Journalist Loide Jason speaks to National Unity Democratic Organisation’s (NUDO) president and deputy minister of health Utjiua Muinjangue on her dual roles, the year ahead in parliament, genocide reparations as well as the state of the nation’s health.
LJ: YourappointmentbyPresidentHageGeingobasthehealthdeputyminister causedanuproaramongyourpartysupporters.Howhaveyouhandledthe discontentbyyourparty members andhavetheynowaccepted the statusquo?
UM: I will remain grateful to President Hage Geingob for the appointment. This is an opportunity for NUDO to provide leadership and make a contribution towards the provision of quality health to the Namibians in particular, and in general to be involved in nation building and development agendas of the government of the Republic of Namibia.
Every political party aims for power and serving as DM has given NUDO a certain degree of power.
My late beloved father Tjeripo Tje Ngaringombe used to tell me, “power is power, doesn’t matter how little it is.” Yes my appointment as DM caused uproar among some party supporters because this kind of transformation exercised by the current head of State is new in the Namibian contemporary politics, hence it shocked many Namibians. As president of NUDO, I and my entire leadership urged party members and the entire Namibia to capitalise on this opportunity as a window to transmit strategic developmental ideologies in influencing the desired change, not only in the area of health and social services but equally in other areas of interest. It was easy to handle the discontent by the party members. With any change, or new way of doing things, one can expect rejection.
So, I expected that there would be some gloominess. I did not take a defensive attitude but my approach was to educate people that this is not strange and most importantly, I wanted them to appreciate my presence, especially in the ministry. Just to cite a few impacts of my DM position; the Koblenz Clinic, for example, used to rely on an ambulance from Okakarara, which is more than 100km on a gravel road in a very bad condition, while Grootfontein Hospital is only 60km away from Koblenz and has a tarred road. I discussed the possibility to transport patients in very critical condition to Grootfontein instead of Okakarara with my principal, minister Kalumbi Shangula and our regional health director, Gebhardo Timoteus. As we speak, we have made that administrative arrangement. Finally, this DM position is preparing me on how government operates when NUDO takes over government. We have to move from being merely an opposition party to becoming a party of the government.
What progress has this administration made in the delivery of accessible, affordable and equitable public health?
I am confident that before the end of my term as DM, the Mental Health Bill and Traditional Care and Religious Practitioners/Healers Bill should be enacted, as regulatory frameworks for health services delivery.
Otjiherero-speaking people have over the years formed the backbone of NUDO’s support base. What are you doing to hold on to this support in the wake of the Ovaherero Traditional Authority allegedly courting other parties to leverage its support for political power?
NUDO is a political formation of Ovaherero Chief Council, which comprises Ovaherero Traditional Authority and all other organs inherent in sustaining the tradition norms, customs and rituals of the Ovaherero tribe.
The establishment of NUDO then, was purely to serve as a political voice of the Chief Council a transition to dispel politics from tradition, as tradition is a birth right while politics is preferential civic right. We need to fortify traditional norms, customs and our unique ritual practices through unified strong traditional authorities free from any form of political influences.
I was not even aware that the OTA has diverted its interest in gaining political power, instead of focusing on the traditional developmental agenda. What will a traditional authority do with political power? What I believe is that the OTA like any other traditional authority, remains focused on traditional matters. That is what the community expects from them. As you rightly put it, all political parties have the one or the other ethnic group as their backbones. So it is not strange for NUDO to have the Otjiherero speaking Namibians as its backbone.
The challenges in my way did not only start with the appointment of DM but since I took over the presidency of NUDO. Remember that we are in a strong patriarchal community and again it was uncommon for a woman to lead a political party. So, there were those forces who made all attempts to disturb my leadership, but I retained on my constituencies and today we have councillors in local authorities. I remain focused and continue to engage with my community.
You have been at the helm of NUDO for the past three years, what can you highlight as some of your achievements?
Three years is a short period, especially given that the party emerged from slate politics and there was division in the party. For the whole of 2019 and 2020 it was necessary to soften emotions. I succeeded to keep the party together while at the same time making sure that NUDO remains relevant and visible. The party is represented at all three levels of governance (National Assembly, regional and local levels).
The mayor of Gobabis, Elvira Theron is a good example that we have started planting seeds in other communities too. The same goes for councillor Mariana Christoph in Leonardville. Soon we will establish a branch in Katima Mulilo where Anna Mtonda, who is also a member of the national executive council (NEC) is working hard in mobilising support in that region. From these names one can conclude how NUDO is promoting the advancement of women. NUDO has obtained a piece of land in Swakopmund to build an office, again a sign that as a party we are moving into other regions and constituencies as well.
