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Home / Opinion - The national question in Namibia (part 2)

Opinion - The national question in Namibia (part 2)

2021-10-25  Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

Opinion - The national question in Namibia (part 2)

My piece that was published in the New Era newspaper of 24September 2021 under the above heading has provoked a lot of comments from different people. I, therefore, feel duty-bound to take this discussion further.  Some friends even suggested that I should propose practical solutions to address this problem. 

Perhaps before I propose some solutions, I need to touch on the things that divide us. For the sake of clarity, I never use the word tribe and tribalism in my writings. The word tribe is a derogatory colonial construct that was invented by the Europeans when referring to Africans, and for me it denotes backwardness and barbarism. 

How come we never hear of an English tribe or Italian tribe, but the concept is only applied to Africans, the Indians in the Americas, etc? I normally use the word ethnic group, and when an ethnic group practices ethnic prejudice, I would refer to that as ethnocentrism or ethnic chauvinism, instead of tribalism.

What are the things that divide us? As I argued in my previous article, Namibia is at this point in time a mere constitutional and legal entity or a geographical expression whose territory is inhabited by different ethnic groups, with little, if any, affinity amongst them. It is not a coherent socio-cultural entity, and this is where the problem lies. These different racial and ethnic groups were further divided by the Apartheid policy of divide and rule.  The first factor is that if the new state that came into being after 1990 is not perceived by some of the citizens as a neutral and fair custodian of their interests, then we have a big problem. This would be in terms of recruitment into the public service, resource allocation, tender allocation, scholarship allocation, etc. The moment some of the citizens feel that the state is not a fair custodian of their interests, then they would feel marginalized, and this would lead to bitterness and a “loyalty deficit”. 

This feeling of marginalisation can have many dimensions, e.g. ethnic, racial, political party affiliation, the exile returnees vis-à-vis those who were in the country, etc. It is a question of balancing what the 18th century French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, would call the General Will against the Will of All. The former only considers the common interest in the context of the rule of law, i.e. no one is above the law, while the latter is the sum total of competing private interests that need to be balanced.  The burning question is, is the Namibian State perceived by all as a neutral custodian of the competing interests of all the citizens or not?

The second factor that undermines national unity is ethnocentrism. I read an autobiography of a dear female friend who had left the country from the north as a young schoolgirl. In that book, she was candid enough to say that she only got to meet people from other parts of Namibia in exile. Would anyone blame such a person if she was to tell you that when she went into exile, she had ethnic prejudice? In my own case, before I went into exile in 1978, I had only met two people from the Zambezi Region, and that was at the Swapo office in Windhoek. It is also an open secret that people from the Zambezi Region would have stronger cultural ties with people from the Western Province of Zambia, compared to their fellow citizens from other parts of Namibia. 

The same analogy applies to many of us. I would have stronger cultural ties with Omuherero from Botswana, and my Kwanyama friends would have the same cultural affinity with their kinsmen in southern Angola. These are the naked facts; the question is how do we navigate these rough “cultural waters?”

 As I argued in my previous article, there is nothing wrong to belong to an ethnic group and being proud of my culture. After all, we are all born into ethnic groups, and that it is a given. The problem starts when I start to think and act in a way that displays ethnic prejudice.

The third factor that works against national unity is the absence of a lingua franca or common language that is widely spoken. Language is a unifying factor, and examples across Africa are many. Botswana has many ethnic groups, but the fact that Setswana is widely spoken there has served them well as a unifying factor. The other shining example is Kiswahili, that is the national language of Tanzania; and the good thing about Kiswahili is that no group can claim ownership of it. 

Tanzania may have a host of other problems, but ethnic rivalry is certainly not one of them because most Tanzanians would regard themselves as Tanzanian first before they consider ethnic identity. Apart from a few pockets of Zulu nationalism, most South Africans – especially those who live in urban areas - also regard themselves as South African first before they consider themselves as Xhosa, Sotho, etc. In metropolitan cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria, most black South Africans would shuttle easily between isiZulu, Sotho and street Afrikaans without blinking an eye.  In Namibia, Afrikaans, the language we love to hate, has resurfaced as a street language commonly employed by young people and some sections of the population across the ethnic divide. The possibility of revisiting Afrikaans as a possible lingua franca needs further research.

Fourthly, the low urbanisation rate in Namibia also undermines national unity. It is a fact of life that urban dwellers tend to be less ethnocentric compared to the rural peasants and small farmers. In towns, people tend to intermix, and the children go to schools that are multi-ethnic. In a way, that helps to reduce ethnic prejudice. A good example in this case are the so-called “Mbwitis” (if the word is offensive, then I apologise in advance).  “Eembwitis” are those Ovambos who came to settle permanently in towns like Windhoek, Okahandja, Tsumeb, Swakopmund, Luderitz, etc. These people have over the years developed a unique language and culture, which language is wrongly referred to as Otjiherero. This dialect is in fact a mixture of Otjiherero, Oshiwambo, Afrikaans and English. What I have observed is that this particular group mixes and intermarries very easily across the ethnic divide, compared to most of us.

The fifth and final factor is the absence of a strong working class, compared to South Africa, for example. In South Africa, you have a strong working class that has developed over the years and is more class conscious rather than ethnic conscious. This working class has very little, if any, links to the rural areas. What we have in Namibia are peasant-workers, in other words people who come to towns to work, but who still have strong ties with the rural areas. The peasant-workers have a dual class consciousness, and this leads to a divided class loyalty because they are “half-peasant and half-worker.” It is, therefore, very difficult for them to be free from ethnic prejudice. In my next contribution, I will try to propose some practical steps that we can undertake to address the national question.

2021-10-25  Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna

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