Sunday, January 3, 2010

“Snow in summer”- one of many underlying indications of symbolic power

It is in the midst of summer. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it means we are entering the months of October-January and the seasonal temperatures ranges from 25 to 50 degrees Celsius. But come what may, if it is Christmas, our own Santa Clauses are dressed in “winter gear”- complete with red and white wool fibre costume and matching hat, as well as black boots to keep the snow out I presumed. As The Namibian illustrated with an image on December 13, 2007, which prompted this article, the streets are decorated with artificial snow flakes. In other words, if we cannot get the real thing, why not just make it up?

In their struggle for independence from Britain, Australians challenged this status quo when one of its citizens, developed a map that showed the southern hemisphere on top (figure 1). Nevertheless, Christmas cards in Australia still indicate colder climates- snow, woolly fibres, hats and boots.

How have we - the world that is- come to accept this Eurocentric norm? The idea of a winter dressed Santa Clause, in the hottest time of the year, is only one of the many absurdities of adopting western principles without reflecting on the underlying meanings and possible implications. But it is the concept of religion, definition of beauty and race that indicate just how the Eurocentric norm has become the


I cringe every time I walk into my grandmother’s house and see the image of the Last Supper that illustrates Jesus and his apostles as white. Walk into many of the established churches in Namibia and observe the images of the holy beings depicted as white. If we are taught that humans are created in the image of God, and the image of Jesus, the son of God, as well as the Holy Virgin Mary, are presented as white, what effect does that have on the black mind? The justification of Apartheid under theological grounds brought religion into the public sphere. Is it time to rethink the representations of the churches and their gods in Namibia?

Hair as the epitome of beauty

Hair is a constant reminder of race. I took the decision seven years ago to stop relaxing my hair. I am often told that I look ugly, my hair is “kroes” or better yet: “now you look just like real wamboe or like those Nigerians”. What does that mean? I can only speculate that among many Namibians, good hair equals long and silky- thus the relaxing or fake human hair that is so common among black Namibians. Bad hair equals curly and hard- thus it has to be “straightened” in order to get the kinks out. The common Coloured phrase “dink aan jou nageslag” (think about your offspring) says enough about the importance of hair and skin colour.


If you are 50% black and 50% white, you are automatically classified as black. Coloureds emphasise their white blood, always not really sure what kind of black blood flow through their bodies. But then again, you might be looking white (blond hair blue eyes), nevertheless as you were born to coloured parents it means you have black blood thus cannot be totally white. You might be looking coloured (brown skin with long hair), but then as you were born to a black parent it means your black blood is too obvious, thus you cannot be classified as coloured. What exactly are we continuing to imply: that the blood from the black race is so strong that it overpowers and spoil the blood of the white race?

Is it not time to start thinking about underlying symbols that, in my view, continue to maintain the feelings of superiority and inferiority among so many whites and blacks, and especially in the coloured community?

In Racial Consciousness Micheal Banton tells the story of an American journalist that asked the President of Haiti:

“What proportion of the island is white? 95%, respond the President. Puzzled the journalist asked ‘how do you define white?’ The President responded by asking ‘how do you define coloured?’ Journalist responds, ‘well anyone with Negro blood is coloured’. The President responded: ‘Yes, that is our definition too, anyone with white blood is white’” (p. 67).

Says Banton: “Imaginary perhaps, but this shows that when there are two categories only, why would anyone choose the [lower defined race]”?

Independence brought an end to the ideology of a superior white race. But, Independence also needs to be reflected in our behaviour. What difference does it make if we change a street name from Kaiser Wilhelm to Independence Avenue, yet we still aspire to be or look like Kaiser Wilhelm?

Friday, November 27, 2009

*Rally for Democracy and Progress: old wine in new bottle?

The newly formed Namibian political party, Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP), might be a faint hint of excitement for politics in Namibia. The ‘old stalwarts’ that is at the helm of the RDP, is comparable to the formation of Kenya’s National Rainbow Coalition, which won the Kenyan election in December 2002 with 61%, and saw an ‘old stalwart’, Mwai Kibaki, become President. Back then in 2002, Kenyans who were frustrated with the dominant liberation party leadership of the Kenya African National Union (KANU) - that saw Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arab Moi run the country in absolute chaos for 38 years- had high hopes for the newly formed political party. However, there were also those who were concerned, because Kibaki was one of the heavy guns of KANU, serving as Member of Parliament since Kenya’s Independence in 1964, which include several prominent ministerial profiles, including the Vice Presidency under Moi. In other words, Kibaki was part of the leadership that saw many ordinary Kenyans slip into adverse poverty since their Independence. He fell out of favour with Moi, amidst rumours of power plays, and eventually left KANU to form his own party in 1991. Did Kibaki fall out of favour because of a clash over disagreements of failed policies or unanswered political ambition? His current reign, which is dominated by allegations of corruption and continuing lack of real progress, provides an easy answer to that question.

