• April 3rd, 2020

A reflection on the ‘labour pains’ of nationhood


Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna 


On 21 March 2020, Namibia will commemorate its 30th anniversary as an independent nation. In 1989, the people of Namibia exercised their democratic right for the first time ever, when they elected members of the Constituent Assembly that drew up the constitution. 

The independence of Namibia did not come on a silver platter. In 1884 the territory came under German colonial rule. The German colonial rule was characterised by ruthless brutality that led to the near extermination of the Ovaherero and Nama communities.
After the dissolution of the League of Nations in 1946 (that had a Mandate over Namibia), the country was placed under the trusteeship of the United Nations.  However, the Union of South Africa argued that the mandate had expired with the dissolution of the League of Nations. Subsequently, South Africa incorporated Namibia as a de facto fifth province of South Africa and introduced its apartheid laws in the territory.   

After the 1966 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that had rejected the case on the basis that Ethiopia and Liberia had no vested material interest in the Namibian case, the UN General Assembly terminated South Africa’s mandate. The country was transferred directly over to the UN control through the UN Council for Namibia that was created in 1967. 

The German, and later the South African colonial rulers, did not only dispossess Namibians of their land but also recruited black men to work on white-owned commercial farms, on the mines and in the fishing industry under the notorious contract labour system.  As a result, the Namibian workers started to voice their grievances against the injustices of the colonial apartheid rule.  Within this period, the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) – which later had a number of industry-based unions under it - was formed. Apart from Swapo, other progressive forces were equally active inside the country, e.g. Namibia National Front (NNF), the United Democratic Front (UDF), the Council of Churches in Namibia (CCN) and the Namibia Students’ Organisation (Nanso).

Following the 1966 ruling of the ICJ, which de facto consolidated South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia, Swapo launched the armed struggle on 26 August 1966.  The armed struggle took a new dimension after the independence of Angola in 1975. The People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), the military wing of Swapo, was now able to open a new front from Angola. From 1985 to 1988, South Africa escalated military aggression against its neighbouring countries - especially those that were in the forefront of supporting the liberation movements in the region. These military attacks led to the loss of lives as well economic development setbacks amounting to millions of dollars.

It was these military aggressions against its territorial integrity that led Angola to invite Cuban troops in the 1970s, at the height of the Angolan civil war, to help defend the country. 
In 1977, the five western powers - USA, Canada, United Kingdom, France and the then West Germany - set up what came to be known as the Contact Group. The main aim of the Contact Group was to put pressure on South Africa to agree to the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 435 which set out the modalities for a ceasefire and the holding of elections in Namibia under the UN supervision.
The Peace Plan stagnated until 1988 because of South Africa’s delaying tactics.  It was only after the historic battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, which pitted combined forces of the Angolan army, PLAN fighters and the Cuban internationalists against the South African Defence Force and Unita that the military tide really started to turn against the apartheid regime. 

In July 1988, some general principles that would form the basis of a settlement were accepted that paved the way for the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 435. 
Elections to the 72-seat Constituent Assembly took place in November 1989 under the UN supervision; where Swapo captured 57% of the vote (41 seats) and formed the first government. Altogether seven political parties gained seats in the Constituent Assembly and the DTA with 29% of the vote (21 seats) became the official opposition 

National identity 

The attainment of independence in 1990 culminated in statehood and nationhood; hence the notion of Namibia as a nation-state. We have created a sovereign state with all the characteristics of a modern state; the burning question, however, is have we, at the same time also created a nation with a truly national identity or not? I do not think we have managed to construct a truly Namibian national identity. In my opinion, Botswana, for example, has a well-developed national identity, which was largely influenced by the use of a common Setswana language since their independence in 1966. With the exception of pockets of Zulu chauvinism, South Africa has, by and large, managed to create a national identity too - thanks mainly to a very high urbanisation rate that has developed over many years. The one country in sub-Saharan Africa that clearly stands out when it comes to having achieved a truly national identity is Tanzania, thanks to the KiSwahili language factor. In Tanzania no ethnic group can claim ownership of the KiSwahili language; and that is why it is such a unifying factor. 

In Namibia, national identity is still very illusive. To paraphrase the Italian Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci, “…transitions are the most painful periods in the life of a nation because the old is not yet dead and the new has not been born…” I think, when it comes to nationhood, we are at that period in our history. The famous German philosopher, Martin Heidegger once remarked: “…Man today is in flight from thinking. But part of that flight is that man will neither see nor admit it.”  In Namibia, because of our recent colonial history, we tend to shy away from discussing race and ethnicity. 

When I was studying in the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s, I asked a friend of mine from Burundi about the ethnic tensions between the Tutsis and Hutus in both Rwanda and Burundi - both countries have the same ethnic composition - which were simmering at that time. His response was: “We are one people, and there are no problems at all!” That was until the Rwanda genocide took place a few years ago, where more than 800 000 people lost their lives. Apparently when an ostrich is cornered, it normally hides its head under the wing, thinking that that would make the “problem” disappear. Many times we behave like an ostrich when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity. 

In my article published in Volume 28/2011 of “The Thinker,” I argued that “…the typical African state is a constitutional and legal entity, but not necessarily a coherent socio-cultural entity; and therein lies its fluidity.” There is an urgent need to give content to our common overarching national identity; and the filling of that content should be anchored on conscious and deliberate efforts. We need to ask hard questions like: what does it mean to be a Namibian; does belonging to an ethnic group and being proud of my ethnicity necessarily contradict my national identity as a Namibian? What is ethnic chauvinism or ethnocentrism and how does that play itself out in Namibia? 

Our collective social consciousness as a people has been shaped by a number of historical and socio-cultural factors – chief among them was the apartheid ideology.  Apartheid has left deep scars in our collective psyche which are a direct result of a complex situation of economic, socio-cultural and political domination which was visited upon us over many years. The ultimate result thereof was a serious identity crisis on the part of the oppressed which manifested itself in different ways like inferiority complex, self-doubt, prejudice against other ethnic groups etc. It is therefore logical that thirty years into our independence, one of the greatest, if slippery, challenges we are still grappling with is the paradigm shift to truly identify ourselves as Namibians. 

My line of reasoning is that ethnic identity can only be a problem if it is played out at the expense of other ethnic groups. The bottom-line is, my ethnic social space and ethnic cultural rights should end where the ethnic social space and cultural rights of another group start. Most importantly, we need to bring our ethnic identity to the table to weave the Namibian cultural tapestry - our national identity.

We need people across the length and breadth of our cultural divide - men and women of reason - who are prepared to bend a little bit over for the sake of cross-cultural tolerance and mutual understanding.  The African Philosophy of Ubuntu is, I am because we are!
*Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna is the Director in the Office of the Speaker of Parliament and a Commissioner of elections with the Electoral Commission of Namibia. However, the views expressed in this opinion piece are his own and not those of the two institutions. ◆


Staff Reporter
2020-03-20 15:49:15 | 13 days ago

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