In 2019, shortly after I took over, NUDO became a member of the International Green Parties Alliance and in 2019 Josef Kauandenge, as party SG, attended its conference in Boston. This is an achievement for any political party to collaborate and network with international bodies.
How do you balance your duties as a deputy minister in a cabinet dominated by the governing party and the head of an opposition party?
I have a strong conviction that one’s attitude determines how one works around issues. I am a team player and balance my work by involving other party leaders as well. We are living in a democratic society and I am very focused and collected to know when to put on the NUDO hat and when to take it off. I remain focused on the positive side. At the end of the day it is about contributing to the livelihoods of Namibians. Martin Luther King Jnr tells us, “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”. Hence, this is a stimulating period of my life.
What are the biggest challenges a deputy minister deals with daily?
It’s a learning journey. Challenges are part of us and one does not grow when things are easy, we only grow when we face challenges. The ministry deals with people’s lives and social wellbeing. Human beings are not objects and we cannot gamble with the lives of our people. This is one of the challenging ministries to work for and if you are not tough you will run away. The daily challenges my office deals with is the lack of understanding from the public. For instance, especially now during Covid-19, they will call me any time of the day or night about a labour-related issue but just because it relates to Covid-19 they think it is a health issue where they will allege that they are forced to report for work even if they have tested positive for Covid-19.
Our people are also impatient and will complain about long queues at public health facilities. Other challenges are structural such as lack of specialised health care providers. Everybody wants a health facility in his/her village. I should commend the team in the ministry for their hard work, dedication, commitment and good collaboration, which makes the time in the ministry enjoyable.
How would you assess Namibia’s response to Covid-19 and what are the challenges Namibia still faces in dealing effectively with it?
Namibia’s emergency response to and preparedness for Covid-19 commenced shortly before the country recorded its index Covid-19 case in March 2020. The Incident Management System to respond to the threat was activated after it was approved by cabinet, including the operationalisation of Public Health Emergency Operations Centre and regular meetings of the National Health Emergency Management Committee as part of the response. Several offices, ministries and agencies came on board and are still actively involved in the response.
Furthermore, different pillars were established comprising subject matter experts, to address different components of the response to the pandemic. This validation micro planning workshop, supporting efforts to save lives and livelihoods came at a crucial time when the world was dealing with the Omicron variant. We developed a National Deployment and Vaccination Plan (NDVP) guided by global and national instruments and supported by the latest evidence available.
The NDVP is designed to guide health workers, individuals, health service providers, and other stakeholders at all levels. As a ministry, together with our development partners, we continue reviewing our strategies to accelerate daily vaccines uptake. The biggest challenge that we experience, like many other countries, is vaccine hesitancy, an overstretched health care system and healthcare workers who have been working long hours to take care of those in need.
Suppressing the spread of the virus and mitigating the impact on the population are key measures in our response as a ministry, as a country.
As a trained social worker, what solutions would you suggest for Namibia’s biggest social problems?
There are many social impediments that Namibians face such as GBV, unemployment, poverty, teenage pregnancy, substance abuse etc. All these social problems are intertwined and do not happen in isolation; for example an unemployed wife/husband/partner/girlfriend depends economically on his/her partner and will remain in an abusive relationship for economic survival. Hence, to deal with these issues one needs to adopt a holistic multi-sectoral and multi-disciplinary approach.
What should Namibia’s next move be in its quest to get justice for the genocide affected communities?
The issue is sensitive and demands to be treated with sensitivity. Only those whose ancestors went through that horrible experience understand the pain and impact inflicted by the genocide. We can never solve these issues by trying to beat around the bush – we need to call a spade a spade. As long as Germany avoids using words such as genocide and reparation, we can forget about coming closer to closing this chapter.
We need to go back to the drawing board; Level the playing field, identify stakeholders, clear terminology because you don’t want to be in the middle of negotiations and still not know whether you are negotiation for genocide or past dark history, reparation or development aid. It is critical to have representatives of the two communities at the negotiating table, selected and appointed by themselves. It is simple, we follow the same model that was applied at the Claims Conference with the German Government, State of Israel and 23 groups representing the Jews. If Germany could negotiate with 23 groups what is difficult to negotiate with 23 groups of Ovaherero and Nama?