Why the analogy? For one, Jesaya Nyamu and Hidipo Hamutenya’s protest walk out from the liberation movement headed by SWAPO (South West Africa Peoples Organistaion) strike me as comparable to Kibaki’s departure from KANU. In the case of Nyamu, I refer to his notes as a protest walk out. Here, I am not analysing the controversy of how his notes were found and eventually led to his expulsion from SWAPO, but the fact that his dispute with SWAPO had compelled him to think of strategies to break off. In addition, if the RDP is determined to take on SWAPO in the upcoming election, then we can safely assume that the formation of this new party has been in the pipeline for some time, and that Hamutenya’s resignation from SWAPO is well timed. Thus, I hypothesize that Hamutenya has been involved in the structural design and organisation of the RDP. In this regard, I am left wondering if the RDP has been formed as a result of disagreements over failed policies, thus a principled decision, or merely as a result of unanswered political ambition.

In a press conference on November 8 to announce his resignation from SWAPO, Hamutenya said that “the people are crying out for delivery of the promises made at Independence and upon which we [SWAPO] were elected”. The reference of “we” is not just indicative of his unconscious link to SWAPO, but also serves as a solid reminder that the same SWAPO mindset will be running the RDP. Furthermore, their emphasis on the ills of Namibian society is similar to that of SWAPO: “We all know that the dominant features in Namibia’s landscape today is poverty, inequality, the sorry state of education, declining health services and unemployment”; an ill that SWAPO – with both Hamutenya and Nyamu as part of the top SWAPO leadership until recently- has failed to deliver to the masses. It is also interesting to note, that no mention was made to corruption, perhaps one of the biggest ills in Namibian society today. Additionally, Hamutenya’s lack of outspokenness upon his return to parliament in 2005 does not ease conspiracy theories and the main question that everybody is asking: Is the RDP only a protest party against the dominant “liberation” party, similar to that of Kibaki’s National Rainbow Coalition, or does it have factual ideological and policy differences?

Second, with the same old stalwarts still wanting to run Namibian politics, I am taken aback with the lack of young vibrant blood in Namibian politics and African politics in general. The old stalwarts of KANU, which in my opinion includes Kibaki, is still running Kenya since their Independence, that is, 43 years later! Am I wrong for presupposing that perhaps there is a possible correlation between the old stalwarts and the increasing despair and corruption cases in Kenya? In the TED Theme Talk on Rethinking Poverty, author of Africa Unchained and well-renowned economist, George Ayittey, call this vibrant young blood, the “cheetah generation”, a “new breed of Africans” that he equates with a “no nonsense” attitude towards corruption and that grasps the implications of accountability and democracy. This breed is also highly educated with technological and entrepreneurial ability, often global citizens and feels decidedly comfortable in the geopolitical and economic climate; consequently they understand how to situate themselves within the global social, economic and political game. Only, most have left Africa as part of the brain drain that has become an African pest. Ayittey calls the old stalwarts the “ruling elite” of African politics and term them as the “hippo generation”, a generation that is “stuck in their intellectual patch, complaining about colonialism and imperialism”; a generation that tries to hold on to political power as long as possible. To him, these leaders often fail to reform the economies because they “benefit from the rotten status quo”. Furthermore, Ayittey argues that in today’s global political sphere, Africa’s “salvation rests on the back of these cheetahs” because their ‘yes, we have been done wrong, but how do we get out of this mess’ attitudes, provide the necessary drive to change the current status quo.

Although Namibia is still immature, best classified as an infant, a similar trend exists, where the old stalwarts, found in COD, DTA, SWAPO, UDF, and now RDP, are likely to continue to dominate the political sphere. With the exception of a few of the relatively ‘young’ and vibrant stalwarts, most of the old stalwarts continues with the rhetoric that is symptomatic of cold war politics. It is a politics that is stuck in the past, and fails to attract the cheetah generation.

As a group breaks away to establish their own political party, other questions to ask are: Will it attract a young vibrant blood with new interpretations of social, economic and political pressures? Will this result in new ideas to rid Namibia of its ills? Sadly, I think not. The politics is of such that it alienates Namibia’s cheetah generation. Being educated, you are trained to be critical, to question in order to find answers, but in Namibian politics that freedom to critique the status quo is not independent of estrangement. Being part of the old stalwarts, the RDP political rhetoric is thus likely not to be dissimilar than that of either SWAPO at best or the COD at worse. That, and the infightings such as the recent one that infiltrated the COD, which again was not about ideological differences, but power, is what leaves the cheetah generation (both black and white) apolitical and indifferent.

Namibia’s current cheetah generation is made up of a small percentage of Namibians that appears at best to be apolitical and at worse only interested in wealth. For the latter, politics become a by-product; seen only as useful if it can provide a black economic empowerment deal. But in reality, a large group of this cheetah generation in Namibia will only be highly visible in another decade or two. They are the current group in college, the generation that has the opportunity to attend tertiary education, especially the children of the “elite” that has the ability to do so outside of Namibia. It is a generation, which by glimpsing at their list of friends on Facebook is global, technology savvy, career driven and all about reconciliation. But, this is also the generation that will partake in a mass exodus, if Namibia happens to follow the same path as so many other decolonised countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe, among many others. Those that will be left behind would most likely be made up of the political connected, those with solid businesses and work, stable high income jobs, and the poor. In this regard, it becomes imperative for the political sphere to become open to new ideas, thus critiquing, and creating a stimulating environment for the current cheetahs to engage in politics. It also becomes essential for political parties to strategically think about structural reorganisation in order to introduce politics to this upcoming cheetah generation. This will essentially mean moving away from surrounding one with yes-men and yes-women, which provide an illusion of progress, to people that can actively debate about pertinent issues.

*This article was published in the African Executive Magazine on December 05-12, 2007