A day late and a dollar short

21 June 2019
Author   Jackie Wilson Asheeke

After reading the reports of Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila’s speech before SOE boards and MDs this week, I am so very disappointed.  I have respect for the Prime Minister and have known her a long time.  The pride of having a black woman as a PM will always make me smile.  But, when I read statements that she again (and again, and again) is urging SOEs to raise their capital effectively and run their companies efficiently and not depend on government for funding, I feel a strong sense of Deja vu.  

The entire country has heard those same admonishments about commercial SOEs for nearly three decades and almost nothing substantially has changed as a result (at least not yet).  My feeling is that words will not change the commercial SOEs in Namibia – only solid, painful, direct and consistent action will (such as those underway by the Ministry of Public Enterprises).   The time for talking about SOEs is long past, since words are cheap and they are repeated year-in and year-out anyway.
I was not present for the speeches made at a workshop for SOEs, I only read about it.  However, I hope sincerely, that the PM accompanied her redundant words about commercial SOEs behaving themselves, with the truth that it is time to directly declare, unequivocally, with a time line and ‘to do list’, which changes WILL come.  I hope she told them that some in that very room will no longer be in their positions in the short-medium term; they will be dismissed as redundant or replaced for not adhering to the regulations or  terminated for not doing their jobs on par with their remuneration and responsibility level.
I am forced to wonder if such a statement from the Right Honourable Prime Minister was merely cut and pasted by her speech writers from past comments made by so many other Presidents, Ministers, Executive Directors and even SOEs themselves.  
Is the PM’s most recent spanking-of-SOEs-commentary just papier-mâché for an election year or do those writing for the PM really think that such oft repeated beat-down of SOEs will make things change?  This latter thought is scary - in other words, “If I slam my head into this mountain long enough, it will make it fall down.”
Unfortunately, a larger backdrop to the PM’s current statements must be recalled for context.  As a nearly invisible Prime Minister over the last few years, one must never forget that Kuugongelwa-Amadhila served as Minister of Finance for an unprecedented 12 years with the current Minister of Finance serving as her deputy or her (then called) Permanent Secretary for most of that time.  She, on behalf of the government, approved numerous SOE bail-outs or additional fund grants via the Cabinet Committee on the Treasury from budgetary emergency funds.  
I wonder if, when giving the multi-million cash injections or bank guarantees, there were words of admonishment to the recipients about generating their own revenue or curbing internal waste and corruption or even learning how to make money instead of only spending it.  How many times were SOEs who received bailouts told that this is the last dip and then, it actually WAS the last dip?  Likely never.
With respect, I state that the current PM (and other decision-makers) has been part and parcel of setting the un-business-like climate in the mind-set of our commercial SOEs in the first place.  The climate and expectation (spoken or unspoken) is that no matter what happens, big daddy government will bail you out with cash, give loan guarantees, forgive loans, pay salaries for no outputs (ala RCC), demand no statistics, current annual financial reports, output results or specific performance targets while entertaining new budget support requests every few years (once decision-makers forget that the same SOE was bailed out a few years earlier).  
It is that mind-set that is now forced to change as the coffers are bare.  There IS no bailout money anymore.  The international lending institutions who are desperately needed by the Land of the Brave to keep this country afloat are adamant that commercial SOEs in their current forms are not sustainable and may not be funded by their loans.  
The financial message is clear:  If Namibia wants non-business based, non-performing SOEs to continue, then, the country will have to fund that on its own.  And yet, the current economic depression means that option is no longer available.  It is for this reason that change is being forced down our throats, as SOEs and their ‘line’ ministers kick and scream like an ailing child being dosed with necessary, but yucky medicine.
SOEs, at their worse, are not the sole reason for the economic crisis in Namibia.  No one should use solving the SOE problem as a cure-all whipping boy for the problems being faced.  Still, I would be happy as a bug in a rug if I never heard another decision maker talking about how horrid SOEs are.  We’ve heard that song before.  Change the CD and play something else.  
Let’s talk about a new SOE landscape with combined entities, some re-integrated into ministries, some phased out completely and others with downscaled business plans or re-crafted to tackle competitive markets and modern technological possibilities.   
Let’s stop talking and let’s start moving.

WINDHOEK OBSERVER

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