The recent announcement by government that the Namibia Students Financial Assistance Fund (NSFAF) will be returning to the Ministry of Higher Education, Training and Innovation, less than 10 years since it was made a fully-fledged State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) in 2013, not only speaks to poor governance and failed leadership, but reveals what British economist William Forster termed as the tragedy of the commons in an essay written as a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common (communal) land.
“In economic science, the tragedy of the commons is a situation in which individual users who have open access to a resource, unhampered by formal rules that govern access and use, act independently according to their own self-interest and contrary to the common good of all users, ultimately causing depletion of the resource through their uncoordinated action.”
On 6 August, spokesperson for the PDM Youth League Maximalliant Katjimune made out a case in The Namibian in which he urged students funded by NSFAF through its loan system to not pay back monies due to the fund which they agreed to pay back when they signed their loan agreements.
In the poorly-articulated piece, Katjimune outlines selfish reasons as to why students funded through state resources should not contribute to the sustainability of the fund, and neglects to use his influential position as spokesperson of the main opposition’s youth league to outline the benefits that could be accrued if students honoured their contractual agreements and paid back money to sustain the fund and inject capital for the financing of future students.
The reason given by government for removing the fund from the ministry and transforming it into an SOE is because the ministry at the time believed that as an SOE, the fund will be better-managed by qualified individuals and trained professionals from the highest echelons of the private sector, such as CEO Hilya Nghiwete and board chairperson Patty-Karuaihe Martins.
However, as soon as these two were recruited into their respective positions, they began to fight one another in pursuit of their personal self-interest while the ‘commons’ (NSFAF beneficiaries) suffered as a result, and the students’ resources were depleted in the process.
Patty Karuaihe-Martins was accused of overstepping her boundaries and executing functions meant for management by negotiating and signing a loan agreement with Bank Windhoek in order to build new headquarters for the fund in the affluent Eros suburb.
This was away from the reach of students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, who are the targeted beneficiaries of NSFAF loans.
Nghiwete similarly was not without controversy, either.
She was suspended on allegations of awarding loans and grants to her direct family members, amongst them her stepson, her brother and a sister.
This brought her at loggerheads with not only the board of directors of the institution, but also the beneficiaries who felt that as CEO, she should not have engaged in such a clear-cut conflict of interest by placing the needs of her family ahead of the needs of the intended beneficiaries of the state-owned institution.
During its initial 18-year stint at the Ministry of Education, the NSFAF suffered as a result of the tragedy of the commons with no proper record-keeping, maladministration and favouritism in the awarding of loans and grants.
The leadership at the time thought it prudent that placing it under the authority of an SOE will improve governance.
However, they were wrong!
The tragedy of the commons plays out in so many other scenarios, from Air Namibia, the government flats, the Zoo Park and public toilets in that when something does not belong to a private individual but to the state or municipality, there is no incentive for the custodians to take care of the resource, and they deplete it in pursuit of their own selfish interests, leaving the collective to suffer.
The tragedy of the commons as a theory makes for a strong case for the privatisation of public resources because under a capitalist system, individual members of society cannot simply be trusted to be good stewards and custodians of the property of the state.
The tragedy of the commons at NSFAF cannot be left without further interrogation.
The management and board members who ensured its collapse, bankruptcy and failure over the years should be held accountable for their mismanagement of state resources.
These actions and several others should be punished with the severity they deserve.