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Opinion - On race, ethnicity and nationality in Namibia

2022-05-06  Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

Opinion - On race, ethnicity and nationality in Namibia

As a people, we have emerged from a divided and painful past, so questions around race and ethnicity can be sensitive. 

The bottom line, however, is we cannot build national unity unless we address these issues.

When it comes to the difference between race and ethnicity, one of the clearest distinctions is that one can be changed, but the other cannot. 

Race is denoted by phenotypic and biological characteristics you were born with, such as your skin, eye and hair colour that cannot be changed. 

In contrast to race, ethnicity is a lot more complex. 

For example, a Caucasian can be called white, but that does not describe the person’s ethnicity. 

In the Namibian context, a white person could be Afrikaans, German, Portuguese or English – the latter is the person’s ethnicity, while being white is a racial identity. 

In the same way, being black is racial identity, while being Nama or Tswana is an ethnic identity.

In addition to race and ethnicity, nationality is a legal identification of a person in international law, establishing the person as a subject of a sovereign state. 

That status affords certain rights and obligations to that person as a citizen of that state. 

The Preamble to the Namibian Constitution, inter alia, reads as follows: “……we will strive to achieve national reconciliation and to foster unity and a common loyalty to a single state…” 

The attainment of independence in 1990 culminated in our statehood and nationhood, hence the notion of Namibia as a nation-state. 

Namibia has the requisite characteristics of a state name, a defined territory, national anthem, national flag, recognition as an international person etc. 

However, there is a clear absence of a strong feeling of affinity among the diverse ethnic and racial groups within the country – the latter being, at best, just a mere geographical expression at this point. 

The reality on the ground is that there are different racial and ethnic groups inhabiting the area of geography called Namibia. 

There are no “Namibians” – with distinctively ‘Namibian’ cultural traits – in the same sense as there are “Italians” or “French.”

Namibia is a conglomeration of races and ethnic groups which, sometimes, overlap into complex confluences. 

For example, is being Baster or Coloured a racial or ethnic identity? 

Many people also do not know that apart from employing Afrikaans as a common denominator, Basters and Coloureds are historically and culturally two different groups. 

I must also confess my ignorance that until a few years back, I did not know that people from the two Kavango Regions were six different heterogeneous ethnic groups, nor did I know that there were about five different San groups across Namibia. 

Many people may also not know that there is a group called Oorlams, who consider themselves Nama-speaking ovaherero. 

These are examples of our complex ethnic makeup. 

Building a Namibian national identity has been an elusive project because many of us always seem to dance around this issue. 

We always tend to talk about race and ethnicity in whispers. They say, when cornered, an ostrich always hides its head under the wing, thinking that if it does not see the danger, the danger will disappear. 

Unfortunately, that seems to be the African disease when it comes to dealing with racial and ethnic issues. 

My point is, let us talk about these issues in an honest, constructive and respectful manner – without pointing fingers.

There are ordinary people who, knowingly or unknowingly, contribute to national unity in their small way, and I usually celebrate that. 

I was recently in Opuuo and I marvelled to see how two ordinary people were able to communicate – without blinking an eye – one was speaking Otjiherero and the other was speaking Oshiwambo, and the heavens did not fall. 

While in Opuuo, I was also surprised by two female shop assistants who spoke to me in flawless, Otjihimba-accented Otjiherero. 

Upon asking their surnames, I discovered that one was Ovambo and the other was Damara. 

On my way back, I met a young lady in Grootfontein, and I asked her where she was from; she told me she was originally from Rundu but grew up in Grootfontein. 

As we continued with the conversation, I came to find out that apart from Rukwangali, she could also speak English, Afrikaans, Oshiwambo, Otjiherero and Damara-Nama. 

The stories of these ordinary people give me hope that one day we will build a truly all-inclusive Namibian national identity. 

That is the “size” of my dream.

2022-05-06  Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

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