Namibia should construct sustainable poles of excellence

24 January 2013

IN the second half of last year, South African Airways won the Best Airline in Africa award at the World Airline Awards held on July 13at the Farnborough Air Show.


The World Airline Awards prides itself as the primary benchmarking tool when it comes to passenger satisfaction levels of airlines throughout the world. The results are based on a survey of 38 key performance indicators.

Without surprise, the top two spots belonged to South Africa - South African Airways in pole position, with Kulula in second place. On the whole, South Africa had four companies in the top 10 in Africa. After the announcement, as I was driving to work, I recall an early morning conversation on Highveld Radio where two radio anchors were discussing the award that was given to South African Airways.

The main tone of this conversation was not serious, but mockingly discussed the award and what it should mean for South Africa as a country, and the government airline in particular. The key concern raised by the two anchors was that it did not take much to be the best in Africa and such an award should not be seen as a key indicator of how good their national airline is.

Ever since this award, South African Airways has seen a mass exodus of key personnel, including the resignation of the board and the chief executive.

Ordinarily, South Africa as the leading economy in Africa would be home to some of the best-run companies, Universities, think tanks and other institutions of excellence on the continent.

In the main, the moral of the story here is that Africa is not a benchmark. Since Africa is composed of states, however weak they may be in certain instances, it may serve a purpose to be the best in Africa, especially when the ambitions are much bigger. It is why China ought to provide interesting lessons to African policymakers and business leaders.

Early this month, the China Daily carried comments from a leader of organised business (whose name I can’t recall), saying that she believed that Chinese companies must use Africa as a means to hone their skills in order to compete meaningfully in the advanced markets of the industrialised West, and certain parts of Asia, including Japan and South Korea.

As a country, we have not yet been able to interrogatethese questions focussing on leadership excellence and countrywide excellence. With very few exceptions, most of us in this country are more worried with making a quick buck through this and that tender, without due regard to institutional depth, solidity and sustainability.

Yet the strategies of businesses and other institutions ought to be closely aligned to a national strategy and culture of excellence.This does not mean that there are no national champions in this country. You will have to dig deep to find names. However, there are Namibians who have been doing a remarkable job in building poles of excellence, including Sven Thieme, John Gawaxab, Tjama Tjivikua and Frans Indongo. We of course have seen our fair share of top achievers in sports and the arts, including Frank Fredericks, John Muafangejo, Mohammed Ouseb to name but a few.

As I had intoned, the key challenge to better performance lies in the absence of national culture of excellence – the type that you would find in countries like Singapore, Japan and some of the leading industrialised countries of the West. I have always argued that society must be better than the individual. For society to transcend individual failures and shortcomings, it must have or seek to build robust institutions, including schools, government ministries, state-owned enterprises, and in a sociological sense, other solid social institutions, including the family and religious actors as purveyors of certain values.

What we instead have and do not seek to repair is an anti-social fabric that is predicated on the short-term in the form of a capitalism that does not speak to the nation, but to a select few. This is largely a function of a dominant anti-intellectual ruling class that is less concerned with promoting the best and the brightest, but morethe connected.

It is naïve to think that we can be better if we allow the wound of crony-capitalism to fester. It is naïve to think that we can prosper when the recruitment of political personnel and CEOs at parastatals is the result of party scarves around our necks, fists, song and uncritical engagement with leaders. In order to construct sustainable poles of excellence, Namibia needs a diverse pool of competent, independent men and women in politics, business, the arts and sports.

In short, we need a learning country where leadership recruitment is the result of strategic national concerns, rooted in robust implementable policy choices.

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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