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Namibia at 27 – anything to celebrate?

Image: Damara Zebras at Chudop waterhole, Etosha, Namibia. Wikimedia Commons

Professor Henning Melber tries to find something that ‘the land of wide open spaces’, Namibia, can celebrate on its 27th anniversary of independence.

Most visitors to Namibia are impressed. The beauty of the nature and wildlife is a tourist attraction. The inner cities appeal to foreigners who treasure security and comfort. Namibia adds a positive image to Africa. In governance and other performance related surveys it ranks among the continent’s top countries. So what is to be celebrated on 21 March, the 27th anniversary of its ‘independence day’?

The ‘land of the brave’, as praised by the national anthem, has shown a remarkable sign of political stability under the former liberation movement, SWAPO. It consolidated its rule into four fifths of political mandates at the last parliamentary election, with its presidential candidate Hage Geingob scoring 87 per cent. But beyond the surface of the success story looms a different reality. If tourists were to visit the settlements of shack-dwellers on the outskirts of Namibian towns, they would see a different world from the lodges and shopping malls.

Elitism and inequality
Prosperity has remained the privilege of few with wealth redistribution mainly limited to a new black elite. They thrive through a policy of so-called affirmative action and black economic empowerment. Namibia is a paradise for parasitic, rent-seeking self-enrichment schemes. The thiefdoms of state-owned enterprises flourished. State tenders wasted enormous sums for megalomaniac elite symbolism. Nepotism reigns in a society with one of the world’s highest income discrepancies.

The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report shows that the inequality adjusted value of human development dropped by 43.6 per cent – the second biggest decline in rankings. Using 2013 data, 23.5 per cent of the population was classified as living below the income poverty line, nearly half (44.9 per cent) fell under the Multiple Poverty Index (MPI), and another 19.3 per cent were classified as living near the MPI.

Economic mismanagement
State finances face a precarious shortage. The finance minister has introduced strict measures to keep the spiraling debt under control. The annual budget for 2017/18 reflects the need to restore fiscal prudence and austerity to regain liquidity and credibility. Local trust and confidence in the state’s ability to deliver is at an all-time low.

A contentious issue remains the bloated civil service of more than 100,000 employees for 2.3 million people. In 1996 a commission urged the then prime minister Hage Geingob to stop further expansion, which continued unabated. Government includes 27 ministers, 32 deputy ministers and six presidential advisors. The National Assembly and National Council were increased by one-third for the current legislative period. The public sector wage bill absorbs almost half of the annual expenditure. But the political elite continues to preach water and drink wine: a year ago President Geingob approved a 6 per cent salary increase for all political office holders. He currently is the regions’s second highest paid head of state.

Mounting policy tensions
Despite shifting grounds, the party still mobilises along the heroic narrative of the liberation struggle. Gerontocracy dominates, much to the frustration of a younger generation. But the ‘born frees’ will soon exceed the older generations in the electorate.

Inner-party rivalries and tensions, as well as ethnicity as a potential source of conflict are on the rise. An unresolved land issue, also manifested in urban and ancestral land claims, adds fuel to the flames

Dissenting voices, mainly by vocal younger activists provoke government to consider plans to censor the social media. A Whistleblower Bill debated in parliament suggests to heavily punish ‘lies’. It also prohibits any criticism of state institutions. Similar authoritarian tendencies are also SWAPO’s current disciplinary actions against those who criticise party politics. But this will not silence the growing frustration over the limits to liberation.

At 27, Namibia’s success story shows wear and tear. More than a generation into independence, the country and its governance might be considered as grown up, but certainly not (yet) mature.

Henning Melber is Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies at the School for Advanced Study, University of London, and at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. He joined SWAPO as a son of German immigrants in 1974. He is the author of Understanding Namibia. The trials of Independence  and A Decade of Namibia – Politics, Economy and Society.

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