SWAPO secretary general Nangolo Mbumba has held several top positions both in government and the party before, but nothing compares to his most recent assignment. During the last five years, Mbumba served as SWAPO’s first ever full-time secretary general while being a member in President Geingob’s Cabinet, a job he said requires not only a thick skin, but a flexible one too.
“This position requires not only a thick skin, but also a flexible skin so that even if you are punched, it is not a knockout punch,” a clearly elated Mbumba said at the genesis of our interview.
Mbumba is among Namibia’s most seasoned and at times loathed politicians, commanding respect, while also drawing criticism at the same time from radical youth who continuously accuse him of violating the SWAPO constitution.
His ‘Afyoona nye’ remarks in 2014 remains undoubtedly his worst nightmare, and if you think his tenure has been smooth sailing, Mbumba himself told The Patriot during an exclusive interview this week that “I have made fantastic mistakes, but it is part of the journey”
The Patriot (TP): Is this an energy sucking job?
Nangolo Mbumba (NM): No. It takes energy but also gives you energy. It depends upon your own health and your own stamina. It is not an energy sucking job. There are moments when you really want to jump, run and to do things like a young person that you are not expected to do. And then there is the real job. This is an office where everyone comes to you. This is an office where you are both the youngest among the elders and the eldest among the youngest. Senior leaders say go and do this, and they expect you to run. The younger people tell you go and tell your age mates or seniors to do this and you are expected to do it, but carefully. This position makes you both technical and political.
TP: There has been so much criticism of your office since you took charge five years ago. Whether it’s justified or not is not for us to judge. How have you dealt with such criticism?
NM: First of all, you accepted the job. What I told myself is that, no matter how heavy the criticism is, I am not going to stay at home or go to a restaurant or bar and eat myself or drink myself to death. I am just going to work. That’s standard. The other thing is, when you make a mistake, you must admit your mistake. Or where you said something unbecoming, you must apologise. Then, there is criticism for the sake of criticism, which you must bear with. I cannot not go around calling newspapers just because they wrote something bad about me. It will not help. But nobody has a permanent thick skin. But some people, their skin is more flexible than others. So you must have a flexible skin, so that even if you are punched, it is not a knockout punch.
TP: Talk to us about the systems that ensures the smooth administration of the party. Are the systems there or is there a need for improvement and so on?
NM: The systems are there. There is one thing that I want to talk about…the office. In terms of human relations. You have the veterans who are coming to you. They come without an earlier confrontation to tell you how they have suffered and how the ministry is not recognising them. You must be able to listen to them and direct them. Then, there are regional issues. We have the office of the administrator. It has always been crucial that those people are efficient and capable. So in terms of getting people for positions, it is not a problem. It is not a question of efficiency. The problem is when we have all the programs at the same time. We have regional conferences, you have congresses of the wings, you have this and you have that. It becomes problematic.
TP: Another aspect would be the finance part, we know the party has a business wing. In terms of the administration, how involved is the SG in the decision making and so forth?
NM: It[business] is well-structured. Firstly, we have the Secretary for Economic Affairs who oversees that. They[Kalahari Holdings] have an administrator who works at the headquarters who liaises with the overall party administrator. We have nominee shareholders, people who have the interest of the people at heart. And they are supposed to be like the real owners, working on behalf of all members. They should ensure that whatever application they approve is really good for business and whatever resources are generated, there are for the party and not for a particular person. And then we have boards of directors in the different companies. So the secretary general doesn’t really touch those things anymore. For example we are going to congress and need resources from the companies, I have to write to the secretary, and the secretary will decide which company is in the position to avail them.
TP: How do you manage the conflict between the party’s business interests especially when it involves government?
NM: Our companies, most of them don’t do business with the government. I have never seen them tendering for government work. Kalahari Holdings concentrates on its ventures, they don’t tender for government. It is not that we are prevented from tendering.
TP: Let’s talk about accountability, the SWAPO members in Parliament and in Cabinet, how do you ensure that when they are deployed, they carry out and fulfil the work of the party? Do you summon ministers to your office?
NM: I cannot summon him or her in their capacity as ministers but as party members. But as party members I can. As members of the central committee, I can. As members of the Politburo, I can.
TP: How do you as SG keep tabs to ensure that the party’s manifesto is implemented wholly?
NM: After the elections, we have modalities on how to send it to the government. A formal copy with a cover letter, indicating clearly what is in the manifesto is send from the secretary general to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister will be the one to make a Cabinet memorandum to indicate that these are the policies of the party, whether it’s on water, infrastructure, education…how we campaigned is up to the line ministers on how to implement it.
TP: The decision to allow the SG to attend Cabinet meetings, how has it helped both the party and government to function efficiently?
NM: The decision to invite the Secretary General was borne from the experience of the time of the late Moses //Garoeb, a very dynamic and colourful secretary general. He was a well-read man with good speeches. And from comrade Hifikepunye Pohamba when he was secretary general, that there was beginning to be a separation. Those who were at headquarters were at headquarters; those who were in Cabinet were in government. So when a decision is made, it became the responsibility of the president to brief the other person. Knowing how difficult it is to get an appointment with them and knowing how difficult it is to brief people orally, so that decision is helpful. But you also need to utilise your mind. Luckily, I am a former Secretary to Cabinet, I know how Cabinet documents are done and are read. I don’t have to read the whole report of the Bank of Namibia. I know what to look for, I know what I want and don’t have to carry them around. But there are certain decisions, you read the minutes and you know what is happening and nobody can fool you on what has been decided.
TP: Why is there so much information leakages in the system? I am asking this because there are so many instances where confidential information-whether from Cabinet, Swapo or government- is leaked.
NM: Well, these are interesting periods. Interesting before the congress and before the elections. There will always be people trying to do certain things[leak information]. It is easier to say that I did not support that thing or I am the one who proposed it. If something is good, I will be said it’s me who proposed it. If it gets difficult, then I will say it is someone else who proposed it. We should not be surprised about that, but it creates a question of ethics. We take an oath as Members of Parliament. We all take an oath as members of Cabinet. We take an oath as Central Committee members and we all claim that the constitution is our guide. And yet we violate that same constitution.
TP: So how does it make you feel when you discuss something confidential and see it in the newspapers the next morning?
NM: It makes you feel rotten. You don’t understand how somebody does it and it does not give you confidence to discuss certain issues in the future. And it is actually counter-productive.
TP: Does this mean people are pulling in opposite directions?
NM: No. It is not a question of puling in different directions. Maybe we are competing like race horses. It is a question of who is going to win but the head, ear, by the nose or far ahead of others. It’s about who is going to reach first.
TP: Is this perhaps the reason why some Politburo members were side-lined during meetings where big decisions were taken?
NM: No. We have a rule. Everyone gets the same letter of invitation. I know what you are referring to. There was a case when a meeting started like a consultation. It reached a level to recommend something strong[recall Bernadus Swartbooi from Parliament]. And we knew where some people were and we called them just to make sure they know the matter. That is what is now considered as an omission of some people. We could not reach them. It is a pity that we could not reach everyone. I remember, there were three at the headquarters, and we told them to drop everything and come. Other people, we did not know where they were. But it was not to target anybody. And it was not that those who came were of the same mind.