THE quote “If you're not an optimist, you're not paying attention" is attributed to the American cognitive scientist and linguist Noam Chomsky. Like the Australian journalist, documentary filmmaker and author John Pilger, who died this week, and political scientist John Mearsheimer, Chomsky's rebellious opinions on US foreign policies are mostly too wilful to leave unchallenged.
But as far as my trip to Namibia over the past month is concerned, Chomsky is spot on. The people of Namibia are putting the liberation struggle behind them and building a country for their children despite a governing party that, with North Korean and Chinese money, is building palaces for its leader and his party rather than maintaining schools and hospitals.
Not only do Namibians fill me with a sense of optimism, but there are trends and phenomena in this desert country that can serve as signposts for South Africa. The most important indicator is that Namibia — unlike South Africa — has a minister behind bars for alleged corruption.
I'm trying to be legally correct with the “alleged", but actually he and other ministers were caught with their pants down. The so-called Fishrot scandal involves allegations against several officials — including two former ministers — of corruption, tax evasion, money laundering and bribery during the allocation of fishing quotas.
As for the media, Namibia is in dire need of investigative journalists to support the courageous fight against corruption of the daily newspaper The Namibian, but the bomb burst after Al Jazeera, the state-run Qatari news channel, with the help of a whistleblower, caught fisheries minister Bernhardt Esau asking for a Chinese mobile phone with two sim cards as part of a $170,000 deal for himself and another $30,000 for Swapo, “because it is difficult for authorities to hatch such a phone”.
Others were arrested with Esau: his son-in-law Tamson Hatuikulipi, former justice minister Sacky Shanghala, and the chairperson of a state-owned fishing company, James Hatuikulipi. This was after a joint investigation by Al Jazeera, Icelandic state broadcaster RUV and the Icelandic magazine Stundin. The investigation was based on leaked documents provided by WikiLeaks.
Had similar high-profile arrests in South Africa followed the release of the Zondo commission report, President Cyril Ramaphosa's periodic allusions to progress in prosecuting state capturers would not have been met with such scepticism.
The little gang of Namibian freedom fighters have been in custody since November 2019 and, despite several attempts, have so far failed to convince a court to grant them bail. The case continues. President Hage Geingob cautiously replaced his incriminated colleagues with temporary ministers and then — blow my bloody soul — without any sense of irony or shame thanked Esau and Shanghala for their “patriotism and contribution to good governance".
Sceptical Namibians claim the president's public loyalty to corrupt ministers encourages an uneasy silence that serves Swapo and perhaps even himself. Geingob recently made a humble admission in the name of transparency that his personal assets are worth more than N$50 million. You have to be naive not to be sceptical when a politician has that type of wealth.
What made things even more uncomfortable for Swapo and Geingob was that the arrests of Esau and Shanghala were carried out by Namibia's anti-corruption commission on the eve of the 2019 elections. With these events fresh in the news, Namibians showed their resentment for the liberation party in dramatic fashion at the ballot box. Namibia has a semi-presidential system and the president is elected independently of the legislature. Geingob was re-elected but his share of the vote dropped from 87% (2014) to 56% (2019).
Swapo lost its two-thirds majority in the national legislature and in local elections the following year it ceded a host of councils, including the capital Windhoek and the third-largest city, Walvis Bay, to opposition parties. Namibians' patience with corrupt government is clearly running low. The similarities with South Africa's 2021 elections, in which the ANC received less than 50% of the votes for the first time since 1994, cannot be ignored. Liberation politics' shelf life is being challenged.
Evidence of this is the support that has emerged for presidential candidate Panduleni Itula, the founder and president of Independent Patriots for Change in Namibia. This is a clear challenge to Swapo and Namibian politics. Itula reminds me a lot of Rise Mzansi's Songezo Zibi. He is a jurist and a former dentist at Katutura State Hospital. As an independent candidate for the presidency, he came second to Geingob with 29.4% of the vote. South Africa does not have a single politician outside the ANC's circle of influence who can mobilise this type of support. This is exactly what will be required if we want to remove the ANC from power.
There are other reasons to be optimistic about the future of Namibia. For some reason — perhaps even a slightly naive one — a visitor to the country might get the impression that relations between white and black are considerably less strained than in South Africa. Conventional wisdom has it that the Germans who took their leave in 1919 were the true colonialists and that much of the racial tension fled back across the Orange River in 1989 in rattling Casspirs. For many Namibians, this was a symbolic but important military victory. In South Africa, there was never a military victory over the apartheid state's military, and an enduring consciousness remains of Thabo Mbeki's description of white South Africans as “colonialists of a special kind", an idea that still frames the fault lines between white and black in fire and brimstone.
The perception that race relations is not a primary cause of tension between identities in Namibia may be more of an undefined impression than a measurable observation, but for many Namibians it is a lived reality. Given that Namibia's history is closely intertwined with that of apartheid South Africa, no one can naively claim that racism and inequality were eradicated, but they no longer define human relations in the country that “God made in a moment of anger".
The white Namibians who remained after the withdrawal of the South African military account for 6.4% (169,000) of a population of nearly 2.7 million and share their love of cattle farming with 198,000 Hereros. Their middle-class interests are significantly aligned with the commercialised and market-economic lifestyles of the 1.32 million Ovambos of the Oshana region, an area that has seen unprecedented development since independence in 1990. The white Namibians also share a language with the Rehoboth Basters, the coloured people and the Namaquas in the far south.
There can be no doubt that the Swapo government spent a lot of money in the north in an attempt to maintain its political monopoly in this part of Namibia, but a sense of competition and an affinity for risk make the Ovambos natural entrepreneurs and retailers who understand economic growth well.
This past week I drove through Oshana (Ovambo) with Western Cape jurist Lourens Ackermann and a Namibian entrepreneur, Wouter van Zijl. Namibia's roads are in extremely good condition. Our journey started at Epupa in the Kunene region on an excellent dirt road, and from there to our first stop at Ruacana's hydro energy project. From there we travelled on tarmac without potholes to Oshakati, Ongwediva and Ondangwa.
The cleanliness of these towns along the way, the sense of order, and the complexity of both formal and informal economic activity are astounding compared with what I sometimes experience in the rural parts of South Africa. The sense of complete security amid a maddening multitude of middle-class and surely also lower-middle-class Namibians who trade without ideology, provide services and have a meaningful existence, is impressive.
The country is not without its problems and flaws. Namibia Wildlife Resorts is as downbeat and dilapidated as most state-owned enterprises in South Africa. My overnight stay in Etosha's Namutoni camp should never have happened. The sordid state of the historic old German fort is a tourism disaster. However, the same can be said of most of the things the Swapo government and the ANC in South Africa manage.
Many state schools are reliant on the parents to survive, and clinics and hospitals are in a battered state in many places. Like the ANC, Swapo is corrupt and unwieldy, and the party will hopefully — and mercifully — not survive politically for another decade. The signs that the people of Namibia and South Africa are becoming increasingly sceptical of politicians are clearly to be read in election results, and we obviously have not yet lost our interests in each other.
South Africans and Namibians today are healthier, more peaceful, scholastically better equipped and more blessed with the ability to solve our problems of political power, economic monopolism and sociological survival than ever before in history. Just when I wanted to forget this, a trip through Oshana in northern Namibia reminded me of it once again. We are not our weaknesses; we are not the ANC and Swapo. Now South Africans, like our neighbours in Namibia, must work at getting our first corrupt senior politician behind bars.
♦ VWB ♦
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