Namibia is truly a land of contrasts. You have the very rich and you have the very poor. The very poor usually live in the villages. They work themselves to the bone to eke out a living for their families. Their lives are characterized by struggle and strife. Their worries are about whether the price of maize meal is going to go up or whether there will be rains. Many are diligent voters and vote religiously. The politicians love them once every five years when there are elections. Then they are forgotten.
Many of the rich are usually well connected individuals. They use party politics as a vehicle to amass wealth. Like parasites, they move from government tender to government tender, usually leaving devastation in their wake. They fancy themselves as wheelers and dealers, and have the cars to prove it. Their worries revolve whether their latest Range will outdo Tate Tangeni’s Range Rover. They are generous givers, especially at party events.
Then you have the miniscule middle class. They try to make do with what they have. Many have 8 to 5 jobs. Many cannot afford to buy houses so they haunt garages and backrooms in yards all over Namibia. They pay tax, they complain about the high price of living. They still vote, but many of them are unhappy with the state of affairs.
All our income and expenditure surveys paint a grim picture. Up to 80 percent of our people that are lucky to get a job earn 10 000 or less. To put it in perspective, they can buy around 15 bags of 50 kg Top score maize meal with their salary before deductions. Add to that all the compulsory deductions and they will be only be able to maybe buy 3 bags of maize meal and some canned fish. And those are the fortunate ones. The majority of our people are employed as cleaners, domestic workers and security guards. Most of those get less than N$2000 per month, and believe me, to survive on that, you have to have special powers in stretching the dollar.
Take the average cleaner that earns N$2000 in Walvis Bay. After compulsory deductions, she might take home only 1600. She cannot afford a house, so she must rent. A kambashu in Walvis Bay costs 900 per month, excluding water and electricity. Even if she doesn’t have children, the remaining N$700 can barely cover her food for a month. Let’s suppose that she decides to eat pap every day. A 25 kg bag of maize meal coats about 400. That leaves her with 300. Let us suppose that she then buys N$200 worth of fish. That leaves her with 100 for other expenses. We have not even factored in her transport to and from work. And things even get worse if she has a school going kid.
Income inequality is an undeniable problem in Namibia. The poor can hardly afford the cost of living, and are left trying to find alternative means of information. I have seen many ladies in government offices selling snacks to try and supplement their meager income. How can we help bridge the income gap? This can only be done by deliberate and targeted approaches. Many of the previous approaches to help empower the previously disadvantaged was nothing more than a self-enrichment scheme that empowered the political elites and their compatriots. We can create agricultural co-operatives for rural communities to give them a stake in our quest for food self-sufficiency. Not only would this create employment, but the communities would get dividends from any profits made by the co-operative. It would cost money, but it surely beats the proposed N$2 billion building. This would also help arrest rural-urban migration.
We must also seriously look at targeted income grants for people below a certain salary threshold. It would be like the BIG idea, but only a lot less universal. The key is empowerment and not to create dependency. This can be done by giving tax breaks to employers who help impart skills to their employees. We must also encourage youth entrepreneurship. The SME bank has been a dismal failure for me. The DBN has become a vehicle for high earners. The government must still decide whether they want business people or whether they want people with money.
Until we realise that we are only as strong as the weakest of us, we will never be a prosperous nation.
Michael Munika is the Head of Industrial Relations for NANLO based in Walvis Bay.