Namibia: So You Want to Be a Politician? Learn From Namibia's First Lady Monica Geingos

Monica Geingos, First Lady of Namibia
13 August 2020

Cape Town — Namibia's First Lady Monica Geingos gave the keynote address at the African Leadership Institute's virtual conference for International Youth Day, which coincided with the launch of the Institute's new report, Greater Inclusion of African Youth in Public Service and Governance.

Her comments on youth and power, and the 10 "quick lessons" she shared has now reached tens of thousands of people, thanks to an excerpt being shared on Twitter. 

Read on to see what caused such a stir...

I think many of you know by now the ones who have been following my speaking is that I prefer a conversational style of speaking and one of the first things I want to really note is that I attribute meaning to words and I found it significant that the title of this paper emphasizes the word greater inclusion.

It implies that the inclusion that exists needs to be expanded and fast checked and if you distill the essence of the launch paper, the message is essentially, hey thanks for including us but stop acting like you're doing us a favor because the truth is you're not doing enough you are not doing it fast enough and since it looks like you don't know how to include us let us tell you

Of course, those aren't the words used by the authors and the paper strikes a balance between the need to be diplomatic without diluting the need to be instructive.

The words in print are carefully arranged to acknowledge what is being done asks that more be done and that they give guidance on how it can be done better and I know that there's going to be different views on this but what I've experienced and what I observe is that how you say something is as important as what you say. And this launch paper manages to say what young people are saying to each other privately.

If you are sitting at the table and you can't change the agenda you have not been included, you've been co-opted

'These guys don't see us they include us but they're not listening to us' - I'm sure that by now many of you have been given a proverbial seat at the table and are starting to notice that sitting at the table doesn't automatically translate into being heard. I'm sure many of you have left meetings rephrasing how you could have said something better or frustrated that what you meant to say was misunderstood or miscontextualized because of the wrong timing the wrong context or the wrong choice of words. Am I asking you to contort yourself to fit into respectability politics and behave yourselves sit quietly and only speak when spoken to? No.

I'm asking you not to conform, not to dilute yourself and not to seek approval. What I'm asking you is that you think about what it means to communicate effectively and strategically if the chance of your input stands a better chance of being taken seriously because I make the same point by deploying different languages. Then the need to be effective requires you to be smart like this paper which is cleverly launched on International Youth Day. It's possible to deliver some hard truth by being strategic in terms of timing, tone and truthfulness, If you are sitting at the table and you can't change the agenda you have not been included, you've been co-opted.

I've sat on boards of leading private and public sector companies as the youngest member of the board. I know how it feels to say something that gets ignored and 10 minutes later when somebody else uses different words to say exactly what I said then all of a sudden it's the best thing.

The lesson sometimes - it's not how you say something, it's also about who says it as many of you have noticed. There are rules to power and politics. The worst thing about these rules is that many of them are unwritten and unspoken and we often need a guide to ensure we don't break what we didn't even know exists. And you'll often just hear but it's not done that way, but anybody explains to you how it's done. It was interesting to see how the report highlighted the utilization of special advisors as a pathway to politics. It rightly points out that this talent pipeline should be institutionalized and not be dependent on how a head of state feels. I agree with this position.

I agree with the assessment that in Namibia the incumbent president has shown a commitment to the appointment of young people. I've seen how he spends time to nurture develop and engage young people, but what happens if they break an unwritten rule or when a new president takes over? What if they don't feel the same way as the former president feels?

So it is best to have transparent policies and clear processes. I'm also pleased that the report includes includes quotas as a way of expediting youth inclusion. It's not a populist suggestion but it's an important one. The question with quotas will always be you're so good, why can't you make it on your own.

The reality is that no matter how qualified or competent a young person is, there are perceptions in unconscious bias that impact how you are perceived

As a black woman I understand the nuance of that sentiment. I hear the unspoken complaint that it's unfair and a self-respecting qualified candidate should rely on their competence.

The reality is that no matter how qualified or competent a young person is, there are perceptions in unconscious bias that impact how you are perceived. Youth inclusion will not be achieved without a quota system it's also the most orderly way to ensure continuous intergenerational succession when I speak about youth inclusion I speak with the assumption that we're all on the same page, that youth representation must be demographically representative. I know the struggles of many young female
political leaders across the continent and there'll be a moment when we'll need to speak and address the debilitating impact of political sexism on the careers of young women.

I want to make some observations and before I do it I'd like to explain quickly what informs my views so while I'm qualified as a lawyer my experience was primarily in the financial sector where i started at the stock exchange i heated up an investment a corporate finance advisory unit in the investment bank.

I became a founding shield and managing director of Namibia's first private equity bank, I was also a shareholder and a chairman of a commercial bank and many other public and private companies.

I was on a number of bodies that gave high-level policy advice, including the president's economic advisory council, public office bearers commission, the Namibian Chamber of Commerce and the ruling party's think tank.

