Succession should be about light, and not heat

16 November 2012

THE ongoing Swapo Party leadership campaign, which will reach a potentially explosive zenith at the end of this month has led to a scission amongst Namibians.


Divisions are palpable when you scratch the surface of social media conversations, chats and the general tone of the print media. These surface divisions provide without doubt, only a vague idea of the real political temperature within Swapo. As such, one can only assume that there is more heat within the ruling party.

In democracies, being divided around leadership succession is not necessarily a bad thing. When you frame matters this way, contestations and divisions around the question of who will emerge as the presidential candidate of Swapo at the next national presidential polls in 2014 is one that should divide public opinion. I argue that it should divide public opinion in light of the stakes involved for the future of this country.

Only a miracle in 2014 could result in Swapo losing the elections. Unfortunately, miracles don’t always happen. The absence of miracles and robust competition to Swapo is what makes leadership contests within Swapo a matter of concern to all Namibians.

It should be mentioned that there are two camps of thought on this issue and they determine the depth and scale (and shallowness) of our divisions. There are Namibians, and I should add, party cadres who are constantly asking the question: What is in it for the country if one of the three candidates (Hage Geingob, Jerry Ekandjo or Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana) wins the VP contest? On the other side of the deadly fence are those who are asking the more egoistical question: what is in it for me? The extension to this is: what is in it for us as a group and community? It is in the main, these questions that form the core of our divisions in Namibia around leadership.

Within Swapo, these have been even more pronounced in light of the recent past, and experiment of open leadership succession at the very top. Internally, it appears Swapo is trying to avoid a repeat of the past with internal party unity being emphasized as the rallying call going forward. To avoid a repeat of the past, and consequently setting the debate about succession on the right path would demand that we cast our interests in a different framework.

In a republic where the collective public good should always reign supreme, the conversation about leadership should be about the collective aspirations of a people. This does not only imply macro-level conversations about the high-stakes politics of the presidency of the country. At every micro-level of leadership, the same recurring question about how best a specific leader could serve the country should be raised. Instead, we have as a collective reduced leadership to some of the most mundane and petty questions. The media has been feeding us with pettiness and has been thriving on it.

I have raised the view elsewhere that leadership is not about a personality contest. I don’t mean to say that this does not entirely matter. But it is not about how nice we are to people around us. After all, I do not share the view that a leader has to be particularly nice. Men or women of power are not particularly nice people. Therefore, I do not expect the nice guy or the girl next door to lead us. Even in that case, the demands of office and the pressures of power would always create men and women who are deeply flawed.

So, what we should expect from leaders, are partially flawed but competent men and women to lead a country. It is why the debate about leadership should be less about heat (the personalities involved), but more about light – as in the competencies and abilities involved.

It is for this reason that we should locate leadership in the national interest and the changing nature of that interest, including how specific qualities would advance the national interest. At different epochs, certain types of leaders, with their unique qualities must come to the fore and lead a people. To think in these terms has less to do with what we can myopically benefit from a candidate as individuals or communities.

Namibia is a republic and the national leadership should be aspirational in terms of the republican demands of freedom and equality - fairness and opportunity. Therefore, the question Swapo cadres and the rest of us should ask relate more to what individual candidates represent in terms of these republican demands of our time and the state we seek to fashion. To reach this high stage would impose the expectation on us, of being less concerned with dangerous heat, but more light.

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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