1 February 2013

Namibia: So, What About Home Affairs?


EVERYONE seems to have something awful to say about the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). It is almost like a predictable running gag in a bad novel. The public must soberly engage government on the issues surrounding this very important ministry. Parliamentarians should aggressively discuss this issue in the upcoming first session of 2013.

While MHA does present real and serious challenges, there are people amongst us who never have a good word to say about anything our government does. There are others who harp on old mistakes or rumoured stories about the 'ills' of MHA and repeat these tales like a negative Gregorian chant. There are others who have been lawfully and legitimately rejected for some application and they 'hate on' MHA perpetually as a result. Their complaints are the 'noise' that obscures the main points in this serious debate about how to improve services from this vital ministry.

The flipside of that coin is that MHA officials get so caught up in defending themselves against the 'noise' that they no longer hear constructive concerns; they circle the wagons and ignore everything and this makes matters even worse.

Fact: there are hard-working people at Home Affairs who do a good job and largely succeed in getting things moving the right way; I've worked with many of them over my years in tourism. The tourism industry works closely with MHA.

Then, there is the issue of work permits that affects all sectors: MHA is tasked to effect due diligence in ensuring that applicants have looked for local talent before demanding to import skills. MHA has the responsibility to ascertain whether documents submitted are valid. Without a doubt, there are applications for Home Affairs' various services that are bogus or are filled out incorrectly or incompletely. Home Affairs has to deal with this and it's not easy.

All Namibians have to use the services of MHA. Passports, birth certificates, death certificates and IDs are needed all the time, all over Namibia. Border posts have to be staffed and they are the first line in protecting Namibian sovereignty. Getting MHA to operate effectively is a national emergency; this should be the focus of the national debate about MHA; not the 'noise.'

A recent report in a newspaper article stated that MHA has recognised that the physical space in their main building is insufficient. Those waiting in endless lines and congestion have known that for two decades. MHA purchased the old Continental Hotel building some years ago to address this problem.

However, it is alarming to note in that same article, it states that the old Continental Hotel property was purchased for N$18 million in 2007 and yet is "uninhabitable". Did the relevant officials know they were purchasing property that may take 100x the purchase price to rebuild? Was there a master plan in 2007 that justified the N$18 million purchase? What is the way forward to solving the office space problem and when will it be done? These are some legitimate questions that get obscured by the constant 'noise' about MHA.

Quite correctly, MHA gets slammed for running out of passport books, not starting work at eight o'clock in the morning as advertised, slow service or surly staff behaviour. They get lambasted for losing documents. There has been various fraud uncovered and there were staff members fired for taking bribes. The list of real complaints could continue.

But, there needs to be a step-back and fair evaluation of the facts involved before jumping on the bandwagon of negative judgement about MHA. While statistics to confirm this are not available, it is logical to assume that the vast majority of IDs get done and distributed in a reasonable time period. Some years ago, MHA worked with secondary schools to collect applications and provide identification cards without those kids having to go to the main office at all. That was a great programme!

Consider this: if people really knew the number of shady international characters (in these terrorist-sensitive days) who have tried to enter Namibia, but were stopped at the borders, the image of MHA's effectiveness could improve considerably. The majority of passports and birth/death certificates get processed and distributed in a timely manner. The public has not been given raw statistics on how many 'tasks' are attempted by MHA in a given year vs how many errors made, but it is a fair bet that there is a far larger number of tasks completed correctly.

The 'noise' focuses on the rudeness of the counter worker (which is a customer service and floor management problem), rather than addressing mechanisms to challenge the Cabinet over policy problems.

There is a skills deficit in Namibia; yet, unemployment tops more than 35 percent as those in need of jobs lack the skills necessary to fit openings. There must be an entity that examines whether work permits requested are coordinated with local skills availability. Leave aside the customer relations issues for a moment and recognise that this kind of screening is not uniquely Namibian; it is done worldwide. Do you think Greece, Italy, Ireland or Spain are happily welcoming foreigners to take up jobs in their countries when huge numbers of their own populations are demonstrating in the streets about unemployment?

MHA is here to stay; all of us need their services. The ministry must un-circle the wagons and recognise the national emergency; the 'noise' needs to die down so that people can agitate productively for change targeting the source of the problems at MHA.

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