Visitors to “the land of wide open spaces”, as Namibia is successfully promoted to tourists, will be impressed by what they see. Besides the beauty of the nature and abundant wildlife, the urban face of inner cities appeals to foreigners who treasure security and comfort amid the wilderness.
Namibia contributes a positive image to Africa. It ranks among the continent’s top five in governance and other performance related surveys. But beyond the surface of the success story looms a different reality for most of the country’s 2.3 million people, as it marks 27 years of independence.
Independence was finally achieved on March 21, 1990 after a long and violent anti-colonial struggle. Since then, Namibia has shown remarkable signs of political stability. The former liberation movement Swapo governs with an ever-increasing majority.
It secured 80% of votes in the last parliamentary elections. The directly elected party candidate for head of state, Hage Geingob, scored almost 87%. Still representing the first generation of the liberation struggle, he personifies the smooth succession of three post-independence state presidents with far reaching executive powers.
Catchwords attributed to them by party propaganda include reconciliation (Sam Nujoma, 1990-2005), consolidation (Hifikepunye Pohamba, 2005-2015) and prosperity (Hage Geingob, since 2015. Geingob is the party’s vice-president and became acting president in April 2015.
But under his presidency the promised prosperity has remained the privilege of few. Namibia is a rich country with poor people. Redistribution of wealth is mainly limited to beneficiaries within a new black elite. These are office bearers, party stalwarts and those with close ties to the new inner circles of governance. They thrive through a policy of so-called affirmative action and black economic empowerment.
Namibia’s state-driven economy
Namibia’s state-driven economy is a paradise for parasitic and rent-seeking self-enrichment schemes. The creation of state-owned enterprises as troughs for embezzlement has flourished. State tenders have dished out large sums for projects bordering on megalomaniac elite symbolism, often without creating any meaningful productive assets. Nepotism is a striking feature of a society with one of the highest income discrepancies in the world.
The UNDP’s Human Development Report documents the gross inequalities. A commonly referred to statistical figure is the country’s Gross National Income distribution per capita. This categorises Namibia as a higher middle-income country. But this number is misleading.
The inequality adjusted Human Development Index shows that Namibia has one of the highest inequalities in the world as measured by a Gini coefficient 0.613.
Also, 23.5% of the population was classified as living below the income poverty line using 2013 data.
Namibia’s government claims to have achieved considerable poverty alleviation. This contrasts sharply with the data. If tourists would end up in some of the overpopulated shack settlements at the outskirts of Namibian towns, they would see a different world from the lodges and Windhoek’s inner city.
Namibia’s government is not shy of self-appraisals. It’s fond of blueprints, strategies and programmes, all claiming to solve the country’s problems. Under President Geingob, a new Ministry of Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare had been established. But so far little has been achieved.
The country’s fourth National Development Plan has been complemented by a Harambee Prosperity Plan. It’s based on an annual economic growth rate of at least 7%. Given the (un)predictable insecurities such as global economic shocks, the effects of climate change, and the devastating consequences of the recent drought, this borders on wishful thinking similarly set out in Vision 2030. This claims that by then “Namibia will be a prosperous and industrialised nation”.
In reality, Namibia’s economy has been in recession since mid-2016.
The discrepancy between promises and realities suggests that President Geingob’s rhetoric borders on populism. The ritual of declaring the annual state budget as “pro-poor” has long lost any convincing effect.
Expenditure for army, police and security related portfolios have over the years proportionally increased more than other expenditure. So have debt services for local and foreign loans.
The hope for an economic recovery in the near future is pinned on a booming tourism sector and the full production of one of the biggest uranium mines in the world owned by a Chinese company. Such silver linings look rather bleak and faint. Sustainability would require other ingredients, not least a meaningful increase of employment.
But as of mid-2016, the state’s finances have faced a precarious shortage. The annual budget for 2017/2018 reflects the need to restore fiscal prudence and austerity to regain liquidity and some degree of credibility. Local trust and confidence in the state’s ability to deliver is at an all-time low.
A contentious issue is the bloated civil service. More than 20 years ago a wage and salary commission urged then Prime Minister Hage Geingob to stop recruitment in the public sector. But the expansion continued unabated.
The political elite continues to preach water and drink wine: a year ago President Geingob signed a 6% salary increase with immediate effect for all political office holders. His cabinet is by far the biggest since independence.
Grown up, but not mature
Despite shifting grounds, the party still mobilises along the heroic narrative of the liberation struggle, much to the frustration of a younger generation. But the number of born frees with voting rights will soon exceed the older generations. Inner-party rivalries and tensions, as well as ethnicity as a potential source of conflict are on the rise. An unresolved land issue, also manifested in urban and ancestral land claims, is adding fuel to the flames.
Dissenting voices, mainly articulated by vocal younger activists provoke government to consider plans to censor the social media. A whistleblower bill before parliament includes provisions to heavily punish “lies” and to prohibit any criticism of state institutions. It restricts public opinion, including intimidation of the remarkably free and critical independent print media.
