans?
PII: Those big projects that are going on are affected slightly, they are slowed down. For instance, this headquarters was set to be completed in March 2018, but now the completion date has been shifted to another date, but not longer than six months. So, they are just slowed down for us to be able to pay as they go. It [construction] is still going on.
SS: There have been cases of home affairs officials receiving financial kickbacks from foreigners seeking visas and passports to stay in the country or do business. How do you plan on preventing this from happening?
PII: We keep hearing about such things from people, but the unfortunate part about this is that, so far, we have not received any substantial evidence that supports the allegations. In as much as I do not want to ignore them, I also do not want to suspect each and every employee who works here.
However, human beings are just human beings, one cannot just brush away such allegations, and so what we are trying to do is to use technology, which can eliminate some of these things. If people can have a way of applying for their papers electronically with complete information, without face-to-face interactions, then I think we can eliminate such things from happening.
SS: What is the ministry’s current position on the citizenship of children born in Namibia to non-Namibian parents who are on work permits?
PII: This question will continue to haunt not only this ministry, but everything that is related to the judgment issued in the case of De Wilde’s child. The issue is the wording used in the Constitution - “Ordinarily resident” - which is interpreted by the Supreme Court as to mean “permanently living in Namibia”. That definition is causing us, and it will continue to cause us, problems because we find it difficult to deal with it in any other way, other than for us to find a way to have such a very unclear word, which can give really unintended interpretation, removed from the Constitution.
So far, we have not found any other solution to this matter, other than the solution that we have proposed, and what we have proposed is the amendment of the Constitution and the removal of such a word in the Constitution or replacing it with a word that has a better meaning that will differentiate between people that are in Namibia under a permanent resident permit and those who are here on a work permit.
A person who has come here to work is not entitled to the rights that a person holding a permanent resident permit in Namibia has. And this is the confusing part that this interpretation has created, and we, as the ministry who implement these laws, have no other way, but to seek clarity via the removal of such a phrase.
SS: Do you have any major projects lined up?
PII: We have been driving the project of automating all our functions because dealing with papers is a challenge. The Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration is a paper-based ministry. We issue IDs, passports, work permits, birth certificates, it is papers, papers and papers everywhere. So, we plan to automate all these processes. We, as a small country, have a few embassies all over the world and some of those countries that are far, find it difficult to get visas to come to Namibia. But if we could have processes of doing this online, then that will help not just here, but the world at large.
SS: Your ministry has been criticised for buying the dilapidated Continental and Casino Hotel building which is being underutilised. What is your future plan regarding that building since you are now constructing a new head office?
PII: The public can give their views on issues, probably out of ignorance. The purchase of the Continental part of this building was really out of need, the need for space, and during the time we moved in here, there were no talks about having to build a new headquarters, they just wanted space to operate from, and there was that adjacent building, and we cannot say it is not properly utilised, it is being utilised.
The fact of the matter is that this whole complex is old and it was not built for the purpose it is being currently used for. This is a Government building, when we move out of here it goes back to the Ministry of Works and Transport, and they can decide whether to demolish it or to use it for something else, it is up to them. But to say that it was a mistake to buy that adjacent building is not correct.
SS: You were the first woman to contest for a top leadership position in the ruling party. Do you have any plans to avail yourself again at the upcoming 2017 national congress?
PII: Haha! You are not the first to ask this question, probably because the SWAPO National Congress 2017 is coming or maybe it is because you are still seeing me around. I have served my party at various capacities and I know very well the procedures in the party. This party is a rules-based party. We have our Constitution, and we have rules and procedures on how to conduct our election.
The party is still working out the mechanism of fielding candidates. I have been around, I am around and I just look at the SWAPO Party and its membership as to what they would say about Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana. If they want Mrs Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana to run, I am available, I am healthy, and I have no problem.
This will depend truly on the SWAPO Party. It will be useless and meaningless for me to say I want to stand unless there are members of the party, at the right time that will stand up and say: ‘We want Mrs Iivula-Ithana’.
SS: When you lost in 2012 at the SWAPO Party Congress, did you suffer any humiliation?
PII: No, I did not feel that way really. Maybe I should take pride in that I take things as they come. If you are contesting in an election in which you know right from the beginning that you are two or three, then one must prepare themselves for any outcome. If you do not win then who are you going to be angry with? Angry with the person who wins or angry with the supporters?
You make yourself available because they asked you to be available and therefore one cannot be angry with the world. I did not feel that I was being victimised or whatever. However, I just want to say to the party membership that when there is contestation between candidates, whether you are a supporter or candidate, be prepared after the election to move on. Do not say that ‘we won and they lost’. There is no ‘we and they’, it is all SWAPO.
SWAPO has adopted a policy of three candidates and that must be respected. It is three candidates and only one can win not all three. This is something which must be hammered into the minds of our people so that we don’t cause division after elections.
After elections we must all close ranks and see ourselves as winners because we have found what we wanted. That way we would have given democracy an opportunity, but if it is just one person, why hold elections?
SS: What advice do you have for anyone who wishes to contest for top party positions, especially females?
PII: The contestation is on one hand a decision supported by others, but also at the same time a personal decision of the candidate who is participating. That we should not forget. If you have not made it and begin to blame yourself that ‘why did I run, why did I allow to be influenced by others’ that will be too late.
The fact remains that you stood, and others supported you. One is not forced to stand, it’s a personal decision supported by others. Therefore, when we enter these kinds of contests, we must be ready for everything, and with that I mean, ready for the good, the bad and the ugly.
SS: Recent media reports suggest factions within the ruling party. Are there any truths in these reports? What can be done to heal the divisions that are threatening unity in the party?
PII: Honestly speaking, I do not want to believe that we have factions in SWAPO Party because whoever is aligning himself/herself around a certain candidate is doing so under the name of SWAPO. Probably what is happening is that people are divided in the way of choice. For instance, ‘I like Pendukeni, who is a leader within the party’ and if Pendukeni is a leader within the party, what makes this a ‘faction’ unless this Pendukeni is behaving in a manner that is very suspicious.
Is this person working for the party or is she working for some other interest? If it is personalities within the party, who are showing interest and are being supported to further support the aim of the party, I don’t want to say that is factionalism, no, that is people expressing their wishes and democratic rights.
That is why I am saying, at the end of each congress, that is when the party is tested to show maturity. You will find that in mature political parties, after a candidate has won, those who were competing for the same position are allowed the opportunity to congratulate the winner and accept defeat.
Thereafter, the losing candidates speak to their supporters to rally behind the winning candidate. That way you are tying together all the members to come home as one.
Before any congress, you will always find people supporting their own preferred candidate and I don’t see anything wrong with that; it’s their democratic right.
SS: You and Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, are seen by some as rivals. Is this the case?
PII: No, people only want to see the negative things. To say that we are rivals is an overstatement. We are just prominent women within the party; we are not rivals, because none of us is occupying the other’s space. My stream of work is different, my background is different and hers is different, but you can’t deny the fact that we are prominent. In Parliament, we sit next to each other and we discuss our matters there. When I have issues here, I tell her and when she has issues her side, she tells me, but we are not rivals, we are just prominent women in SWAPO.