13 July 2004

Namibia: Lawyer Signals Ascent of Africa's Modernisers

Addis Ababa — Bience Gawanas epitomises the modernising ambitions of Africa's new political union - she's a woman, a professional, a campaigner against corruption and, perhaps most important, a relentless optimist.

The Namibian's record of overcoming mighty obstacles will stand her in good stead in helping the African Union (AU), the successor body to the ineffectual Organisation of African Unity, achieve its goal of hauling the continent out of poverty.

The lawyer's appointment in 2003 as the AU's Commissioner for Social Affairs helped break the male-dominated mould of pan-African politics.

She was one of five women elected to the 10-member executive body which runs the 53-nation organisation.

Like her fellow commissioners Gawanas is a meritocrat who rose from humble beginnings, a contrast to some former OAU officials seen by critics as political time-servers propping up what the outside world often derided as a club for dictators.

A very youthful 48, Gawanas now dreams of scaling another towering barrier - helping Africa's 800 million people banish illiteracy, disease and underdevelopment in a continent where three-quarters of the adult population can neither read nor write and most have never made a telephone call.

"Yes these are dreams, but why can't we dream?" she says.

"Dreams at least make you see the bigger picture, they make you think outside of the box. I am an optimist."

The idealism of the UK-trained barrister has helped her rise above numerous misfortunes, the first of which was race segregation in the then South West Africa.

"I grew up under apartheid. When I decided to study law, a white schools inspector told me that as a black child my intelligence was lower than that of a white child and that maybe law was not meant for me," she said.

"Today I am a lawyer and I have proved that intelligence has got nothing to do with a person's colour." Gawanas spent 12 years in exile, working as a lawyer and campaigning for Namibia's freedom from South African rule.

On her return, shortly before Independence in 1990, Gawanas was among hundreds of South West Africa People's Organisation activists detained temporarily by its leaders in a dark period in the guerrilla movement's history that few Namibians discuss to this day.


"There have been many, many challenges," Gawanas says, without elaborating.

"The hardships I have suffered have enriched my life to the point where I can understand where Africa is coming from."

Unembittered, she stayed in Namibia to lecture in gender law in the early 1990s before being made government Ombudsman in 1996, where she probed complaints about maladministration, corruption, human rights and the environment.

At the summit, she has one overriding concern - getting African leaders to kick the habit of taking far-reaching decisions without having the funds to implement them, a problem that rendered the OAU ineffectual.

"My biggest concern has always been the gap between declarations and implementation. If these plans can be implemented it will change the face of Africa. But what it all boils down to is a question of political will. How can we strengthen it?" Like other structures of the AU, the commission is inspired by European Union institutions.

Commissioners each preside over a specific sector, like agriculture or political affairs.

Unlike the EU, they struggle to find even a fraction of the funds they need to tackle Africa's problems.

The AU's members are US$45 million in arrears on their dues - equivalent to one and a half times the body's annual budget.

But Gawanas is energised, not demotivated, by the challenge.

"What I saw in Namibia I am now going to see on the whole continent. I come face to face with the vulnerable and marginalised in society. It is those people who will be looking at the AU to see what we are going to make of it."

- Nampa-Reuters

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