President Hage Geingob, who turns 80 today, yesterday reflected on this major milestone in an interview with New Era’s Festus Nakatana. The President also spoke of challenges besetting the country, his legacy as well as the succession battle in the ruling party.
NE: Who is Hage Gottfried Geingob, in a nutshell?
HG: Hage Gottfried Geingob is a young boy, who was born, according to my wife, under a tree in the Grootfontein district in a place called Sabis, which was a cattlepost of a white man. Our African houses were not made out of bricks; to say I was born under a tree is a joke. I was born in a hut. Those farms were all owned by Germans, and I grew up at a farm, called //Kharases, Otjikururume, which is 30km out of Otavi. We were a very good family – a family that was religious. My grandfathers on both sides were top church people that time – very strict Christian background.
Another element is that we were multi-racial and multi-tribal. We didn’t just grow up as Damaras. There were Ovaherero and Aawambo. Then, after that, we moved to Otavi, where I had to start school. I finished all the classes. I had to waste time to correspond with some through the Trans-Africa Correspondence College of South Africa while in Tsumeb.
While I was there, in 1957, the Augustineum guys came there for a concert, and I was very much impressed. Ben Amathila was the director of ceremonies. The late Kalenga and Joseph Iithana were also there. When they were singing, I said ‘Oh I want to go to Augustineum to become a teacher’. At the time, we thought Augustineum is only for teachers. In 1958, I went to Augustineum in Okahandja. I first did my high school and took a teachers’ training course, which I finished in 1961. But, there was a strike that we held – well organised by us. We used the question of food, which was bad.
We planned and spoke to our prefects that they should not stop us; they should fall and disappear. So, we had the political strike and walked from Okahandja to Windhoek. That is the background. Politics at Augustineum was hot. It was meant to be a place of apartheid to divide us from white people. Manifestly, to divide us. But blatantly, it served as a unifying place. It was the first time I met someone from the deep south (Nama speaking) and the north. They all started to talk about politics, such as that a black man is ruling in Ghana.
NE: As a Head of State, with so many responsibilities and a tight work schedule, how do you balance work, family and leisure?
HG: We shouldn’t make things to be so bad as if there is no time or so. You must make the time. There is a time to be busy during a crisis. With our structure, which is very small, you come to your office and go to your family when you are done. I used to sleep with the television on the whole night, but my current wife does not want it. I normally used to sleep with the television on. (Watching) NBC… Because you need to know what is happening. Newspapers are brought by my guys; I don’t know where they get it from. The idea is to know what is happening. So, you must watch the TV; you must listen to the news – world and local news; read newspapers. I do that before I eat breakfast, which is pap and Oshikandela before going to office.
NE: As an ardent sport lover, how do you feel about the state of Namibian sport, which is occasionally rocked by infighting and poor funding?
HG: Well, if we were so bad, I couldn’t be so up at 03h00 am to watch those beautiful girls running. I couldn’t have seen the Cosafa Cup going to South Africa, which we also won the other time. It is true, it is difficult, but things are still working. We still have other sporting codes that are working. Soccer is the number one game – of course, and we think if things don’t work there, we think everything is doomed. So, to me, I am really disappointed that infighting is denying the young people their beloved game. Even if there is no infighting, we don’t have support clubs like other countries; they have support clubs. You see committees and functions to raise funds. We don’t have that here. You just want the government to give money. When the game was being played those days (before Covid-19 pandemic), the stadia are empty. You don’t even know whether there is a game. You don’t see people with the cars running and advertising games – stadia empty. Therefore, you want government to be the only one giving money. Other countries make money from gate collections. Here, since government is here, we don’t care at all.
Sometimes, I see the international games by chance on TV. How can you be successful? So, given the problems we have, our talents are doing wonders. Two leagues are being talked about. But really, professional soccer is important. It must be. That is the way to go so that people make it their income. It is a job. Soccer, I don’t want to blame anybody. It is my game that I love and, therefore, they must just pull up their socks. Forget the differences. You are serving the people. Therefore, let us revamp soccer administration. Let them hold hands.
They should know they are representing the people and do everything in the best interest of the people. Just come and revive our talented boys. There was no soccer league, and these boys were winning games. We should nurture them.
I was watching the game against Senegal in the Cosafa Cup. We beat them. They were finalists. Namibia could have gone through if it was not a technicality. Soccer is my love. I am disappointed but it is not the end of the world. We cannot allow it to die.
NE: With the devastating economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, what does Namibia need to focus on to return to a favourable growth trajectory?
HG: Firstly, I would like to take this opportunity to express our condolences to frontline workers, families, husbands and children whom this disease devoured. This is a thing we take very seriously, and I even cancelled my inauguration for the second term. We locked down the country immediately and the world is praising us for that action. It could have been worse. So, government took proactive action in the beginning – and definitely, this disease is devastating. Every day, we are burying comrades, fathers and families, so I see now it is going down a little bit.
