9 November 2012

Namibia: Political Perspective


TALKING about ‘revolution’ is very uncharacteristic of President Hifikepunye Pohamba.

When he made the comment apropos the Namibia land issue in an interview with Al Jazeera, he surely knew it was likely to give his international audience the jitters. In fact prospective investors may decide to go elsewhere given that ‘revolution’ is a strong word, especially when it emanates from a head of state.

It doesn’t paint a picture of a government in control and able to bring about change after more than two decades in power. So why would our normally calm and circumspect head of state resort to the ‘r’ word?

President Pohamba is known to be troubled by the reparations issue and the fact that threats have been made locally to ‘take over the land’ unless this is resolved. Of all those dispossessed in the colonial era, the Hereros, Chief Kuaima Riruako in particular, have been the most vocal. Tribal sensitivities and tensions then obviously also underpin the President’s concerns.

While the German government offered to ‘make good’, albeit without the word ‘reparations’ being used, outrageous financial compensation has been demanded by Riruako, something in the vicinity of N$25 billion – enough certainly, to buy all of Namibia’s commercial farmland. It is clear too that while the Germans would prefer to spend the money on uplifting and empowering communities, there are those who want to get their hands on the cash.

Aside from the reparations issue, clearly there is frustration about the perceived slow pace of land reform, in particular apparent reluctance of commercial (read ‘white’) farmers to sell their farms to the Government at modest prices.

Critics continually maintain that the ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ principle has been eroded by the fact that most farmers want astronomical prices for their properties, making it difficult for widespread redistribution efforts to succeed.

There is certainly truth in this, but there is also no small amount of scapegoating of the farming community as those who don’t want to ‘give back’ what they are accused of having taken by illegal means.

This is the background against which President Pohamba warned of a ‘revolution’.

Colonial dispossession is one thing. But our problem today is more complex than just our history. If there are groups in Namibia ‘entitled’ to repossess geographical areas of the country, then right now some tribes are losing their own land rights to others. Herero, Damara, Nama and San all lost land in the colonial era, but ‘dispossession’ continues today if one looks at the case in Nyae Nyae where Herero cattle farmers have moved into the territory of the Ju/’hoansi San.

I’m not sure the extent to which the resettlement programme takes into account the ethnicity or origin of those acquiring these farms; but many of the political elite have bought/been given land in areas which once belonged to others. Even President Pohamba’s farm near Guinas Lake is located in a traditionally Damara/San area of the country.

Does this matter? I don’t think so, but some may feel it might. And this may account for some Government ‘defensiveness’ around reparations and land.

The fact that acquisition of land is seen as the solution to Namibia’s current unemployment and other woes, is, I feel, an erroneous one. Neither do I believe everyone is ‘entitled’ to farms. The logical conclusion to land reform (one would think) is to ensure no farms remain in white hands.

Again, in my view, that’s a mistake. We should instead be making productivity a priority because farming should be a business and we should be building a strong agricultural sector in Namibia that focuses on food security and strong economic principles. Simply by ensuring that black Namibians own the land is not the way to achieve this.

Talk about ‘revolution’ is unnecessary if Government is fair and just in its land reform programmes. Even expropriation can take place if it is done openly and transparently and in according with public interest and just compensation.

In the meantime it is important that President Pohamba, or any other top office-bearer for that matter, should refrain from using this issue for political capital. Worse still, it will not solve the crises we currently face in this country, including unemployment.

I don’t really believe Swapo will tolerate land invasions, Zimbabwe-style. At the same time as some argue that the process is too slow, the Namibia Agricultural Union (NAU) estimates that nearly two-thirds of the targeted 15 million hectares of commercial land (earmarked for 2020) has already been transferred to black Namibians via Affirmative Action Loan Schemes and the resettlement programme.

There’s still a way to go. But there has been progress enough perhaps to hold at bay any talk of ‘revolution’.

Whatever the impasse is, it calls for some cool heads and thoughtful decision-making and not emotional rhetoric that will simply fan the flames of instability and negate any prospect of a just and equitable land reform process in the national interest.

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