President Hage Geingob said this week that Independence celebrations planned for next month must go ahead, hitting back at critics who have reportedly called them a waste of taxpayers’ money.
‘I am reminded of those who lost their lives, fled into exile, endured incarceration and abject poverty to liberate this country... Because of the efforts of these outstanding patriots, we can never allow that the significance of our Independence Day is downplayed,’ Geingob was quoted as saying.
The argument that we need to commemorate 100 years of heroic self-sacrifice and determination to rid Namibia of colonial rule, to raise up the names of such great leaders as Hendrik Witbooi, Samuel Maharero, Anna Kakurukaze Mungunda, Tobias Hainyeko and others, seems irrefutable.
Maybe, though, it’s not a question of whether to celebrate, but how we should celebrate.
I recognize I come to this from a certain position. Those who fought against these great leaders and their followers, those who fought against Independence, did so, so that people who look like me could be the top dogs in society, so we could have the best land, the best jobs, and so that darker-skinned people would fear us.
And despite the sacrifice of all those brave patriots, we still have many of the nicest plots and farms, the cushiest jobs and some people are still understandably afraid or resentful of us. Why? Because some of those who resisted Independence are still resisting.
(The situation is of course complex. I’ve got to reckon with parents who could be counted among those heroes whose aim was Independence, as well as cousins and uncles who were prepared to defend apartheid by any means necessary. So, there’s that. But there are issues bigger than little old me, here).
The point is, Independence is rightly seen, for the most part, as a black achievement. I certainly do not aim to tell people of colour how to celebrate their heroes.
However, I’d be failing in my duties as one who occupies the office of ‘taxpayer’ and ‘member of the electorate’ (these are offices in a democracy, as much as ‘President’ is an office) if I did not at least offer my thoughts on how we might see things differently.
Firstly, as I’ve alluded to, we might celebrate ‘Independence as Unfinished Business’. We might want to use Independence to reflect on continued inequality and injustice, and how to challenge them.
This is especially true for those left in positions of privilege by the regime that ended on 21 March, 1990. Not only white people, but men, owners of capital, heterosexuals, non-disabled people. We could spend the day thinking about how we need to ‘pay it forward’, how we could give up some of our privilege in return for a country that sees us as brothers, not as entitled, lazy moneybags.
We could celebrate, if that is the word, ‘Independence as Integrity’. One thing that stands out for me when reading about the lives of freedom fighters is how often they saw themselves serving a higher power or a national destiny. It was never just about them.
As the ‘Fishrot’ scandal, and the Avid court case before that, have shown, there are many leaders in present day Namibia who are just in it for themselves. Independence should be a time of purifying our thoughts, as the religious say, or at least, working out how to get rid of the dead wood.
Finally, and to state what should be obvious, we should celebrate ‘Independence as a Party’. Not the political kind.
If I were a Minister of State, I might think that maybe having people sit in rows listening to speeches in the sun was not the best way to invoke the party spirit.
Also, though, as a people, I feel we’ve lost the spirit, the joy, that I saw at the first few Independences in the 1990s. Maybe we need to organize more of our own, non-official parties, to help get back some of that genuine happiness.
Have a beer on me, on Independence Day. Let’s rethink Independence. And let’s pay it forward.
Hugh Ellis works as a lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). The views expressed here are personal views.