Maybe, winter was also a factor because it (Covid) thrives in the cold. Every year, since we took over, we had a deficit of N$2 billion – but not savings. Now, the economic downturn, we tried to navigate around that, and then came the severe drought – and as we navigated around it; then came Covid. We didn’t plan for it. So, it is an independent intervening variable that came and destroyed what we were planning. We had to look at the Harambee (plan), changed it again here and there, and see if we can survive. If we can all hold hands, we will pull through. It has been the most difficult time for businesspeople. Small businesses had to close down. The jobs have been lost. Unemployment among the youth is bad. We are saying now we have a plan and we are going to move out of it. Yes, the economic situation is bad, but I think it is not all doom and gloom. We are pulling through.
Economic revival is not that easy. We have a serious deficit and debt, which is also going up, and when you have a disease like that, we took action – very stringent action. I see light at the end of the tunnel. Towards the end of the year, the economy will open up – tourism and hotels.
Restaurants are opening up already so that people can start to work and pay taxes. The economic situation is bad but if we didn’t manage the pandemic as we are doing it, you would have had a crisis in this country. We have been frugal when it comes to expenditure, and Namibians have also joined us in the fight against Covid. We would like to thank them.
Ordinary people are in the worst situation, but so far, we have peace – and that we should not take for granted. These people can easily be misled by any troublemaker because they will be told they have nothing to lose. But Namibians know better. I was asking our workers (trade unions) when they came to ask for 10%. I was saying, ‘Do you know how many people are unemployed who can’t even add a cent on their salary’. We ought to pay attention to them. You are saying you have this, can we add 10% to it? But how about those who don’t have any jobs – unemployed people; we have to think of them too.
NE: What is your wish to Namibians?
HG: My wish is first to thank God. It is not everybody who reaches the age of 80 and blessed as I ’m with good health. And secondly, I’m thanking the Namibian people for giving me this chance to serve. Anybody could have been president. We are all qualified. But I was chosen by my party and, therefore, put in a difficult position to serve my people. And I appeal once more to our people to hold hands.
This is the only country we can call home. It is easy to destroy but difficult to build up. Easy! We have examples of countries which had civil wars – and up to now, they are trying to build up. So, build on what you have.
We know people are poor. Some people are suffering – no houses. Don’t go and break down what is there already. Add on it, and when you become president, at least do something to build on, instead of starting from scratch.
Yes, my time is running. If you drive past Otavi, you’ll see I’m busy with my farm, preparing for retirement. That is another thing; many of the ministers and former fighters don’t prepare for retirement, and that is where the problem is. We must know there is going to be an end, and I’ve been blessed to be 80. That is long. I was teased by young people who don’t have manners about my 80 years. Some of them look older than me mentally, intellectually and otherwise. But, they like to say ‘old man’. Eighty years old, yes, I came from a good background.
Therefore, I know how to respect elderly people and to respect young people. You’ll see I’m always surrounded by young people I have nurtured. I brought this guy (Alfredo Hengari). I just saw him. He wrote articles in the newspaper. I didn’t know him. He is not from exile. All the guys who worked for me as prime minister, I just saw them on TV. I nurtured them, and they are big people. President Nujoma, the same. He never looked down on us, young people. We are always respected. So, we come from that background: to respect women; we respect young people – young people are the future.
To act like they are not taken care of is not true. We groom our leaders. All those guys in parliament, the Shifetas and so on were young boys when we met them. Now, they are full. Don’t people want to be groomed? You just jump from a tree and want to become president? No! You’ll fail! So, we are grooming, and we have already many of them. As I’m saying, systems, processes and institutions are there. You can come in and run this country – women and men, anybody. We are grooming.
NE: If Swapo wants you to continue for another term, will you take it?
HG: No! I was the one who drafted the Constitution. We have a term limit in this country. I am the one who worked on it (Constitution). There was a crisis. Even from somewhere, people were coming to ask ‘why do you have term limits?’ We say 10 or five years will be enough, and especially after we go, some of us, the trio goes, you’ll have a system. It is there. They sit there – those two seats.
I consult them. Everything! I call them, and they also ask. If president Nujoma and president Pohamba have something, they don’t go to newspapers. They will come here and raise their problems here, advise me and I tell them what’s going on. Whoever is going to come up will know there are elderly people who can advise; who can tell you we made a mistake here – don’t repeat that mistake.
That is how, as Swapo, I’m talking about Swapo members, build up this country.
NE: You are in your final term as Head of State, what legacy do you think you will leave behind for Namibia and her children?
