The Time Traveler: Water pipes and fishy stories

22 November 2019
Author   Hugh Ellis
There has been a literal embarrassment of ‘riches’ on which to write a column this week. Corruption and fishy dealings on a grand scale. Violence among some of the most educated members of our society. Yet more saddening, but not surprising stories of Namibians being our own worst enemies.
But those are just too depressing, for the moment. Instead I want to discuss how one of Windhoek’s main traffic arteries was diverted past my house for the past six weeks.
This was owing to a massive water pipe burst underneath a main thoroughfare, and resulting repair work on the road and the pipes beneath it.
I guess I have what the playwright Tennessee Williams called ‘a poet’s weakness for symbols,’ as well as a typical academic’s desire to find the political and sociological in the personal and mundane. So, here are my thoughts on the matter.
For starters: don’t believe the popular story that Namibia is ‘broke’. Our GDP statistics certainly indicate that our economy has contracted somewhat, and I’ve no reason to doubt them. Our public finances are certainly not as robust as they once were.
But, but, if you were to just see all the trucks and their cargoes going past my front yard - cattle, grain, minerals, food and drink - you would never say that we’re a country about to go bust. We’re a country that isn’t good at redistributing wealth, and we’re certainly not good at collecting taxes or combating corruption.
We’ve all seen the stories about dodgy fishing quotas and tenders for friends and multinationals that make no taxable profit in countries where they invest billions. Both in the present (see: fishrot, rotten farms and so much more rot), and in the not-too-distant past (see: where ‘respectable’ white suburbia came from).
As a former financial journalist, I can tell you that the threat of costly defamation suits keeps a lot under cover. The reports we read are the tip of the iceberg.
Secondly: Namibians like to whine about small things. My goodness. Especially upper-middle class, suburban (mostly white) Namibians. Jeepers.
You’d think that, in a town where some residents have no access to running water or flushing toilets, suburbanites would feel thankful for a municipal system that had officials on the scene of a pipe burst within an hour, that had a basic water supply restored the same evening. One that had fixed the major leak within a few days.
One that, despite a difficult situation of the waterspout having caused multiple leaks in multiple pipes, had both the road and the pipes back to normal in three fortnights. I doubt if Lagos or Accra could do that. Even Johannesburg is a maybe.
You might think suburban residents would be more understanding in light of all that, but of course you would often be wrong.
I realize that we should hold our public authorities to a high standard, and that complaining is part of that. But when the standards you enjoy suddenly go down - and are still way better than most residents of your city - well, there’s a fine line between democratic complaining and downright entitlement.
Finally: Namibians are bad, inconsiderate drivers. There’s no other way to describe it. I’d never before seen a driver overtake two articulated trucks right in front of a 90-degree corner, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.
As someone who has been cycling and walking these streets for 20-plus years, and driving them for more than 10, it definitely feels like it’s getting worse. We clearly need both more traffic law enforcement and a radically different attitude among the majority of our drivers, neither of which sound easy to achieve.
So here we are - a microcosm in the macrocosm of entitlement and lack of humility. I wonder if we don’t need to go back to the adage in the Good Book - ‘do to others what you would have them do to you’ - whether those others are the voter, the pedestrian, or the ‘suspected intruder’ (cough, cough) in your house - as a basic organizing principle for life and society. At least, a person can hope.
Hugh Ellis is a poet and a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. All views expressed here are personal views. Follow Hugh’s blog at


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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