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On the debate on nation-building: A rejoinder

2021-03-26  Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

On the debate on nation-building: A rejoinder
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Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

My younger brother, Mr Paul T. Shipale published an opinion piece in the New Era newspaper of 19th March 2021, titled “On the debate on nation-building.” In the same opinion piece, Mr Shipale “invited” me to “olupale” in Oshikwanyama or “orupare” in Otjiherereo. Loosely translated into English, olupale or orupare means platform. 

In African culture, young men would challenge each other to olupale/orupare for a wrestling match. Although age is catching up on me, I gladly accept that invitation on the part of Mr Shipale by exercising my right of reply. 

Mr Shipale specifically took issue with me about a piece that I had published in New Era the previous week (10th March 2021), titled “What went wrong with the socialist project?” 

Before I respond to my younger brother’s critique, I want to quote from Roxa Luxemburg, a Polish Marxist intellectual of Jewish extraction, who once said: “Without the free competition of ideas life dies.” Peca Semba, the Director of Education in Omake Region, wrote a tribute to the late Kaputu in the same edition of New Era (19th March 2021), where he, inter alia, said one of Kaputu’s mantras was: “…if you say something in public, you must be prepared to be criticised in public.” It is therefore in that spirit that I welcome Mr Shipale’s critique of my opinion piece. However, I have read Mr Shipale’s piece a few times and the problem that I have is that I am struggling to understand what exactly he is critiquing my piece on.

To start with, Mr Shipale stated: “…for Tjihenuna who asked what went wrong with the socialist project in Namibia…” That was the only reference to my piece and even that was unfortunately taken out of context. I never had the word “Namibia” in my heading nor did I refer to any socialist project in Namibia throughout my piece. To put the record straight, my opinion piece was not based on the Namibian experience because we have never had a socialist project in Namibia. How could I have asked the question “what went wrong with the socialist project in Namibia” if we have never had such a project? 

The reasons why such a question is irrelevant to Namibia are as follows: In the first place, the constitutional framework for Namibia was agreed on before independence as a compromise involving the five western powers, South Africa and SWAPO. 

Fundamental freedoms and rights were the foundation of the 1982 constitutional principles that informed the drafting of our constitution and that are now enshrined in Chapter 3 of the Constitution. 

Chapter 3 includes a clause that protects private property as “a human right.” The constitutional protection of private property, ipso facto, implies the exclusion of a socialist programme. The bottom line is that the then-future Swapo Government was, de facto and de jure, bound by that constitutional provision not to consider socialism as an alternative. Secondly, by the time we gained our independence in 1990, former socialist states in Eastern and Central Europe were collapsing like a house of cards. As I argued in that piece, by the early and mid-nineties, free-market economy and multi-party democracy won the day and became the central norms that came to underpin what today is referred to as “the good governance paradigm.” 

The collapse of the former socialist states “forced” some of the leftist-leaning cadres in Swapo to re-think socialism. At the same time, as Swapo took the reins of government in 1990, the leadership, realistically so, needed to keep the “good governance paradigm” at the back of their mind in dealing with development partners because it was a pre-condition to qualify for development assistance.

Thirdly, Swapo as a liberation movement was not and could not have been a socialist party. It was a broad-based mass movement that accommodated people from all shades of political background, including pastors and Marxists. In short, what I am trying to say here is that my opinion piece was not based on the Namibian experience, because we have never had a socialist project.

My piece was meant to revisit the socialist project as an international process so that some lessons could be learned from that experience. 

That was why I spent a great deal of time trying to point out what the major internal contradictions were that led to the collapse of the former socialist states. In his opinion piece, Mr Shipale referred to what he calls “…pointless debates about the purity of one’s commitment to socialism and the pointless (italics mine) discussion of the violent overthrow of capitalism.” 

I am not sure whether those two critiques were meant for me or not, but I should perhaps state that at no point did I imply in that piece that I was more committed to socialism than anybody else. For what it is worth, I am not even sure whether I am a socialist or not, although I ascribe to some of the original values of socialism. 

I am a born again Christian, writing from a Pan Afrikanist perspective but using Marxism-Leninism as a tool of social analysis. 

The main message that I wanted to put across was to contrast the original ideals of socialism that were underpinned by the values of humaneness, solidarity, equality and social justice against the practical implementation of socialism, mainly in Eastern and Central Europe which, as I pointed out, left a lot to be desired. 

To call for a violent overthrow of the capitalist system in the twenty-first century would be a pipe-dream and I am not advocating for that. I fully agree with Mr Shipale that the left should go back to focusing on addressing economic inequality because, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, ‘…capitalism is in crisis but a realistic alternative does not seem to be in sight’.


2021-03-26  Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

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