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Namibia at 31: Are we a nation yet?

2021-03-19  Staff Reporter

Namibia at 31: Are we a nation yet?
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Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna


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. On 21 March 2021, we will commemorate our 31st anniversary as an independent nation. During our struggle for independence, the slogan One Namibia, One Nation was our lodestar. Thirty-one years after our independence, are we there yet?

The Preamble to the Namibian Constitution, inter alia, states that we “…will strive to achieve national reconciliation and to foster peace, unity and a common loyalty to a single state.” This is a bold statement, but it is at best just a normative declaration whose bearing on society is yet to be empirically certified. 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.” 

Namibia is not an exception to this rule, and we should be painfully aware of the fact that political declarations do not necessarily make things happen unless there is a strong political will at the highest level to do so; and a strong buy-in from all the key stakeholders.

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 has been 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. 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. 

It was not until the fifties and sixties that Namibians started to organize themselves at the national level. The Ovaherero Chief’s Council under Chief Hosea Kutako, Swanu and Swapo were instrumental in that regard. The struggle for independence, which later came to be spearheaded by Swapo, but supported by many other progressive forces in the country, was a national project that unified the people around one common goal. At the political level – insofar as this reinforced national consciousness – this was the antithesis of the apartheid ideology of divide and rule. 

On top of that, the national consciousness which the liberation movement set out to promote through political mobilisation, song, poetry and other protest literature did not permeate the collective psyche of all the people in the same way. Apartheid did not only divide Black and White or Black and Coloured, but also the Africans along ethnic lines. 

At the same time, those who were at the helm of the liberation movement – the transformative agent in this political socialisation process – were themselves products of the very system from which they needed to mentally liberate the people. Therefore, amongst other things, they needed to deliberately transcend their “ethnic” consciousness to become true champions of a national consciousness. 

This means that they had to commit “ethnic suicide”, to borrow from Almicar Cabral’s popular phrase of “class suicide” in reference to the elite who history propelled into the leadership of the liberation struggle in Africa – but who were “culturally” detached from the masses they were supposed to lead because of the former’s level of education and intellectual sophistication.

History will perhaps be the best judge to determine the degree of their success in that regard, i.e. both in terms “ethnic” and “class suicide”.

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. It is our social consciousness which determines our ideology – the “subjective” prism through which we define social reality and the world around us including the ethnic and racial divide between “us” and “them”.  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 is a serious identity crisis on the part of the former oppressed which manifests itself in different ways like inferiority complex, self-doubt, prejudice against other ethnic groups, etc. It is therefore logical that 31 years into our independence, one of the greatest challenges we are still grappling with is the paradigm shift to truly identify ourselves as Namibians. 

It also stands to reason that, apart from the apartheid ideology, a number of other socio-cultural and historical factors have been militating against the formation of national consciousness. These are, for example, the low rate of industrialisation or a weak industrial base, which has resulted in a nascent working class. Namibia does not have a strong working class which has developed from a class in itself into a class for itself in the truly Gramscian sense of the word; in other words, a working class that is more class conscious rather than ethnic conscious. What we have in Namibia are, by and large, “working people” in the broadest classical sense of that word. In other words, people who work in urban centres and on commercial farms as “guest workers” but who still maintain strong links with their rural communities. 

 Secondly, Namibia has a very low urbanisation rate, compared to South Africa for example. It is a well-known fact that rural communities – which are for the most part isolated from other communities – are likely to be more conservative and more ethnic conscious compared to urban communities. 

Thirdly, Namibia does not have a long history of intellectual culture nurtured or cultivated by academics and young students from various cultural backgrounds coming together to study and exchange ideas over a long period of time. The three main institutions of higher education have all been created after independence in 1990 and have not been in existence long enough to help shape the national consciousness of many generations.

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? 

However, ethnic or racial identity can only be a problem if it is played out at the expense of other groups. The bottom line is that my ethnic or racial social space and cultural rights should end where the social space and cultural rights of another group start. Most importantly, we need to bring our ethnic or racial 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. In other words, people who are prepared to imagine “the other” in the true spirit of Ubuntu, i.e. I am because we are. In 1961, a white American journalist by the name of John Howard Griffin decided to paint himself with a black paint and spent months on the streets in the deep South just to be able to experience what it felt to be black in America in the sixties when racial segregation was still common practice. After that experience he published his classical book, “Black like Me.” That is the type of bending over or imagining “the other” that I am talking about. 

2021-03-19  Staff Reporter

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