24 August 2007

Namibia: Variable Geometry And Vision 2030


Windhoek — NAMIBIA, shamefully, remains one of the most unequal societies in the world 17 years after Independence.

Yet, we have remained phlegmatic about some getting rich and others getting poorer.

The socio-economic divide is not cutting our country in two, but instead into a multiplicity of divides or fractures.

These fractures would generally only be reduced to a dichotomy of those who are poor and those well-off categories of our society.

One could argue convincingly that the old categories of the relatively well-off have now joined the ranks of the poor as the "new poor".

On the whole, in order to redo the unity of the nation, there is a need to reconcile on one side the well-off categories, those who create wealth and jobs, who demand the state to maintain order and give them the liberty to negotiate and to be entrepreneurs.

The well-off would not hesitate to shout abusively the name of "Sam Nujoma" or flash out newly discovered "comrade credentials" in order to access State resources in the form of tenders and lucrative jobs.

On the other side are those living in shacks, defeated by globalisation and the relative impotence of the State against this processes.

They have no platform and by their sheer numbers and illiteracy, are excluded from lucrative economic activity.

Even if they are used and listed as potential beneficiaries in black economic empowerment deals, it remains to be seen if at all the so-called trickle-down effect really takes place.

As a consequence, they in turn demand inclusion and more protection, oftentimes redistribution as a response to their plight.

In order to respond to these contradictory demands, the ruling party is in need of the excluded, for they represent by and large its most crucial constituency.

Government responded to some of these historical legacies through various policy interventions: affirmative action and most recently Black Economic Empowerment.

Inasmuch as I agree with the redistributive nature of these policies, it is time for us to now rethink the framework within which these policies operate.

We need to ask the question what those who have done so well for themselves have done for the rest of society.

And I am not talking about jobs where the cleaners and secretaries they employ can't even afford meals or the taxi fare to work, whilst they travel in the most expensive German sedans and live well insulated from the shacks of those they employ in Greenwell Matongo.

Government, within the context of Vision 2030, must start to ask these questions.

Maybe I am too much of an idealist by saying like the former French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin: "Yes to a market economy, no to a market society".

In fact, it could be true that the rules of the market economy are not transposable to the rules that protect society, even if in their intentions they are supposed to be creating wealth for individuals.

But the essence of politics is to believe in a just society.

Admittedly, the impotence of the national state within the process of globalisation has become more and more salient.

This partly explains why weaker states want to integrate this process through regional structures or continental ones.

But I believe that integration, whether regional or continental, is but a minute part of the solution.

The danger in arguing this way is that the key solution, especially in the context of fragile states, is that it could serve as a pretext to exonerate the national context by shifting blame to intangible entities and exogenous factors.

Part of the debate around a continental state could be a case in point.

In essence, just like in many problems facing the continent, we see solutions as intergenerational.

And I think that part of excitement around Vision 2030 could be one of telling us that our economic happiness is intergenerational.

Most probably, the politicians of today who tell us to pin our hopes in Vision 2030 would not be around to witness Vision 2030, either as a spectacular failure or a success story.

I don't mean to say that we should not talk about Vision 2030, but much of the substance and not the rhetoric around it lies in the ability of the state to try and shape outcomes - its capacity to take hard decisions and build programmatic follow-up in its work, today.

The decisions being taken today should convince ordinary Namibians that we are in fact moving confidently towards an era in which Air Namibia would place an order like Singapore Airlines for 20 planes from Airbus; the French and Germans would not only visit Namibia for its wildlife, the Namib desert and the Ovahimba as holidaymakers as they do now, but to cut high value business deals with their Namibian counterparts.

Additionally, the debate around Vision 2030 should not only be economic, but also sociological and political.

Solutions are political and the vertical silos we call states are the first point of call in the developmental process.

However, at this level, I am less convinced and pessimistic about Vision 2030 because amongst others the biggest infrastructure project Government undertook since Independence is the construction of a State House for an individual.

And during that whole period, we have spent less on housing for the poor or scholarships to train scientists, engineers and medical doctors.

Our language, especially that of politicians in their daily discourse does not convince us that we are a forward-looking country with a desire to be the best.

Democratic transitions are in general difficult to bring about, and economic development is equally hard to foster.

The relative indifference with regard to the plight of the poor has not yet led to any political backlash, but it could when ordinary Namibians distinguish the fair from the unjust.

To avoid that backlash, government must take decisions that convince the poor that government is indeed pro-poor and serious about not allowing as it is at present, a variable geometry Namibia.

Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is a PhD fellow in political science at the University of Paris-Panthéon Sorbonne, France.

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