17 February 2012

Namibia: Kazenambo, the Ungrateful Turkey and Dark Clouds of Tribalism in the Country


WHEN Martin Luther King Jr. completed his doctorate in 1955 at Boston University, he had the choice of pursuing a quiet, comfortable and unproblematic university life as an academic or a Baptist preacher. Yet, he saw his education as a means to fight for emancipation and for the civil rights of minority African Americans.

He chose not to be a turkey whose life has been spared because it is sophisticated enough to be paraded at the White House, and not worth ending on the plates of Americans celebrating Thanksgiving. Instead, having made it with a doctorate at one of America's prestigious institutions of learning, he returned to the racist South, to Atlanta, Georgia, in order to lead the civil rights movement. The price he paid for this great human endeavour was the ultimate sacrifice - death. There are interesting parallels between the life of Kazenambo Kazenambo as a public official and Minister and the calling of Martin Luther King. But let's put this comparison in its proper context.

For the past two weeks, the national conversation in Namibia centred on alleged tribalistic remarks made by Kazenambo and directed at a journalist at a local magazine. What may have transpired during that fateful interview and the context in which statements were made or not is likely to remain contested between two men. However, what is not contested is the ignoble question posed by the journalist to a Minister who led a delegation last year for the return of the skulls of Hereros and Namas who were victims of heinous crimes at the hands of Germans. I doubt if the said journalist would ever ask an Owambo Minister if they had acted more as 'Owambos' or as Ministers when they execute their national duties. To insinuate and to ask a Minister, without substance, if he acted for his ethnic group, is at worst, callous. It is this callousness that has been spreading, undermining the very thin thread on which our social interactions hang.

It should be emphasised that our discussion on this issue was typically Namibian, superfluous and never looked at the subtexts governing our social interactions and a culture of right and entitlement defining how we interact with each other and allocate resources. Our debate should have been at this level. Unfortunately, we focussed excessively on the alleged remarks, with the Minister as bait, some even going as far as to call for him to be fired or to be reprimanded by the President. Yet, the contrary should have been truer. When well-trained journalists treat serious questions, including the return of the skulls; the ethics of their professions imply sensitivity to context, instead of pushing for catchy tabloid style headlines and controversies. We as readers also expect decorum and sensitivity to context. However, commentary in the form of letters and editorials superficially shied away from what ought to have informed a fair and ethical discussion around both the responsibilities of a public official and a journalist when dealing with matters of national concern. This did not happen. Instead, President Hifikepunye Pohamba's pronouncements, including those of Prime Minister Nahas Angula on this question were cast in the shallow text of us doing things together (holding hands, blah blah), while in essence we do little together. Such shallowness does suggest that we are a country stiffened by tribalism, yet indifferent about it.

Mr President, it is impossible for a Nama or a Damara to see himself or herself as a Namibian first when they are constantly reminded that they are first Damara or Nama when applying for jobs. Mr President, it is impossible for a minority not to see themselves as such when he or she needs to rent individuals from the dominant ethnic group in order to sell a brilliant business idea to a Ministry.

Many have tried to cast debates about tribalism not as a clash between the dominant and the dominated in daily life, but more of a burning issue when specific dominant interests are threatened out of their dangerous status-quo. It is why Kazenambo has been extremely useful and relevant in our political life by raising issues of justice outside their dangerous and egoistic status quo. Therefore, when Kazenambo bravely argued in favour of a woman or a person from another ethnic group to be the next president, die-hard tribalists and their sympathisers went after Kazenambo like alligators going after house-pets. Out of wilful amnesia, they called him a tribalist, forgetting how as junior minister Kazenambo fought for the rights of an Owambo official who was about to be denied her rights because she was Kwanyama. In fact, those who feel more entitled to power; wealth and responsibility consider him an ungrateful turkey. As a Minister, he has made it and should put himself and his immediate family first and not the broader substantive issues of justice that should guide public life and action. He must behave at all times like a lucky sophisticated turkey whose life has been spared on Thanksgiving.

The rants of the past two weeks do not seem divorced from Kazenambo's sound stand on the ethnicity (less so the gender) of the next President. Instead of trying to hang Kazenambo by whatever means necessary, we should embrace the call for more justice in our society. The only way through which ethnic equilibrium can be maintained and this country normalised as just, is when we all believe that future heads of state, including the next one, should reflect the cultural diversity of this country. Namibia will be normal when the founding President Sam Nujoma and President Pohamba rally behind an ethnic minority as the future head of state. When Martin Luther King led the civil rights movement in the 1960s, he had Barack Obama in the White House in mind. Similarly, the idea of our independence was not to create new forms of dominance and classes of rights but to ensure that Namibians of all walks of life and creed should dare to dream and realise those dreams. There appears to be collective neglect when it comes to this dream and a solemn call for justice. It took untold violence and bloodshed in Côte d'Ivoire before a man from the North, Alassane Dramane Ouattarra, could become President. Ours should not take that ghastly trajectory. But it should take us a sound, ethical and moral debate through which we realise that we should live through our acts (and not just words) in a more inclusive and tolerant Namibia.

 Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari is a PhD-fellow in political science and researcher at the Center for Political Research at the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. He is currently a guest lecturer in European Studies at Rouen Business School, France.

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