NEEEF: Going Forward In Reverse?
The New Equitable Economic Empowerment Framework (NEEEF) is one of the government interventions by which Namibia’s wellbeing as a nation state is being appraised by the chief engine of development, the private sector, both domestic and international.
The debate about how to reverse the past economic disfranchisement of the black majority is not an easy one. It generates good and bad feelings at the same time. It would appear that the government speaks with forked tongue on the matter, depending on where the wind blows, or who is in the audience, which is not helpful at all.
We need to approach this conversation with sober minds so that the desired outcome is in the national interest. First, it is good that the government has initiated this conversation to facilitate meaningful transformation of our national economy. NEEEF is intended to be a deliberate and selective program to redress past inequalities that induced many years of white privileges versus black deprivation based on skin colour.
The main theatre of experimenting with deliberate actions to reverse the edifices of apartheid is South Africa where the game was and remains much bigger than in Namibia, even though the backgrounds in these sister countries are very similar in history, content and the contradictions that accompany the plausible government interventions.
The need for NEEEF, as was for Affirmative Action and BEE in Namibia lies in the appreciation that the inequalities that were inherited by the democratic government were mostly man-made and would not go away naturally.
Deliberate efforts on the part of the state are required in one form or another to undo the edifices of socio-economic and financial disparities with a seriously embedded racial character. The state cannot escape some serious attempts to level the playing field by growing the tent of the upper and middle class ranks from the majority citizenry of the country by ‘advantaging the previously disadvantaged’ and ‘disadvantaging the previously advantaged’ members of inherently racially defined communities.
No one can dispute that apartheid colonialism deprived the future Namibian state of a good foundation for socio-economic development.
Apartheid practices founded deep schisms along tribal, racial, and gender lines across the country. These divisions were all spheres of socio-economic life, be it education, healthcare, living space and most significantly in the labour market and asset ownership of productive resources like land, mining and fisheries. Twenty-six years after independence, Namibia is among countries with the highest income inequalities in the world.
Earlier interventions like Affirmative Action and Black Economic Empowerment did very little to bring about real upliftment of Afrikan Namibians, women and citizens with physical disabilities, to play meaningful roles in the economy. To make matters worse, land and natural resource ownership in the country remains skewed in the hands of foreign owners. Statistics show that income gaps have widened even more obscenely with the emergence of a new, politically connected and parasitically wealthy black elite who flaunt their richness at the slightest provocation.
At the moment, the stated objectives of NEEEF are to: Ensure sharing of Namibian resources in an equitable and sustainable basis by the people of Namibia; Create a socially just society; Implement measurable policies of redress and redistribution; Create vehicles for empowerment; Remove barriers of socio-economic advancement in order to enable previously disadvantaged persons to access produce assets and opportunities of empowerment; Actively guard against the repugnant tendencies of window-dressing, favouritism, nepotism and self-enrichment; Provide measurement of empowerment targets; Ensure that an empowering act is meant to launch individuals to empower themselves in the future using the basis of their initial empowerment; Empower economically forms of ownership in public, private, joint public-private, cooperative, co-ownership, and small-scale businesses, and, Ensure that equitable empowerment addresses disparities occasioned by class, gender and generational relationships.
The question is whether NEEEF is the right approach to redressing the past imbalances. Besides being the longest acronym in development lingo thus far, it drowns in the idioms of change continuity in the body politic of the country. NEEEF represents, to all intents and purposes, the newest version of Affirmative Action and BEE or the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) which was later introduced in South Africa and which resulted in a new conundrum, namely the enriching of a few very connected individuals who became known as tenderpreneurs with enormous access to political power and who amassed tremendous wealth overnight, at the expense of true and meaningful wealth distribution and poverty eradication.
There are also contradictions. In some of the government language, NEEEF is supposed to be a voluntary business practice with the state providing only legitimate market mechanisms by way of procurement management and licensing regimes to promote medium and long term transformation, in the following areas: (a) Business ownership with a minimum requirement of 25% ownership by ‘previously disadvantaged Namibians’; (b) Management control and employment equity with a minimum of 50% of board and management consisting of disadvantaged persons; (c) Expenditure on training and skills development with a minimum of 1,5% of gross wages to be spent; (d) Entrepreneurship development with procurement spending on goods and services to be provided by historically disadvantaged Namibians; and (e) Community investments with a minimum of 1% of after tax profits to be spent on community development projects. Against this backdrop, one has to ask: Why did it take so long to do this and what is it that the Government is admitting to have wrong?