The authoritarian if not totalitarian tendency is also documented in Swapo’s current initiatives to take disciplinary action against members who dare to criticise party politics. But this will not silence the growing frustration over the limits to liberation.
Nor does the close collaboration with North Korea add any positive image. A planned visit by the pariah state’s foreign minister was cancelled at the last minute after news about it leaked in the media.
A generation into independence, the country and its governance might be considered as grown up, but certainly not (yet) mature.
Over the last three decades there’s been some progress towards institutionalising multiparty democracy in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this elections in the region rarely result in changes of government.
A recent survey by Afrobarometer – a non-partisan African research network – sheds some light on why this is the case. The survey, which involved 9 500 interviews conducted in 2014/2015 in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, found widespread support for multiparty politics.
But the results also show that opposition parties face major obstacles to winning majority support. These include the fact that they aren’t trusted as much as governing parties and that very often they aren’t seen as a viable alternative to the dominant ruling party.
All five countries are governed by parties that emerged from liberation movements and have been in power for decades since independence. Although some of these incumbents have lost some electoral support in recent years, opposition support has not been high enough to unseat them.
The trust question
The latest findings mirror the results of a survey in 36 African countries in 2014/2015 which found that opposition parties had the lowest levels of popular trust among 12 types of institutions and leaders. While trust in ruling parties was 46%, it was only 35% for opposition parties.
This was an improvement over the situation more than a decade earlier when trust levels in opposition parties was much lower.
Figure 1: Trust in opposition political parties| 5 countries in Southern Africa | 2014/2015
In Namibia and Mozambique levels of trust in opposition parties were found to be at the highest levels ever. But in Zimbabwe trust in the political opposition declined sharply after 2008/2009. Similarly, the proportion of Zimbabweans who said they felt “close to” an opposition party dropped from 45% in 2009 to 19% in 2014.
This dramatic reversal of fortune provides an important lesson for opposition parties in the other four countries. First, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, was unable to leverage its role in stabilising the country when it was part of the Government of National Unity (GNU).
Secondly, infighting and increasing fractionalisation may have further shaped public opinion about its viability as a party.
There’s a much more lopsided distribution of power and resources for opposition parties in countries with dominant governing parties than for those in competitive party systems. This, coupled with a lack of governance experience, makes it difficult for opposition parties to be seen as credible alternatives.
Take the example of Botswana. The Botswana Democratic Party, in power since independence in 1966, is the region’s most enduring dominant party. It has even adopted the slogan “There is still no alternative”. Although the party has been able to maintain a majority of parliamentary seats, its share of the popular vote declined to 46.7% in 2014, the lowest level of any of the dominant parties in the region.
Afrobarometer’s 2014 survey, which took place a few months before the election, showed that 44% of Batswana agreed that the political opposition presented a viable alternative vision and plan for the country (Table 1, below).
Table 1: Perceptions of opposition viability | 10 countries in southern African | 2014/2015
In Botswana’s “winner-takes-all” electoral system, a large part of the opposition’s success in the 2014 election was due to three parties forming a coalition - the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). This reduced vote splitting. A recent decision to expand the coalition to include the country’s remaining major opposition party, the Botswana Congress Party, has led to speculation about the chance of an opposition electoral victory in 2019.
Similarly, in South Africa, the opposition’s strong showing in the 2016 local elections has bolstered its optimism about its prospects in the 2019 national and provincial polls.
This success suggests that confidence in the political opposition may have grown since the 2015 Afrobarometer survey. It could also reflect widespread dissatisfaction with the governing African National Congress and political institutions, leaders and performance on a range of key policy areas.
But public dissatisfaction with government performance doesn’t necessarily translate into perceptions that opposition parties could do a better job, as Figure 2 shows. This is particularly so in South Africa and Zimbabwe. While eight in 10 citizens in the two countries report poor government performance on their top policy priority (unemployment, only 37% say that another political party could solve the problem.
Figure 2: Poor government performance on most important problem and opposition ability to solve problem | 5 countries in southern Africa | 2014/2015
Role of opposition parties
What role should opposition parties play?
Only a minority of citizens in the five southern African countries with dominant parties agree that the opposition’s primary role should be to
monitor and criticise the government in order to hold it accountable.
This is true even among respondents who are opposition party supporters (Figure 3, below). In South Africa there’s even been a decline since 2008/2009 in support for opposition parties playing a “watchdog” role.
Figure 3: Support for opposition ‘watchdog’ role| 5 countries in southern African countries | 2008-2015
This suggests that opposition parties might put off potential voters if they are seen to be constantly criticising the ruling party rather than contributing to the country’s development. Opposition parties might do better if they highlight their policy platforms and gain citizen confidence in their plans and capabilities.
This is a crucial insight for opposition parties in the region as it runs counter to the opposition’s conventional role in Western democracies.
Rorisang Lekalake, Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Sciences Research (CSSR)/Afrobarometer Assistant Project Manager for Southern Africa, University of Cape Town