29 January 2016

Namibia: What Role for Civil Society in 2016?

NOT UNTIL the arrival of the Affirmative Repositioning group, has there been a paucity of debate about the role of civil society in Namibian public life. And the little there was, was either cast in simplistic terms or not properly theorised.

But since this is a new year, it's perhaps necessary we bring back the role and place of civil society in democratic politics.

We have a new administration with a lot of new faces mixed with some from the old guard. But we cannot and should not assume that most of them have the interests of the whole nation at heart.

Therefore, civil society groups must play their role in setting and shaping the national agenda. Politics is too important to be left to the politicians alone - lest they mess up as they do in many cases. We are witnessing that in a number of African countries. The continent is now becoming one big "refugee camp".

We have seen the deafening silence from the various strata of civil society groups in the country, especially on issues that have important constitutional and political implications. And in one of his offerings in The Namibian, a while ago, Henning Melber tackled that issue albeit briefly and in a slightly different context.

Proceeding from a comparative perspective, Melber argued that: "The public as well as inner-party discourse in SA, shows far more nuances and diversity than in Namibia and the role of NGOs and other civil society actors and their forms of mobilising participation in public affairs through civic interest groups and social movements, seem to suggest that there is considerably more strength and space for dissenting voices to operate and articulate alternatives without immediate fundamental consequences for the daily survival of the individuals involved."

The question is: Are we perhaps expecting too much from civil society groups? Yes, we should, because in other places and times, civil society movements have made the difference. They represent the demand side of the socio-economic and political equation and are thus the ultimate guarantor of the democratic process.

Arguing from a normative and idealised conception of civil society, I would maintain that civil society is not a thing, forum or actor but a kind of an empty social space recognised and protected by formal state and constitutional guarantees of individual rights and liberties and open to multiple uses by an equal and free citizenry.

It is only when you have those conditions that the various civil society actors can operate short of violent confrontation as we have seen in some other countries.

Formal recognition by the state does not always guarantee an active civil society or compensate actors for loss of real importance on the ground and it carries the possibility of getting entangled in a whole web of patronage. The labour movement in Namibia under the umbrella of the NUNW represents that kind of scenario.

The present labour movement was initiated by Swapo and it has since been aligned, co-opted and entangled in the programmes of the ruling party, and even the party's compromised ideological and elitist thinking. Thus the labour movement here is nothing but a stepping-stone into higher political office.

All civil society actors that are aligned to political parties and with state structures have, thus, effectively closed that important public space between state and society within which civil actors are supposed to operate. The functions of the NUNW and even Cosatu in South Africa are nothing other than to propagate the hegemonic agendas of Swapo and the ANC respectively.

That is why the NUNW has, in recent years, been conspicuously silent on some of the major issues that affect the workers. The Affirmative Repositioning (AR) group has at least made the social movement visible again - especially on the land issue.

We all have to chip in because the issues are many. University and college students are doing that on the educational front, as we have seen both in Namibia and South Africa. Thus the teachers and labour unions must do their part.

It is one thing for civil society actors to blindly align themselves with a political party and quite another to support a specific policy initiative that would be beneficial to the everyday needs of its members. Thus the civil society movement must live in the spirit of that credo of the Spanish civil war that it is 'Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.'

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