HG: I will leave them with the legacy of Swapo because we become presidents through Swapo. So, I am leaving them with the Swapo legacy – that of unity and that of fighting; that of abhorring tribalism – that of abhorring racism.
NE: What have you done over the last seven years or so to help position Namibia as a force to be reckoned with in both continental and international affairs?
HG: We are highly respected in Africa and the world – a small country. When I became the chairman of SADC, that was at the peak of problems in the DRC. It was not a joke that we had to navigate through different forces. Election was questioned. There was a problem; many presidents were supporting Martin Fayulu (eventual runner-up). I was in touch with nearly 12 presidents. If I send an ambassador and he can only see that leader (of hosting country) through office hours, he can only see (the leader) once a year, then you are not effective. Now, same, what kind of contacts do I have? I have about 14 presidents’ direct numbers with whom we can call one another, especially neighbours. Direct calls, chatting and sharing things. That is being effective and being respected, and then we had that (SADC) chairmanship; it was not a joke.
It was a war that I said, ‘Well we have processes, systems and institutions’. Now, when President Joseph Kabila announced he is not going to stand, we let our guards down. We didn’t ask what it means or whether he had other plans.
We said, let the processes and systems of DRC take over, and, therefore, they did that and organised elections under that, and it was relatively peaceful. Then we were meeting in Addis Ababa. We wanted to meet here but (AU chair then) president Paul Kagame said we must have an AU meeting too. We had our meeting quickly; we announced. That is Hage’s leadership.
Then we said, these people are sovereign; we have decided and allowed them. We are not going to interfere. We had problems there.
President Kagame wanted to say we must intervene, and I said, ‘how?’ This is a sovereign country. We allowed them to be sovereign, and when the president of that country wanted to bypass, I said, you are forgetting that our people died there that time. He came here and paid respects. What is the influence? Influence is when, if you are approach demanded and consulted, and I get that daily. I can call.
Our standing internationally at the UN, I am a UN man. We are really respected as is the case with my predecessors. People came to know a lot about Namibia, and some regarded it as their country too because they were part of the whole process. I was in a meeting with top people, who said Namibia, today, is well respected. We have good standing in Africa and in the world. Many people think we have a very good approach in governance. Our governance architecture is admired. They say, a prophet is not respected in his own country. We can only recognise you when you are dead.
NE: The party you lead lost some ground in the 2019 general elections as well as during last year’s regional council and local authority elections to opposition parties. As a true democrat, what are your views on the ever-changing political landscape?
HG: If it is static, you will be dying. Change is the only constant. We are older and even some in our party said the time has come that we have contested elections. We, the old guards, said, ‘be careful; guided democracy is what saved us so far’. We were guided. President Nujoma chose president Pohamba and said, rally behind him. There were people still challenging him but it was not that important. Then Pohamba said, ‘Hage is my man’; again, people said we are in the modern world. We cannot be given leaders by somebody else. President Pohamba just walked away – and as a vice president, I had to take over. It was war, and I said, ‘let us just go to the elections then’. I was a sitting president, and I had to go through hell and humiliation. There is no guided democracy anymore; that is the new normal. One man; one woman – one vote. I went through that. I can’t choose anybody to say you are the vice president; that is automatic. I was the vice president and even the president of the country, but I was challenged. It has become a norm in Swapo.
So, it will be that way. People are going to stand peacefully, I hope, and will be elected – and we accept the outcome. If you go to boxing, there is only one winner. Again, if you go to elections, there is only one winner. So, don’t go to elections if you won’t accept the outcome. That is not democracy. I was defeated, and did you see me crying? I was defeated by Comrade Witbooi, and I went to congratulate him. I was defeated in the politburo by one vote when I thought I was in. I said, ‘Viva Swapo’ – and that is why I am sitting here today.
NE: You have appointed a number of youth to the National Assembly as per your mandate. However, some young people within your party have criticised your decision, saying you have overlooked SPYL cadres for these positions. Why did you opt to look outside the party’s perceived transmitting belt?
HG: They never came to me; they came to you. I am challenging this now. Youth have been working with me. I don’t know where you go that from. To me, the people who have been put there are members of Swapo. Who is a person, who is a not member of Swapo? Even If I have to bring someone from outside, I am building a nation. I brought young people and they are there and active. They are Swapo members – even for that matter. So, how are they not good people? They are youth members too.
NE: Is Namibia ready for a female president? Who do you have in mind to succeed you?
HG: Well, president Pohamba had somebody. With Hage Geingob, they said we have the right to take anybody. Therefore, we had three candidates. I am saying we have a new normal now. There is no longer guided democracy. We are told we move in with democracy properly. Western maybe, I don’t know. We had tough elections. Why should it be different now? There will be candidates who will stand and who will be elected. The good one will be elected. What you need to do is support the good