Namibia at the Crossroads

Namibia is a country that rarely makes the international headlines, whether for “good” or for “bad” reasons.

It has enjoyed peace since winning its independence in 1990 and this is remarkable in a country – one of the most sparsely populated on Earth – which over the last century has fallen under the control of two colonial powers.
Until World War I, it was a German colony, a period marked by repression and the genocide of tens of thousands of tribesmen who were driven into the desert where they starved to death as they tried to escape the bullets and bombs of the Kaiser’s Reich.
Then neighbouring South Africa, which had recently declared itself a “Union” took control as the Germans lost their war in Europe, and imposed its official apartheid system after 1948. As a wave of liberation wars swept across Africa, Namibia was not to be left out but had to soldier on until 1990 to gain its independence (only South Africa, which became free in 1994, and Western Sahara, which is still under Moroccan colonialism, have had to wait longer).
This makes Namibia a post-colonial, post-apartheid and post-conflict nation that faces many of the same problems as its neighbours as well as some that are unique to its historical and contemporary context.
Today it is a country largely at peace, in terms of political stability, and many things are going well.
On the global corruption index, Namibia ranks lower than many other countries in Africa. Tourism is growing, though balancing the environmental impact is a challenge, and the mining sector and fisheries continue to generate big bucks for investors.
But in a country that is extremely rich in mineral resources, there is great inequality. And in that regard it is like much of Africa.
Further, many of the big landowners are whites who can own tens of thousands of hectares each while the majority of locals live in rural areas or urban hovels, and the black population is increasingly angry about this situation.
So now the President, His Excellency Hifikepunye Lucas Pohamba, says the white land barons must give up some of their holdings to make the situation fairer, or possibly face a revolution.
President Pohamba is on record remarking that the country has for 22 years “managed to remain so peaceful, and how he intends to deal with the underlying anger and growing discontent in his country”.
In an interview with Al Jazeera in October of this year he said, “A conference on the land suggested that those who have plenty of land they should sell it to the government. And we tried to get the land from them, but unfortunately there is reluctance. Something else has to be tried.
“We are not talking about confiscation, we are talking about them to sell the land to the government in order for the government to distribute the land to – I don't like to use the word black – but to those who were formally disadvantaged by the situation.
“For the last 20 years we have been appealing to them that please let's consider ourselves irrespective of our colour. As one people, as Namibians and if a Namibian is suffering, let's all sympathise with him. Here we have hundreds if not thousands of Namibian people who have no land and therefore are suffering.
“We have the policy of willing-seller, willing-buyer, that has not been working for the last 22 years and I think something has to be done to amend the constitution so that the government is allowed to buy the land for the people. Otherwise, if we don't do that we will face a revolution. And if the revolution comes, the land will be taken over by the revolutionaries.
“Inequality exists … people are not happy and when you talk about people not happy what do you expect? They can react. And when they react, then those who have the land will not have the land, people will take over the land.”
So how will the land barons in Namibia respond to this?
History teaches us that the response has largely been arrogant.
We saw this in Zimbabwe where the largely white Commercial Farmers Union resisted for years all efforts to democratise land ownership and engender by creating a broader middle class in the process.
They were arrogant and obstinate and the end result was the Fast-Track Land Reform Programme.
Some will argue that the Zimbabwe programme should have been conducted in a more orderly fashion. That is true. But the real issue is that the land barons should have been more reasonable. Besides, in such ventures as nationwide land reforms, the ends usually justify the means.
In that regard, President Pohamba is right. The land barons must become more reasonable or face a revolutionary backlash whose consequences they really do not want to take a gamble on.
• Temba Museta is based in Windhoek, Namibia

November 2012
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