Engaging racial attitudes demands robust policies and activism

13 June 2013

The most recent allegations of racism in Gobabis should not come as a surprise to Namibians. While we have been able to live in some form of peaceful coexistence since independence, racialism and racism did not recede into the abyss of history with the end of racially engineered occupation.

Part of the reason why racism is alive and well in certain sectors of our society lie in the ‘multiculturalism’ that does not really have a name, nor intellectual content. I argue ours as a form of multiculturalism because independence and the past 23 years did not translate in sound policies around racial integration.

Ours is multiculturalism because race is also spatially defined, with the black majority population living in poorer neighbourhoods, and the white minority confined to privileged spaces. Even if progress has been made, part of the indifference also lies in our collective inability to deal frontally with tribalism.

If our society is struggling to detribalise, we would struggle to reach the stage were we could deal with racism in an urgent manner. The wound of racism, which was not treated on the basis of sound policy interventions was allowed to fester in a subliminal fashion.

What we instead did around questions of race was some sort of tolerance and accommodation, without creating a society in which both blacks and whites would be at ease with each other, and not just tolerate each other because of shared geography.

While blacks are in the majority, the absence of sound policy or thinking, including robust debate around questions of race has made racial integration a political, economic and spatial option.

First, I argue that it has been a political option because there have been no serious attempts on the part of white sections of this country to engage the political process in any meaningful way. I argue this way because unlike South Africa where both whites and blacks contest the political space in equal measure, Namibia has been lagging far behind.

I don’t mean to say that South Africa represents an ideal type. But the ruling party, the African National Congress and its alliance partners have whites in the senior leadership. More important, these are white politicians who have grown organically within the movement. The same is also true for the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, which has been able to make modest inroads within the black community on the basis of black faces in key top positions. Broadly speaking, the same is also true of coloureds and Indians who are represented substantively in both the political landscape of the ANC and that of the Democratic Alliance. However, Namibia only has handful white politicians in the ruling party, Swapo and the opposition. The presence of whites is also largely a consequence of co-option and accommodation and not necessarily the result of organic militancy within the structures of the political parties.

Therefore, the knock-on effect of disengagement and apathy in the political processes of the country has created less space for whites and blacks to engage and interact on issues of mutual concern and frame these as such. The disengagement from the political process is without doubt racialist, perhaps not racist.

Second, if whites have disengaged from the militant politics of the country, they have remained active owners of the means of production.

Disengagement from politics could be explained by policy certainty. In light of this argument, and by virtue of their ownership of the means of production, whites have been able to practice perverse forms of accommodation of blacks in some of the key sectorsof business. In the absence of robust policies around empowerment of blacks and indigenisation of the economy, the inclusion of blacks has been arbitrary and largely aimed at token appointments in order to attract in some instances more business from the majority black government. As such, interactions between whites and blacks in Namibia have not been driven by sociological factors, but more by instrumental necessity.

Third, spatial limitations limit black to white interactions. Whites live in better spaces of our society and the absence of shared spaces limit interaction markedly.

In order to look beyond race, both white and black Namibia should identify racism and racialism as twin challenges that would demand innovative solutions. These innovations lie somewhere between the promotion of white participation in the political processes as opposed to co-option and robust black ownership of the economy beyond accommodation.

Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is Head of the South African Foreign Policy and African Drivers Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.


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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