At the time of my joining the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), one of the prerogatives I had as a senior manager was the appointment of a private secretary. Namibia as a country whose present and past is a complex interplay of the fault-lines of racial inequality, ethnicity and its bad cousin, tribalism, turned conversations about appointing a private secretary quickly into these issues.
Two strands of thought emerged around what ought to have been a straightforward appointment. The first strand advised that I appoint a coloured or a white lady in order to keep an important critical distance between the Office and the chattering classes of Namibia.
The second advised that I appoint a fellow Herero as a means to empower my community. What was worrying in these conversations, is that no one advised that I appoint the most competent Namibian as a private secretary. More important, no one advised that in light of our complex history, I should steer clear of making an ethnic choice.
I eventually appointed as my private secretary a Kwanyama lady on the basis of good professional references.
My choice was not only informed by competence, but it was deliberate in light of the fault lines I have just referred to. When we sit in positions of authority, we should not be seen to be perpetuating ethnic or racial fault-lines. My choice was also informed by personal experience since I grew up in the house of my mother, a teacher whose teacher friends included Meme Paulus (from Donkerhoek) and Miss Kipa, a Batswana from Gemengde.
They would spend hours in our cramped lounge. In light of this early cosmopolitan upbringing, as a young high school student at Immanuel Shifidi I would spend afternoons in Donkerhoek with Martin Heita; and later with Vilho Namufinda in Golgota as well Americo Dawids in Soweto – who where both my best friends at A. Shipena High School.
My years at the University of Namibia where also spent in the company of diverse friends, including Ben Uwanga and the late Colin Kamehozu who defended their favourite politicians, Hidipo Hamutenya and Nahas Angula on the basis of the intellectual strands of these men and not their ethnic origins.
I should mention that I defended the former Prime Minister on the basis of his record as a leader. But the most crucial aspect in my choice for private secretary, which coincidentally also reinforced my biases was arguably the type of inclusive Office, the former Prime Minister had built for slightly more than a decade. I found an Office of the Prime Minister in which every Namibian was represented at a senior level, as well as in the lower ranks.
The mantra at the time was to ensure that every Namibian must see himself or herself in the Office of the Prime Minister.
Today, as a country, we find ourselves at an important juncture as result of the forthcoming Swapo Party congress, which in all likelihood will produce the next head of state.
Delegates to Congress must choose between an incumbent Vice President, who represents an inclusive Namibia and two other candidates, Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana and Jerry Ekandjo who should still reveal their inclusive souls to Namibians. These choices are not about anything else, but more about the survival of our republic through a transformative but sustainable agenda.
The idea here is not one of framing the Former Prime Minister as a candidate representing a faction in Namibia, least of all certain ethnic groups.
Hage Geingob has been gracious and guarded on ethnicity and tribal politics. As Prime Minster he never spoke about his role as a minority. In some instances, minorities have tended to see him as someone who did nothing for them because he had been boxed in by his status as an ethnic minority within Swapo.
I have always understood the Prime Minister’s calibrated, cautious and at times indifferent treatment of those who saw themselves as his most loyal ‘constituency’.
The former Prime Minister has always tried to acquit himself well with the role a national politician is to play in a diverse country. A national politician does not have a tribal constituency and does not speak to tribal quarrels.
A national politician believes in the constituency of his political party, which once in office compels him or her to speak and to serve all Namibians irrespective of their backgrounds. As he himself would always insist – ‘I am the Prime Minister of all Namibians and not here to serve a particular ethnic group’. It may sound naïve when some are doing exactly the opposite, but it is the right thing to do for a serious professional politician.
Even if he himself does not see it as such, the candidacy of Hage Geingob represents something that is invariably different. He could become the third President of the Republic, sitting below the portraits of Presidents Sam Nujoma and Hifikepunye Pohamba, who are both from the North. In light of this, it should be emphasized that Swapo is in the midst of a great experiment.
The Congress of 2004 saw three men from the same ethnic group contest the nomination. Today, there are three candidates – a woman and two men. Two represent the same regional and ethnic geography, while one is rooted in Swapo’s geography, but with a different ethnic background. It is why within Swapo, and importantly those on the margins of the party should see the Hage Geingob candidacy as inclusive, and the projection of cross-ethnic unity in a country that has been divided historically along racial and ethnic fault-lines.
Unfortunately, some within Swapo and the media will refuse to see this as an opportunity for us to start building a country for a different generation.
Ethnic luminaries will be caught up in the petty issues to digress from the more serious questions. They are stuck in the type of suits and shoes this or that politician wears conversations; the hotel room in which he or she sleeps could cost the state - without any substance to back their claims. They won’t be worried about the big picture, which implies looking at the fair and equal opportunity country that could emerge as a result of this or that candidate.
President Hifikepunye Pohamba, Nahas Angula and those who have informed that they will back Hage Geingob as Vice President of Swapo are on the verge of bringing this country together. They are on the verge of building the country of our dreams. This is an experiment that should not fail.
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.