Siwelewele

21 June 2019
Author   The Time Traveler: Hugh Ellis

As a time traveler, I always feel Namibia in the 1990s is a nice era to visit.
On my last visit, I came back with a song in my head. Some of you may remember it. 

‘What is gone is now something of the pastTry your best, don’t look back, look forward!’
The song, of course, is ‘Siwelewele’ by People’s Choice. An absolute legend. You can still find the music video on YouTube, which is a great piece of Namibiana in itself, complete with dogs lying under thorn trees and young men striking poses on the plinth of Gobabis’s giant sculpture of a cattle beast.
Being forward-looking has gotten a bad reputation of late.
It’s become associated with fake kum-by-yah ness, with forgetting history completely, with denying the hurt that most communities were burdened with as a result of a brutal colonialism. It’s become associated with those who want to preserve their ill-gotten gains and pass them on to future generations.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In today’s Namibia of today, we often time-travel into the past; not often enough into the future.
A good example is the so-called Operation Kalahari Desert, which has resulted in the needless death of a young man. A Zimbabwean who came to our country in search of a better life is now leaving in a wooden box, his only crime a traffic violation.
The whole operation seems to be a throwback, conceived in Apartheid-style thinking. You better have someone to beat down on the indigenous people (Apartheid planners would have said, ‘the natives’) or else they might get out of control. You’ve got to make sure people behave - men should not dress effeminately, bars should close on time - otherwise people will get the idea that no-one cares and no-one is in charge. And it’s a slippery slope from there to murder and insurrection.
That’s a way of thinking from the past. But what about a way of thinking from the future? What if we were to re-think policing from the ground up? What if the neighborhood police officer was your friend? The kind of person you would ask, if you witnessed a domestic dispute, to intervene and calm everyone down? The kind of old guy every community has, who can convince even a murder suspect to hand himself in, through the authority he possesses by virtue of his wisdom and reputation?
And what about the land issue? White farm owners are frequently asked to remember the past. How their grandfathers bought pillaged land, for a song, from the German or South African governments. How their current life could have been quite different if their settler forebears had to accept the same life as African indigenous people.
(Whites like me whose grandfathers were industrialists or workers are, by contrast, not reminded as often as we should be that our families’ lives too would have been different if it were not for cheap urban property, the colour bar in industry, or the pass laws limiting competition for jobs).
Nothing wrong with remembering the past. But sometimes, to borrow a phrase from the rap group Black Vulcanite, we forget to ‘remember the future’.
We don’t bother to envisage other possible systems, where perhaps, the land is owned by everyone. Or no-one. Who are we puny humans, after all, to carve up this immense planet among ourselves, like gods? 
Maybe a re-organized, more efficient agricultural system could produce enough of a surplus to compensate indigenous people for the land they lost? 
Maybe the feudal idea of one big man having sole ownership of thousands of hectares and everyone on that land ‘bending the knee’ to him is something that belongs in Game of Thrones, not in real life. 
Wouldn’t it be nice if all workers were part-owners of their farms, or of their businesses? Wouldn’t it be good if farm workers lived in villages, not compounds, from which they couldn’t be turned out by their employers?
I don’t have the power to change any of this. But maybe, just maybe, someone in the corridors of (political or economic) power will read this, and next time they have a decision to make, somewhere in the back of their heads they will be singing a song.
‘Try your best, don’t look back, look forward...’
Hugh Ellis has a collection of colorful shirts from the 1990s and likes to watch re-runs of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. He works as a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views. Follow him on Twitter: @ellis_hugh

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