The former Minister of Education and Hardap Regional Governor, Katrina Hanse-Himarwa, was recently convicted of corruption, the High Court found she had improperly used her influence as a Regional Governor to put her relatives on a list of public housing beneficiaries, leaving more deserving families out in the cold.
Not surprisingly, she resigned not long after the guilty verdict was handed down.
This column is not about whether she is guilty.
It’s about the fact that at court appearance after court appearance, even after multiple witnesses accused her of the same thing, she always had hordes of supporters. It’s about how even after the guilty verdict, there were those on social media who sympathized with her, and wanted for all to be ‘forgiven’.
As former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo is claimed to have said, ‘I’m not very interested in sending the corrupt Big Man to jail; I’m interested in finding out what makes the Big Man corrupt in the first place.’
So, why is it? Why is someone quite literally stealing from the poor celebrated for her hustle?
I think we often tolerate the corrupt in Namibia because we all know others have gotten away with it in the past.
Most of those who acquired land and other resources such as mineral rights in Namibia pre-independence got them through theft and mass murder, directly or indirectly. They were able to use these assets to start businesses which survive to this day, and ensured their children were well educated, as rich people do.
Obviously not all whites got these sweetheart deals but enough of us did that English, Afrikaans and German speaking people still show up in census data as having the highest incomes, the most material goods and the highest quality of life.
At independence, not only were colonialism’s beneficiaries allowed to keep most of the loot, but those who had brutalized people in order to allow the looting to happen, as well as those who had brutalized people in other contexts, were spared prosecution.
The constitutional negotiators foresaw that an activist state would be able to overturn these inequalities and create conditions under which past crimes could be overlooked. But more often than not, the Namibian state has sought to preserve the status quo, investing more in safeguarding the privileged than in redistributing wealth.
Ask yourself how much is spent annually on land reform, versus how much is spent on VIP protection, or army ‘research and development’, and you will start to question if you still live in an apartheid state - not always ‘whites only’, but certainly ‘members only’.
In that kind of environment, where many have given up on the prospect of real change, is it a surprise that we celebrate crooks? That robbers are our heroes, because they at least advance their families, by any means necessary? How many of us would undertake the same corrupt acts, if we were sure we’d get away with it?
Instead of this, we could start to build a truly inclusive society. Economists have stated that it is possible, within current budgetary constraints, to guarantee all Namibians a plot of urban land, so why not start there?
Is it not time to put those of us who have more from the old order on notice that we need to share our assets, or they will be shared for us? Is it not time for a wealth tax or an inheritance tax, at least on the wealthiest? Why do we still not hold employers strictly accountable to the letter of the labor and affirmative action acts?
Most of the people who committed the worst human rights violations pre-independence have now passed on, so we may not be able to hold Nuremburg-style trials, but shouldn’t at least our history books and schoolbooks record the full truth of what was done?
Why should it be regarded as ‘racism’ or ‘prejudice’, as it widely is, when a person of colour holds a guy like me accountable for what he has or hasn’t done to challenge racialized systems of inequality that he benefits from, even indirectly?
Don’t misunderstand. We should have a more robust Anti-Corruption Commission, the corrupt should be severely punished, and the prosecution of ‘big fish’ like Katrina Hanse-Himarwa should become the norm, rather than the exception. But, for me, the full solution lies elsewhere. It lies in making sure the state institutions we defend against the corrupt are morally worth defending in the first place.
Hugh Ellis is a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The views expressed here are personal views. Follow him on Twitter: @ellis_hugh