Wednesday 14 April 2021
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Ethnicity: A Namibian strength or weakness?

Namibia is an ethnically diverse nation and central to the ethnic identities of the Namibian people is the progression of their co-existence within one public space or the so-called Namibian house.
Indeed, there was a time where public sentiment aligned with the slogan “one Namibia, one Nation”. However over two decades of independence has tested the foundations of national unity in the land of the brave with ethnic politicisation a serious cause for concern.
Cases such as the social movement turned political party; ‘Landless People’s Movement (LPM) and the ethnic coalition on genocide is testament to how ethnicity has a bipolar function within the Namibian public space as both a political tool that has the potential to either break or strengthen the walls of nation-building. History is an excellent teacher when it comes to synthesising the present as it teaches that ethnic contestations in Namibia are fundamentally entrenched in how transitional justice was pursued after independence. The International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) interprets transitional justice as post-conflict efforts to facilitate peace, reconciliation and democracy. These efforts include criminal persecution, truth-seeking, reparations, memorialization efforts and reform.

Melber (2009) in Southern African Liberation Movements as Governments and the Limits to Liberation, writes that “when liberation movements take power, their governments are often marked by military mindsets, categorising people as winners and losers and operating along the lines of command and obedience. This is perhaps the closest explanation for the liberation struggle”.
Notably, after Namibia emerged as a new post-conflict nation-state, its new government pursued transitional justice for the liberation struggle in the form of creating a Namibian memory culture which over glorified the liberation struggle and by extension creating a national memory culture with predominant focus on the Aawambo ethnic people selectively. This selective pursuit of transitional justice best explains why the Herero and Nama traditional leaders opt to seek and set the agenda on what transitional justice for the genocide should entail, outside government efforts.

It is as well this selective approach to transitional justice which motivated the ethnic Landless People’s Movement to riot on the land question which is a colonial legacy that continues to disadvantage Namibian especially the (central and southern) ethnic groups who according to Namibian history are documented as victims of forceful land removal.
One can only speculate on how the narrative would have read, had the forceful land seizure (or genocide) been in northern Namibia.
Furthermore, memory culture has to do with time and space. Thus, a glance at the type of public holidays that are celebrated in Namibia as well as monuments that occupy the public space are all pointing to a liberation struggle crafted memory culture. This Kössler (2007) sums this up well by stating that “specific places are demarcated to commemorate important events, both with or without spatial connections to the commemorated instance. Names are given to such places, tablets or plaques point towards the event to be remembered, and/or monuments are erected. Streets are named and renamed to honour and commemorate personages or events. Whilst with time, the national holiday calendar is used generally to mark out a few important dates as public holidays that are honoured by the cessation of most daily routines, in addition to public functions that may be sponsored by the state as well as by non-state actors”.
This selective commemoration of memory is a thorn in the flesh of ethnic groups that are overlooked in the quest of transitional justice because in contrast the presence of German infrastructure and street names in the Namibian public space as well as the reality that descendants of German colonisers are reaping the fruits (land and economic prosperity) of an era that was painful for the Herero and Nama communities has been salt onto open wounds  for over 20 years after independence, hence their current pursuit for transitional justice.
During the opening of 7th session of parliament early this month, President Geingob reckoned that “effective governance cannot be fully achieved in a country fraught with division and factionalism. I will therefore never tire of regularly repeating the narrative of inclusivity, through the concept of the Namibian house; where no Namibia should be left out (unless of course, one decides to exclude oneself); as we build one Namibia- One Nation; by pulling together in the same direction in the spirit of Harambee”.

Whilst the stance of the President and government by extension is noble, it is important to engage the apparent reality that the Namibian house has visible (disunity) cracks outside of allegations of maladministration of public funds (corruption) and nepotism.
These cracks cannot be wished away nor ignored because ethnicity is a harmful weapon when politicised as was the case in Rwanda with the Hutus and Tutsis as well as the Nazis and the Jews in Germany but to mention a few.
It is rightly important to reckon on good governance as well as urgently revive the economy, these efforts should be pursued cognisant of the threats (and opportunities) posed by ethnic politicisation to mitigate the narrative of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ in the Namibian House.

The eventual outcomes of the Herero and Nama genocide negotiations as well as the answers to the land question in Namibia will likely expose the true face of ethnic heterogeneity in the land of the brave- one can only hope as a strength. And only then will the foundations of the Harambee house truly be exposed.

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