14 December 2012

Namibia: A Servant of the People

AFTER years of what can best be described as fairly ineffectual leadership, President Hifikepunye Pohamba made his first decisive move when he sprang into action with a post-congress reshuffle almost immediately after the election of Hage Geingob to the vice presidency of Swapo.

Only two days after the Geingob victory, the president realigned the ministerial team in line with the will of the congress, clearly brooking no argument in the process. Decisive leadership (not to be confused with authoritarianism) is so crucial for focus and clarity of vision for a country as well as change. It is hoped that this will be a hallmark of future governance.

Part II of the story published on Friday 7th December 2012

“THE women who came to the gathering were barefoot and wore only a leather loincloth. Even though I did not wear any fancy clothes I felt totally overdressed. The poverty hit me. And in the afternoon people were intoxicated, there was no one to talk to. Obviously there was something really wrong. Looking at them, it seemed to me as if they had been demoralised or even dehumanised.”

This is how Dr Libertina Amathila described her first encounter with a San community in the Omaheke Region after she became deputy prime minister in 2005. She was compiling a report about the living conditions of San people in response to a question in Parliament about a man who had died of starvation. She visited several areas where San people have settled and found them living in an abandoned pool, on the side of the road or in makeshift huts in squatter camps.

After independence San people often became labourers among other population groups. Some worked on farms where they were cheated with their wages – or they received no pay at all. Lack of land to live on and the fact that about 95 percent of the San population was illiterate made them vulnerable to exploitation by farmers.

Amathila enlisted the support of most of the Cabinet and was given full mandate by the president to investigate and submit recommendations. As a result educational opportunities for San children were improved by building kindergartens and schools and scholarships for up to Grade 7 were made available.

An adult literacy programme was introduced, enabling older people to learn how to write their names and how to count so that at least they wouldn’t be cheated out of their wages. San communities were resettled in Uitkoms near Okahandja where homes were provided for them. A project was started for members of that community to learn to make coffins so that their loved ones could be buried respectfully. Black plastic bags had been used previously.

San communities were also taught about beekeeping and some excelled in honey production. Amathila helped many San to find employment in government departments. Looking back today, she is still very concerned about the future of the San people. More programmes, such as crafts and vocational training, are needed, she says.

Amathila served as the Minister of Regional and Local Government and Housing from 1990 until 1996. During those years she helped to empower other disadvantaged groups as well. One of the relics of the South African administration was that married women were only allowed to acquire land with their husband’s consent. Amathila proposed the Married Persons Equality Act and successfully campaigned for it, despite resistance from male Members of Parliament. It aimed at equal treatment for both sexes in all aspects of life, i.e. equal job opportunities as well as equal pay for the same work. The Act was passed in 1996.

From 1996 until 2005 Dr Amathila was the minister of health and social services. The public health system was still weighed down by problems when she started. Under her leadership new clinics were built and existing ones renovated. HIV-AIDS was a major challenge she had to deal with. Nationwide distribution of anti-retroviral drugs was launched in 2003. Health had been pronounced a priority when the national budget was drawn up but Amathila struggled to keep the health services going with the allocated funds.

During her years as the Minister of Health she chaired the WHO Regional Committee for Africa (1999-2000) and was the president of the World Health Assembly (2000-2001). She received Namibia’s Order of the Eagle on Heroes’ Day in 2002.

In March 2005 she was appointed deputy prime minister by President Hifikepunye Pohamba. At first she was not happy with this decision because she did not have any specific responsibilities other than to “sit in the office and twiddle my thumbs, read the newspaper, or come to work only when I was needed”, as she writes in her memoir. But Amathila proved to be a very hardworking deputy prime minister. Whenever she became aware of problems which were not properly addressed by the government she asked the president for a mandate and took charge of dealing with them.

While in Kaokoland she and her team came across a starving group of Ovatue people who had left the mountains because of a prolonged drought. President Pohamba asked Amathila to integrate them into the San Development Programme. She resettled them in three villages, two east of Epupa and one near the mountains where they had previously lived.

Her dedication to the cause of the marginalised was not praised by everyone. Some media reports accused Amathila of diminishing the status of the Office of the Prime Minister by failing to fulfil her duty as deputy prime minister.

After 14 years of commitment to the struggle for independence and 20 years in government Amathila decided that it was time for her to retire. On the 20th anniversary of independence, on 21 March 2010, she gave her farewell speech in Parliament and received a standing ovation.

Retirement has not stopped Amathila from making a difference. She attends to her farm near Nina, east of Windhoek, and she chairs the Wage Commission on Domestic Workers. Having dedicated her life to the struggle for independence and the development of independent Namibia, this great woman has remained down to earth. As she puts it in her book she only wishes to be remembered as ‘the servant of the people’.

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