The National Question
A life unexamined is a life not worth living, warned the ancient Greek philosopher Cicero. They say the direction and the outcome of the conversation are determined by the types of questions that its participants ask of one another. A story might make this clearer.
During one of the crisis moments in the political history of Eritrea’s break-away from its cousin-country Ethiopia, there was constant political uncertainty and ethnic strife. Inhabitants of enemy territory, and trust was extremely hard to come by. One senior headman, Omar, possessed more wealth than others and to protect himself, his family and property, he turned into a warlord—thus becoming the controller and dispenser of fear and violence in the community.
Being a mainly pre-capitalist economy, the number of heads of cattle was the signature of an individual’s wealth. Old Omar had many cows. He commanded tremendous respect. He was an opinion maker—feared and revered. A disease struck the animals in the country. One international donor agency sent animal experts to assist the Eritreans to combat the disease that was wreaking havoc in the country’s economy.
The delegation of foreign experts learned that Old Omar was the gateway to the community. They understood that without Old Omar’s cooperation, it would be difficult for them to reach the affected community with their research questions to ascertain the nature of the epidemic and its consequences.
In the first meeting with the community, the European expert asked: “Mr. Omar, how rich are you, I mean, how many heads of cattle do you as the leader have?” The question put fear in Omar’s old heart. For him danger was coming if he disclosed his wealth in the midst of poverty and in the context of great suspicion. He looked at all the gloomy faces around him and answered softly: “Twenty.”
The researchers already heard that he was the wealthiest, and everybody knew he had much more than even one hundred. Silence beset the whole meeting. The translator whispered in the ear of the animal disease expert and persuaded him to take a break so that they could consult to the side.
Puzzled, the expert agreed. During the break, the translator said: “Sir, you asked the wrong question. Try to rephrase your question to Omar!” When the meeting resumed, the expert asked the same Omar: “Mr. Omar, seeing that we are here to find a solution to the problem your community is facing, tell me: How many of your animals do you think must be injected to stop the disease from spreading?”
Omar answered with enthusiasm: “Two hundred.” The rest of the people followed to disclose how many animals they possessed that needed treatment. This time the question was seeking a solution for all, not condemning the old man for being richer than others and therefore the first victim of attack.
The questions we pose bespeak the focus of our reality, for better or worse. That good or bad reality in turn determines our attitudes in the conversations we participate in. The context sets the tone and the hermeneutics of suspicion and fear. Namibia today is in a context which is bedeviled by fear and suspicion.
Streets and footpaths, hair salons, beer halls, taxi ranks, traditional gatherings, and now abandoned school premises, have the same refrain.
We are facing the biggest strike in the history of independent Namibia, and in the most critical area of nation-building – education and culture. The High Court ruled this week in favor of the frustrated teachers and at the same time dismissed the government’s application to stop the strike.
The government had valid reasons not to want the strike, including our national interests of peace and stability. It would appear that government policymakers were caught napping while they were addressing the wrong questions, or tackling the right questions at the wrong time, or acted in bad faith or all of the above, for that matter.
The government once again, was proven to be acting contrary to the precepts of the Constitution. At night’s fall, the government was sent home to lick its wounds, which is not good for its good reputation. The point is that the government has lost the fourth major case in a space of eight months, and this a cause for concern.
It lost the case against the expelled SPYL leaders (actually Swapo lost, not government – *editor), it lost the case of the birth right of child born in Namibia, it lost the airport tender against a Chinese company, and now it lost against Nantu on Wednesday.
How do we, in the current state of affairs, fashion a conversation in a manner that does not pit us one against the other, such that a new dialogue ensues that can assist us to move forward rather than backwards?
Good Namibian citizens are not sure what questions to ask, and they fear that voicing their opinions would put them in the box of being anti-Government.
It is therefore incumbent upon us as citizens to become relevant and ask tough and honest questions of one another. This is particularly difficult now in the climate of fear at a time when life is economically very hard and in the context that the government is the biggest employer and tender dispenser in the country.
In other words, how do we distill the displeasure of our teachers across the country, and take the lessons we are learning from all these admittedly events?
Without getting into the merits or demerits of the teachers’ strike, we can agree that the nation is talking, and in most likelihood asking the wrong questions and drawing all manners of conclusions, ninety nine percent of which are not flattering of the government. One does not have to be pro or against anything.
One immediate conclusion any patriotic Namibian draws is that the Namibian government is not institutionalised. If it was, the personnel around the President and ministers would be institutionally appointed to make sure the right caliber arrive there. Political scientists would describe such as a government system that lacks a core and a rectitude base. As a consequence, those leading it are forced to flip-flop, depending on the size of the threat to their own political safety, and strictly in search of populist points to justify an international price of sorts.
Perhaps the President is ill served either by a lack of serious advisors who ought to be telling him what he must hear as opposed to what they think he wants to hear for their own job security. Maybe the advisors do not realise the onerous and fortuitous responsibility to offer ideas to a democratically elected Head of State. Perhaps we are all at fault here not to have asked the right questions of our political system thus far.
For instance, it is unfathomable that the President was not advised timeously that the time to intervene with the teachers’ grievances is not after threatening them with ‘no work-no pay’ language.
That an urgent consultation barely 48 hours before the commencement of a legally processed strike could not do much; that by now government should be institutionalised so that government speaks and acts in a seamless fashion instead of relying on the President to intervene episodically like a traditional chief; that it is dangerous to have an executive that operates without synergy on the one hand and sets of official advisors stomping the ground without the same hymn sheet; that crisis management or Jazz Politics is not governance.
Unless something is done to government personnel and tactic of governance in the country, we are likely to see the government limping from one disaster to another, and the nation grows in name-calling instead of finding common ground for meaningful collaboration and mutual support, wherever we are.
With a growing number of court indictments of government behavior, the executive organ of the government is likely to grow in intolerance towards the judiciary which it sees as uncooperative, subversive, and reactionary. If we do not nip our insecurities in the bud right away, we may soon see those in political power criminalising (political) difference.
Like the High Court advised: Policy makers ought to have anticipated labour bottlenecks and put in place mechanisms to obviate impasses such as this. We cannot ask of teachers to tighten their belts while government officials are loosening theirs.
We all need to engage in asking disruptive questions to lead us to an affirmative narrative about our common history and common destiny. To invoke Bob Marley, ‘None But Ourselves’ can take this country forward. By extension, only we Afrikans can deliver this great but not altogether happy continent into the Promised Land.
It is neither our antagonisms to nor our hostilities towards one another that will make Namibia a better place. It is our relationships with one another that can build the foundation for future generations, be they black, white, brown–even future Euro and Asian-Namibians.
We are now our own masters, and we are thus the agents and agencies of change towards socio-economic emancipation. We ought to turn to one another and appreciate our own limited competencies, look one another in the eye and shine the light on the over-arching national question: Who are we, what constitutes us, how did we get here, how do we relate to one another as human beings, how do we use available resources (human, material and intellectual) for the benefit of all and the common good, and how do we relate to our neighbors near and far?
From this national question will flow sign posts towards our appointment with history and a compass to guide and monitor our steps and our stops in the management of our differences in our homes, communities, churches, businesses, political party and civil society formations, and as a nation. In the final analysis, we will remembered not by the fear we generate, or how the wealth we acquire over-night through upmanship, connections or tenderpreneurship, but by how we respond, in or own ways, in good faith, to the national question.