Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Week 11: The Role of Government, Racism, and Food in Namibia and the United States

by Jenna Mattina and Rebecca Spiro

During our first week back from fall break, we hit the ground running with classes regarding the Namibian Constitution and law-making process, the roots and legacies of apartheid, and the food system in Namibia and the world. All of our classes brought out comparisons and contrasts with the political, historical, and social situation in the United States and Namibia. Since arriving in Johannesburg, one of the focuses of our program has been to consider our observations in relation to the United States, and this week brought out many of these comparisons.

The politics class visited the Namibian Parliament Building,
which used to be the setting of the apartheid administration and is now
 the meeting place of Namibia’s independent government.
In politics class, we visited the Namibian Parliament building and learned more about the complexities of Namibian politics. Our guide at the Parliament Building, Ndahafa Kaukungua, spoke to us in detail about the activities of the Namibian Parliament [1]. The Parliament consists of two branches, both dominated by the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) and elected through parliamentary elections [2]. The National Assembly consists of 78 members who draft and approve laws. The National Council, the advising branch of parliament, consists of 26 representatives of the various regional councils. In many ways, the branches of the legislature were reminiscent of the House of Representatives and the Senate, who are the drafters and consenters of the laws, respectively. The lower chamber, like the House, represents people’s votes, and the upper chamber, like the Senate, represents regions or states. The Senate, however, is a much more powerful and deliberative body than the lower chamber, and we did not get the sense that there was a similar hierarchy in Namibian politics.

Ndahafa Kaukungua, a civil servant in the Namibian government,
spoke to us about the law-making and election process in the Parliament
Assembly room, which also consists of a public viewing space upstairs
Perhaps most interesting were Kaukungua’s comments about the separation of powers, or lack thereof, in the legislature. All members of the cabinet are also members of the National Assembly; 6 of 78 members are elected by the president. This dynamic has caused much criticism of the parliament in that it undermines the democratic underpinning of the separation of powers. In general, our discussions after spending time in the Parliament building and reading about the Namibian constitution circled around SWAPO and its overwhelming control over Namibian politics, history, and even street names. We were surprised by people’s allowance of this one-party dominance, which made us reflect on what in politics truly reflects a sign of approval and what is simply a difficult element of society to change. The system also parallels America in their party politics. Most notably, both countries experience the dominance of either one party or two parties that in many ways have few differences and inhibit significant reform. Additionally, both countries place importance on citizen involvement and free and fair elections, especially since the history of disenfranchisement of both black Americans and black Namibians.

In our history class this week, our readings focused on white privilege and some of the interactions between African-American activists and South African apartheid. Kaylan Reid, a writer at WorldTeach Namibia, grew up in the United States and attended Howard University in Washington D.C. She then moved to Namibia three years ago to teach English. [3] We discussed an article about white privilege and how whiteness allows you the privilege of not worrying about a multitude of inconveniences and forms of oppression. [4] For example, we discussed the privilege of speaking articulately without people being surprised. This perfectly embodies the essence of white privilege, which many people overlook, but which is still very embedded in society.

The micro and macro-aggressions we discussed were especially interesting within the context of something Kaylan said: that she had never experienced more racism than in Namibia. It was interesting to dwell on different examples of white privilege and discuss how, in the United States, racism exists in different forms, especially given that the black population is in the minority. In the US, many white people genuinely intend to give compliments to people of color regarding intellectual ability. These “compliments” have racial undertones that perpetuate racial stereotypes. Kaylan shared with us about her own experiences being perceived as an “articulate African-American” while living in the United States. She explained that simply because of the way she grew up talking, many people referred to her as acting white. She found it frustrating that people found her outside of the norm of African-Americans simply based on her ability to articulate [4]. Kaylan then compared these experience to the more overt racism that she has experienced in Namibia. Some examples that she mentioned were being followed around in a store, or getting weird looks when she is in a predominantly white area of town. She also mentioned how she gets strange vibes from people when she is vocal about these injustices. She explained that these behaviors that people exhibit around her, based on her race, are different from the more hidden acts of racism and white privilege in the United States. While many of us knew that micro-aggressions still exist in every aspect of society, it was nice to discuss our various experiences with them with someone who had experienced differing forms of racism in two distinct countries that we’ve spent time in.

Our development class focused on food security, which definitely tied in to privilege. We discussed elitism, foodie culture, and the “Whole Foods” movement, which is often associated with food activism. In Namibia, however, this movement is not as strong, notably because there is a severely higher proportion of people in Namibia that are starving than in the US. In reality, it is a privilege to be able to eat well in today’s food system and not always a symbol of morality. Ideally, food security enables people in all regions living under all levels of development to access sufficient food in a sustainable way. One author, Stephen Devereux, talked about a paradigm shift from “old famines” to “new famines.” [5] His theory expressed the need to approach food from a more holistic, institutional perspective, as opposed to a direct production-based or market-based approach. Instead, a transfer-based approach that assesses failures of government and requires accountability delves more into the food problem than actual scarcity of food or labor. Thus this theory shifts the onus to potentially powerful political players who often place the work on independent organizations or non-governmental organizations.

All of these classes made us rethink our ideas about systemic problems in Namibia and at home. Much of our time in Namibia has been spent discussing community-based change and talking with speakers who have firsthand experience in grassroots organizing. This week, however, focused on the impact of the government in regards to the writing of laws, implicitness in white privilege, and the food system. We learned about these governmental quandries of Namibia, by comparing them to the United States. This allowed us to develop a better understanding of government not only in relation to Namibia, but at home as well.


[1] Ndahfa Kaukungua, Civil Servant of Namibian Parliament; Conversation on 29 October, 2013.

[2] SWAPO is currently the political party that holds the majority in Namibia. It was previously a national liberation movement in Namibia, and was fundamental in the making of Namibia’s independence.

[3] Kaylan Reid, Writer for WorldTeach in Namibia; Conversation on 31 October, 2013.

[4] Fredrickson, George M. "Two Strange Careers: Segregation in South Africa and the South." In White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History, 239-82. Oxford, UK: Oxford, 1981.

[5] "From 'Old Famines' to 'New Famines.'" In The New Famines: Why Famines Persist in an Era of Globalization, edited by Stephen Devereux, 1-25. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007.

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