Tuesday 18 May 2021
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Ethnicity and tribalism in Namibia: Is it not failure to promote inclusivity and to manage diversity?

Public commentators and policymakers have been expressing their opinions on ethnicity and tribalism in Namibia. The fundamental question to ask is whether ethnicity and tribalism in Namibia is imaged, perceived or evidence-based. The concepts are used interchangeably in this article and refer to discrimination against some citizens in public resources allocation and preferential treatment based on ethnic or tribal identities. They refer to practices that promote exclusion and social injustice in multicultural societies. How can we understand and explain ethnicity and tribalism in a country that has emerged from entrenched apartheid policies, where citizens claim to have learned from other experiences and which is founded upon the supremacy of the constitution and principles of equality and justice for all? How can we logically explain why ethnicity and tribalism have become more pronounced than the early years of independence and before independence?  Who are the architects and practitioners of ethnicity and tribalism in an independent Namibia? I have raised these questions to illustrate the need to reflect deeply and truthfully, if ethnicity and tribalism is to be addressed systematically in Namibia. I am of the considered view that the current discourse lacks substance and has been hypocritical in most instances. The debate seems to address symptoms and avoids fundamental questions of social justice, abuse of state and administrative powers to advance patronage and personal interests, abuse of the poor and working class by politicians to advance their narrow political interests and our inability to locate the debate in class analysis. In my view, tribalism and ethnicity are about power and accumulation of public resources. One of the fundamental questions to ask is whether all citizens in Namibia irrespective of their political affiliation and social or economic status have in practical terms equitable access to public resources and equal employment opportunities based on merit. Secondly, is there evidence to suggest that 26 years after independence, officials serving organs of state have internalised the expectations of Article 18 of our Constitution? As we might recall, Article 18 obliges administrative bodies and administrative officials to act fairly and reasonably and to comply with the requirements imposed upon them by common law and any relevant legislation. If the answer is yes or maybe, how is it possible that a young person is denied a scholarship opportunity, because she belongs to an ethnic group that a public official does not like? How is it possible that an entire ethnic group is collectively labelled and accused of being political hibernators? How  is it possible that a citizen is disqualified from applying for a job at NHE, not because he is unqualified, but because someone arbitrary feels so? How is it possible that someone is removed from NIPAM by “knowledgeable” public officials without due process informed by dictates of valid reason and procedural correctness? In all these cases, except with the scholarship when a former minister stood up on a matter of principle, organs of state and the citizenry were quiet? Is unequal treatment not perhaps one of the causes of ethnicity and tribalism?  Can we consciously blame these individuals, if they resort to tribal and ethnic solidarity and conclude that they are lesser citizens in a state founded upon the principles of equality and the rule of law?  Professor Kwesi Prah argues that: “Recognition of the vitality of ethnic identities does not in itself constitute tribalism or excessive inward-lookingness. It is only when such identities become instruments of chauvinism and the apportionment of resources or become a criterion for access to resources in the multi-ethnic states which African countries today are, that tribalism occurs.” Is ethnicity and tribalism not perhaps resulting from our collective failure to promote inclusivity, to manage diversity and insensitivity in the apportionment of public resources, especially in favour of the poor and the working class? Ethnicity and tribalism happen in the spheres of those who wield power to distribute resources. It is not the poor and working class who allocate resources. I would argue that the poor and working class respond and do not initiate tribalism and ethnicity. The 2004 Afro Barometer working paper on: “Sources of ethnic identification in Africa” supports this view.
How do we systematically address ethnicity and tribalism in Namibia? Firstly, we need to embrace diversity as our strength, including diversity of ideas and that it is an integral part of a vibrant democratic society. Secondly, we need to promote constitutionalism. Thirdly, we need to develop ethical and moral leadership to give effect to our constitutional values and principles and appoint people in a modern state only on merit. We are currently lacking in this area. Fourthly, we need to educate the citizenry through formal, non-formal and informal education to inculcate the values of diversity, solidarity and promoting the common good instead of the current self-centred, greedy and individualistic approach to life. Fifthly, we need to refocus the role of the state to option and preference for the poor and working class in society. Sixthly, we should make state institutions, systems and processes  rules-based and treat all citizens equally without any distinction. The Constitution has laid the foundations for constructing a modern nation-state. We should just aspire to do what is ethically and morally correct.

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