I mentioned these things because it has impacted how I see and look at the powerful. When I married my husband I resigned all these roles and changed from being a participant to being an observer and as a First Lady people tend to assume you don't know much and I'm okay with that, as I'm not always in the mood to talk and it gives me time to observe people and power. it's always a lesson to see how power is used by those who have it and how people who don't have it behave around it. It's fascinating to watch.

I want each of you to ask yourselves today is do you have a plan about how you will yield power. It seems like a simple question but the reality is that the answer is complex.

Power is corrosive, it does change people you can't control something you don't understand and it's important that you observe power dynamics. Be clear on how you behave around it and how you behave when others have it. When you have power, always remember how it felt not to have power and be guided accordingly. Time won't permit me to go into details so there are 10 quick lessons I want to share.

(Number one) There's a lot of grievances in the political space and if you're not careful you'll be forced to take sides. Politicians don't have permanent friends or enemies, they only have permanent interests and when they fight each other they normally don't include you when they make peace with one another.

Number two - do you risk your political career with an economic vulnerability plan. I believe young people seeking to enter politics or the public sphere should first have marketable skills a qualification or means of earning an additional income. There is no more vulnerable position than relying on the discretion of politicians for your livelihood, especially if you're unemployable outside of the public sector.

Third, learn to accept defeat. I've seen many bright careers destroyed by the inability to accept defeat.

Whether it's electoral whether it's not being considered for an appointment you felt you were best suited for or given to someone who knows or does less than you. If you obtain public office don't build your personality or your status around it.

the system can be changed but it will first try to eat you

Positions are temporary. The worst time for a politician that I've observed is the day after he's been appointed because that's the day his phone starts to ring and he's being reminded by everybody whether they remember how hard they worked and what positions that they deserve. Don't be that person.

The fourth lesson is to create your own space. Politicians are drawn to those who can articulate themselves properly. This doesn't mean that they will like it, they will respect it. However, create your own spaces - write papers, be engaged, be strategic, be smart.

They can't and don't know all the young people who are capable and competent.

(Number 5) Do you stand as an independent, do you find an existing political vehicle that you identify with, do you go against the mainstream?

Take a route and stick to it.

Six: Pick your battles carefully. You'll always find yourself in disagreement with your political principles. There will always be things that can be done better in the public sector. Learning when to keep quiet and what to fight is a skill. Decide what is important and fight for it. Conflict is part of this public space, political space, and the skill you want to learn is conflict resolution and not taking ad hominem attacks personally.

Seven, the system can be changed but it will first try to eat you. I believe that, within my context, to see real reform, you need to get into the belly of the beast.

I struggle to convince capable young people to work in the public sector or join politics as they often feel that there's upward mobility. They feel there's too much backstabbing, remuneration is too low and they aren't being taken seriously. Get in in order to make a difference.

Understand that there is a price to pay. What you must always understand is that you must know when you're trying to change the system and you must understand when the system is starting to change you.

Understand that there is a price to pay

It's important not to become so blinded that you can't see when something is going very wrong. If you find yourself always angry, frustrated and in disagreement with your principles then you need to introspect. This is partly what leads to the governance and generational gaps discussed in the paper.

Eight: Never become like those who fight you. I think that point is relatively self-explanatory.

Nine: Patriarchy doesn't sleep. Politics are a mirror of our societies and if our societies are patriarchal so are our politics. Women are judged harshly and given a narrow margin of error and are often not included when late-night political deals and strategies are being discussed. Another element is how consensual sexual relationships are more likely to cost the woman as opposed to the man. Worse though sexual harassment in politics in the public space isn't taken seriously.

I'm certain you've explored this angle but I do recommend that we spend a little time speaking about sexual harassment and sexual violence within the corridors of political power.

10, watch how your political allies fight their enemies. Be careful of your allies who use dirty tactics and de-campaign others as one day when they disagree with you they will use those same dirty tactics against you.

Patriarchy doesn't sleep

I wish I could share plenty more and herein lies my point. An important part of fostering intergenerational learning is mentorship. Find yourself a political ally, a mentor who can explain the unwritten rules. Who can do translations for you when you say something that sounds different to what you meant and someone who can intercede for you when a public pronouncement that you make rubs people the wrong way, and someone who can defend you when you are not there.

Someone who explains why the public service or political party that you part of reacts in a certain way. Why they're not willing to do things and be more active on social media or use technology to reach out to the youth or have more intergenerational dialogue, mentors do assist in bridging the gap between the rhetoric and realities of youth inclusion.

The crisis of generational transition afflicts churches, the arts. It afflicts all spheres. The younger generation will always differ with the generation that  precedes it, resisting the inner inevitable friction and need for transition is not an option. For as long as we are mortals, the only logical way to manage the generational transition is to intentionally groom suitable successors to ensure a smooth transition in a clearly defined structured and transparent manner. This is essentially the point of the paper and I agree with it.

The need for youth inclusion should no longer be a topic. The topic should be how do we institutionalize and fast-track youth inclusion while making sure that the youth are not only seen at the table but that they also heard, so thank you very much.

I hope that these lessons were useful.

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