• April 9th, 2020

Opinion: A rejoinder to a joint opinion piece by Whitaker, Boesak and Van Wyk

The above-mentioned gentlemen wrote a joint opinion piece in The Namibian of 20 December 2019.  The piece was titled ‘Namibia Post-SWAPO’ and it was a general reflection on the 2019 Presidential and National Assembly elections.  Apart from criticising the electoral commissioners for their perceived “partiality,” the piece also provided a general synopsis on the performance of the different political parties during the last elections.

The opinion piece needs to be appreciated in the sense that it was intellectually stimulating and it was written from a leftist perspective.  As a commissioner of elections, I would not want to comment on our perceived “bias” nor on the performance of the different political parties. We have a pending court case; therefore, commenting on our perceived “bias” might influence the outcome of the court case. Again, commenting on the performance of the different political parties during the last elections would also force me to enter into a political space, which I would also not want to venture into.

My concern about this particular piece is merely from a scholarly perspective regarding the employment of certain concepts. These concepts are “the working people and “the left” that were used frequently throughout the text. To start with, the authors seemed to use the words “working class” and “working people” interchangeably. From a hard-nosed classical Marxist perspective – and the three gentlemen identified themselves as Marxists – there is a difference between those two concepts.

Strictly speaking, by working class we mean the proletariat i.e. a class of people who sell their labour to the capitalist class and who do not have any other social class base (apart from being proletariat). On the other hand, the working people include the working class, peasants, small-scale cattle farmers, informal sector operators, etc. I submit that in the case of Namibia, because of our low industrialisation rate, we only have an infant or “embryonic” working class.

The majority of the people fall in the category of working people. That conceptual differentiation is very important because as long as the majority of the social groups within the broad group called working people have different social bases that are not necessarily a working-class social base – they cannot have a working-class consciousness. If they do, it can at best only be described as a “dual” class consciousness. For example, they would have one foot in peasantry and another foot in industry and the result would be a “dual” class consciousness, because in terms of a social base, they are neither here nor there.

The majority of the working people in Namibia still have a strong social base in the rural areas and they are, therefore, likely to show their first loyalty to ethnicity and ethnic identity politics, rather than to being workers. This is where classical Marxists have hit a brick wall, because they seem to over-stress social class identity and solidarity over ethnic identity.    

The authors further argued that the left in Namibia was unorganised.  The question is, who constitutes “the left” in Namibia, what is their programme and why have they failed to have a political impact over the years? Since our independence in 1990, different leftist parties of all sorts have sprung up but they have never had any impact – except those who use a leftist rhetoric but ride on an ethnic social base. How is it possible that leftist parties that are supposed to advocate for the interests of the poor fail to have an impact? The answer is very simple, a working class agenda that does not take ethnic identity (as a major factor) into account cannot appeal to the majority of the working people in Namibia.

South Africa, because of its high rate of industrialisation, is a bit different. There, you have a strong working class that has developed from a class in itself into a class for itself. In other words, from a working class as an objective entity to a working class as a subjective agent that is very class conscious and fully aware of its economic as well as political power. The constellation of social classes in South Africa is equally complicated and the existence of a strong working class there does not necessarily imply cultural homogeneity in absolute terms. For example, during the days of apartheid, trade unions and the South African Communist Party, for the most part, failed to organise the white working class – and that is despite the fact that there has always been a white working class in South Africa.

The question is, why was that so? Simply because for the majority of the members of the Afrikaans working class, for example, Afrikaans ethnic identity and white race identity were more important than working class identity. That was why they ended up supporting apartheid, despite the fact that as members of the working class, they were also exploited by white capital just all other members of the same class. Obviously, members of the white working class enjoyed certain privileges as whites, but that does not take away the fact that as members of the working class, they were also exploited. 

Over the years, most classical African Marxists have been stuck in the notion of treating the working people as a homogenous group. This is because of what critics of classical Marxism refer to as “economic determinism.” In other words, the notion that economic relations are the foundation upon which all other societal arrangements (including social consciousness) are based. Marx’s theory of class struggle and class consciousness is essentially based on “economic determinism.” Such a theory tends to regard social class as the main determining factor of social consciousness, thus disregarding other identities e.g. race, ethnicity, gender and age.

In short, my main problem with the opinion piece is that it is premised on the assumption that the objective conditions in Namibia are ripe for a leftist party to organise and lead the working people, but that such a party is non-existent. To me, that borders on “romanticism” because of the reasons I have been articulating in this piece. My main counter-argument is that the working people in Namibia are not likely to respond, as a culturally homogeneous collective, to a so-called “leftist agenda” that does not factor in ethnicity as a major factor. As a “friendly” parting shot and a soft jab to the three learned friends, I would like to paraphrase the French philosopher Voltaire who once said: ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend unto death your right to say it.’ I rest my case.

*Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna is the Director in the Office of the Speaker of Parliament and a commissioner of elections. However, the views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent the positions of the two institutions.

Staff Reporter
2020-01-13 07:28:09 | 2 months ago


  1. User
    Hewat Beukes

    Gerson Tjihenuna obviously did not pick up the absurdity from our three Marxists. This absurdity is that they condemn the elections as "fraudulent", but they nevertheless continued to 'analyse' the elections as legitimate. Gerson calls this piece of farcical presentation, "intellectually stimulating". But, Gerson does not stop at his approval of a farce. He joins them in this abstract analysis of the purported social-political realities in Namibia with no relation to the objective historical and fatual situation. If Namibia has only an 'embryonic' working class, how did it bring Namibia to a standstill in 1971/72? How did the union movement come into being in 1978? How did tens of thousands join the union movement by the 1980's? Why did SWAPO kill thousands of working class youth in Angola and Zambia? Did the striking workers of Namibia strike for tribal, peasant or working class demands? How did this 71/72 strike ignite the 73-94 labour struggles of South Africa if it was done by an 'embryonic' proletariat? Marxism is a materialism. It deals with objective fact not by intellectual speculation and conjecture. It is NOT a determinism. Political destiny is determined by human intervention, even individuals are indispensable. Nobody can say beforehand how society will develop or a change will occur. But, once it has occurred the Marxist will be able to determine with mathematical precision why and how it has occurred. Without Lenin Russia would not have gone to revolution in 1917. Where is the determinism preached by bourgeois universities?