Further, like Affirmative Action and BEE, NEEEF is likely to lead to a brain drain, where a good reservoir of qualified white expertise is likely to migrate to countries where they would not be discriminated against. In spite of the latent moral necessity for transformation, the NEEEF paper trail in its current form neither inspires nor provides real new, creative ideas for transformation. Where it almost does, it offers false hopes for disaffected black Namibians who live hard lives in the Land of the Brave. In the main, the rhetoric tends to reflect the interests of its drafters and their pay masters instead of the national interests of the country. NEEEF is likely to alienate the private sector that is vitally needed to oil the process. Hence, a good number of stakeholders have already pronounced themselves against the unintended consequence of the intervention, including the fear that it is sending out to potential investors. Namibia ought to understand that investment is not always at the behest of the government but an activity of an open market where players compete openly for space, resources and services. The more the government intervenes, the less conducive the environment becomes for international investors who are lured not only by promises of the government at conferences, but by the reputation of the country in its dealings with its citizens and the rest of the world. There also seems to be a lack of meaningful participation towards consensus nationally.
It is also difficult to see the compelling reason to legislate measures against white citizens in a country where race relations have been much more positive considering that the protracted war of independence is behind us. Given the low numbers of white citizens, it cannot be correct that law is needed to manage the behaviour of about 5% of the population. One would have hoped that the nation has reached a level of political maturity and sophistication to cause the government that enjoys so much support would steward the economic transformation process differently, and along the following lines:
Encourage an investment climate: On the back of the good race relations Namibia enjoys, use it as a competitive edge in the region and the continent to lure international investments. This is important because the majority of the investors the country is praying to attract are not black, but white;
Execute training and skills transfer: The sought investments we are talking about are not by way of racial solidarity, but injection in the economy to create jobs and narrow the inequality gap. Unfortunately, the skills required are not in cultural performances, but in innovation, creativity and abstract thinking: This is the white world we are talking about;
Spearhead tertiary education for skills development: It would have been better to regulate that tertiary education institutions partner early on with the private sector to transfer skills to the youth while they are studying in order to prepare them towards real skills and expertise;
Incentivize investment through tax regimes: Give trustworthy foreign and local investors tax breaks so that their tax contributions come by way of the taxes their employees pay;
Relax immigration protocols: Make less cumbersome the entry and starts of investors with bona fide applications to create employment, and provide encouragement that they do not only flock into the capital but offer them incentives to settle in the hinterlands of the country so as to lessen the burden on the capital in the medium and short terms and become less and less dependent on foreign problem solvers. This is so because often our leaders undervalue the expertise that is local and spend resources on foreign ideas which are readily available right here. In other words, it is about time to start believing in ourselves and accept assistance from well-meaning international role players.
Turn the volume down, improve the life of the nation, while we are still small a population to manage change, and create a culture with different work and accountability ethics. If we do not this change will manage us, like it is the case across Afrika now looking back and saying: We should have things differently. We in Namibia have no excuse to fail first because we have witnessed the failures elsewhere and are in a perfect position to prevent them. Let merit reign, not our skin color and not the struggle credentials.
Place emphasis of development not on a few entrepreneurs or tenderpreneurs but aggressively on the development of the youth, to whom the future belongs, and to enable the Namibian child to get ahead and stay ahead.
Instead of assuming that all people want to be entrepreneurs, transform rural Namibia into permanent and decent family living areas rather than abandon them as permanent informal settlements for those who cannot go anywhere else.
Instead of trying to weaken the strong to strengthen the weak, grow the economy by reducing the government bureaucracy and making it strictly functional and responsive to the development needs of the nation rather than keeping dead wood comrades afloat at the expense of the nation.
As a nation we need to value competencies Namibians have and augment them with the goodwill and expertise of non-nationals who bring something to the table. At the moment, mediocrity is reigning and as a result we are getting the results we have been getting since independence. What NEEEF is suggesting is necessary and important, but the story line must change. For us to get the results we desire, we must do things differently for the sake of the Namibian child tomorrow! Namibia belongs to all who live in it, black, white and Asian!