The interior of Namibia’s political realities


By Henning Melber

TWELVE years after Independence in 1992, a lecturer in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Zimbabwe presented a paper titled “Reflections on the

idea of civil society in Zimbabwe”.


He then critically assessed the legacy of the Chimurenga as follows: “The detention and torture of dissidents in makeshift military and refugee camps in the bush was a common feature of the liberation war in southern Africa. Young men and women, many still unaccounted for, lost their lives in the guerilla camps under the most unacceptable of war circumstances… This resulted in a culture of fear driven by values of violence perpetrated in the name of nationalism and socialism.”


Almost 12 years later, in March 2004, the same scholar commented on the Zimbabwean/Namibian relations of today in the following way: “It is important to us in information to realise the critical role of the media in keeping the story of the liberation struggle (more in the post-Independence period) alive because the majority of the people in our countries are increasingly young people who are not familiar with the story of the liberation struggle, yet it is a very current story.” (New Era, March 5.)

The remarks were made on the occasion of his official visit to Namibia as Zimbabwe’s Minister of State for Information and Publicity. Indeed, both quotes are from the same person, Professor Jonathan Moyo. The authors of the book introduced share with the Jonathan Moyo of the early 1990s the commitment to a democratic society and the values of human rights. However, they would rather not share his subsequent career.


It is interesting to trace the common roots referred to by Moyo in the chapter by William Heuva on “Voices in the liberation Struggle”. It brings us back to the exile days, in which counter-propaganda and revolutionary rhetoric was a necessity in support of the armed liberation struggle. It highlights the militant and radical trajectory the liberation movement had to base its liberating programme on. A temporary necessity, one might argue, to equip the masses with the ideology required to combat a repressive regime like Apartheid. But the question remains in the post-colonial days, “to what extent the message, its rhetoric and ideology has been transformed,

modified or maintained”? This, as Heuva concludes, has “to be measured and ultimately answered in the context of post-colonial political culture and socio-economic transformation”.


More than a mere coincidence, the following chapter by Sufian Hemed Bukurura (“Between liberation struggle and constitutionalism”) compares Namibia and Zimbabwe in their transformation from an illegal settler regime to a legitimate post-colonial political system based on sound constitutional principles. The challenge he begins with is that “irrespective of who is in power, power of necessity requires the mediating of many competing interests, and involves striking delicate balances”.


But while the negotiated settlements in both processes of transition implied that the constitutional values and norms agreed upon provide the guiding principles and the framework for social transformation, “it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that liberation struggle and constitutionalism may be at odds in more than one way”.


The constitutional principles therefore remain a contested territory – as we can witness far too often in present day Namibia (which in contrast to Zimbabwe has at least not abandoned the fundamental guiding principles on which the new society based its constitution at Independence).

Two internationally renowned, long standing scholarly activists in support of the liberation struggles in Southern Africa, John S Saul and Colin Leys, take in their chapter a (self-)critical look at “Truth, reconciliation, amnesia”. They explore the current fight of the “ex-detainees” for justice. By doing so, they reconstruct this hidden history and make it better accessible as a struggle within the struggle. They criticise “a policy of reconciliation by way of amnesia”. For them the problem is “not the impossibility of devising appropriate mechanisms for an investigation: it is that those in power have consistently felt it to be either in the country’s broader interest or in their own much more narrow self-interest … not to allow one”.


Saul and Leys in conclusion also make reference to the autobiography of Swapo President Sam Nujoma. Christopher Saunders offers in the following chapter on “Liberation and Democracy” a critical reading of this programmatically entitled volume (“Where Others Wavered”). It recapitulates the history of the struggle until Independence from the point of view of the current President of the Republic of Namibia in his role as leader of the national liberation movement. Saunders’ analysis suggests:

“For Nujoma the struggle was waged for Independence, not for any particular form of political system, democratic or otherwise, or kind of social and economic organisation. … Nujoma is a Namibian nationalist.” Hence, he concludes: “A reading of ‘Where Others Wavered’ will bring no comfort to those concerned about the future of democracy in Namibia today.”


The legacy of the past as a colonial (first German and later South African) minority settler regime and the armed liberation struggle against these repressive and racist systems is reflected with reference to the current post-colonial memory landscape by Reinhart Koessler in his chapter on “Public Memory, Reconciliation and the Aftermath of War”. As he observes, the post-colonial “official memory and acknowledgement, is by and large, restricted to the frame of reference of the armed struggle”.

Despite the proclaimed policy of national reconciliation, “public memory is also a controversial issue in Namibia in wider spheres of civil society”. This refers in particular to the ignorance of official memory policy towards the violation of human rights by various participants in the struggle on all sides. As he finally remarks, there is a link between the state of denial on these issues and present controversies, which “may be understood as one aspect of the struggle for hegemony and definition of the past”.


This already suggests that the past and the present of any given society is inseparably linked to culture in its broadest sense and the policies with regard to various forms of culture. In her chapter on “State, politics and culture”, Minette Mans investigates in detail the case of music as a medium for the articulation of different cultural expressions and concepts (representing a variety of identities) within society. She identifies “an apparent conflict of interest between unity and diversity”, which under the notion of nation-building is decided by the central authorities and their power of definition in favour of the unitary paradigm. The diversity is sacrificed to the extent that “those who go their own individual way or promote individual cultural identities receive little attention or support and are even ‘suspect'”.


The appeal for such a permissive and open-minded approach leads to the issue of “Liberation and Tolerance”, with which André du Pisani deals in the concluding chapter of the volume. As he suggests, there are current indications that Namibian society from the point of view of those in political control offers room for improvement in terms of tolerance as a positive ingredient of a democratic and human rights-oriented society:

“Neo-patrimonial politics is much in evidence and with it a tendency to be rather intolerant of criticism, especially when it comes to issues that are regarded as in the ‘national interest’ or vital for ‘development’.” But he also adds in conclusion, that tolerance requires a materially conducive environment in support of such virtues. Consequently, “many more Namibians will have to become masters of the material means that make possible the genuine transformation of our society”.

But the “Limits to liberation” as the introductory chapter by the editor is titled, ought not to be ignored for the sake of individual gains and benefits. True loyalty to a country and its people requires not to close eyes when confronted with less positive social realities. As this chapter concludes: “In contrast to the settler colonialism endured for so many decades under the apartheid regime, the sovereign Republic of Namibia in its present state has, despite many shortcomings, much to offer most of its people. But it also fails to meet some of the more substantive and essential original ideals, ambitions and aims that were once articulated by the same social forces and their leaders who now exercise political power. During the liberation struggle, these leaders spearheaded the demands for human rights and dignity, social equality and a marked improvement in the living conditions of all Namibians. Measured against their own postulates, they were not always up to standard even then, and as the contributions to this volume illustrate, the indications are that their commitment and performance today also falls short in several respects.”


* Dr Henning Melber edited Re-examining Liberation in Namibia. Political Culture since Independence (Uppsala: The Nordic Africa Institute 2003).