Monday, April 14, 2014

Week 8: Where Do We Go From Here? Reconciliation in an Independent Namibia

By Holden Beale and Gena Reynolds

One of the most important issues in Namibia today is the reconciliation process that has defined the post-apartheid era in Southern Africa. Different actors have had contrasting visions for how a successful reconciliation process might develop and conclude, but a meaningful synthesis has been difficult at times  in Namibia under the hegemony of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). In a country such as Namibia where racism and oppression have a history of tremendous institutionalization, reconciliation looms large in the national consciousness. For history class we visited the University of Namibia in Windhoek (UNAM), where we attended a lecture on the history of apartheid [1]. The lecture provided us with an historical background for how the system of apartheid evolved during the middle of the 20th century out of previous forms of colonization and segregation that had been in place under German and British rule. Since Namibia’s earliest colonization in the 1880s, the systems of exploitation and dehumanization between Europeans and Africans, but also between different ethnic groups, created a situation where reconciliation was imperative to independence. 

There are a variety of actors who have contributed and continue to contribute to the process of reconciliation. The most apparent of such actors is the government which drafted the Namibian constitution, a document nominally impartial and fair, but whose implementation, many members of the political minority believe, tends to favor the current ruling party: SWAPO. This influence is problematic; SWAPO has a difficult past with opposition parties and with the War of Liberation, generating many issues that need reconciling of their own. Phil ya Nangoloh spoke to us in our religion class about his personal experience as a SWAPO member and his resultant moral conflicts derived from witnessing the SWAPO prison camps in southern Angola [2]. These moral conflicts led him to eventually split from SWAPO and found ed NAMRIGHTS, an NGO dedicated to promoting human rights in Namibia. Third party actors such as NAMRIGHTS have been working towards reconciliation independent of the Namibian government, with little government funding or direct support. 

More recently NAMRIGHTS’ activism regarding the independence trial for the Caprivi region of Namibia has drawn hostility from the Namibian government. Caprivi is the “panhandle” of Namibia, possessing its own culture and identity, and is seeking independence of the SWAPO party and the Namibian government as a whole. Ya Nangoloh has been instrumental in the international trial regarding Caprivi’s independence, and has recently requested the United Nations for protection due to threats to his life. Because of the domination of SWAPO within Namibia’s government, diverse voices like ya Nangoloh’s, and others who stand in opposition to the ruling party are often stamped out, or sidelined, making a meaningful reconciliation difficult. 

For a successful transition, it is necessary to understand the history and memories of the groups that are being reconciled. During history class, Priscilla Geingob came to speak to us about the legacy of apartheid and its similarities to the legacy of segregation and racism in the United States [3]. Geingob was born in Brooklyn, and came to Africa during Namibia’s liberation struggle. There she met her husband, a SWAPO leader and the probable future president of Namibia. She spoke to us about the issues facing African-Americans during Reconstruction, and how solutions for inequality have been debated since the Emancipation Proclamation. She noted that the differing opinions of W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington provide a perfect example of this tension. Du Bois wanted freed slaves to enter all parts of American society and to excel and through their success raise up the rest of the population. Washington thought that freed blacks should start where they were, in the trades they had mastered during slavery like laundry and cooking. Du Bois’ ideology can be seen in Namibia today, in the extreme inequality between the rich elite and the general population. According to the World Bank, Namibia had the third highest recorded Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality within a society, in the world in 2011 [4].

We visited the Parliament Building in for History 327 with Professor Romanus
Shivoro to learn about the direction the Namibian Parliament is moving towards
Perhaps the most public and widely accepted form of reconciliation is the constitution that was ratified after independence in 1990. During politics class we were able to visit the Parliament Building and speak with some employees about the work and direction Parliament is moving towards [5]. One of the big initiatives of the Namibian Parliament is to reach out to the public in an attempt to incorporate the opinions and needs of the people into the government. This action is representative of the attempts of the government on the whole to create a more cohesive community in Namibia, and to reconcile differing opinions within the country. These attempts are not as successful as would be hoped, possibly because of the historical hegemony of SWAPO since independence.

The issue of reconciliation is a difficult one, but one that cannot be ignored. Namibia, like many post-colonial societies in Africa and around the world, has a contested history, which makes reconciliation one of the priorities even after more than two decades of independence. The experiences of this past week were able to acquaint us with the obstacles and options for reconciliation, and have given us a look into the complexities of historical memory and forgiveness.

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[1] Shivoro, Romanus. History 327. Augsburg College Center for Global Education Southern Africa. 13 March, 2014. Class visit to the University of Namibia, Windhoek, Namibia. 

[2] Ya Nangoloh, Phil. Religion 346. Augsburg College Center for Global Education Southern Africa. 12 March, 2014. Guest Lecture. Windhoek, Namibia

[3] Geingob, Priscilla. History 327. Augsburg College Center for Global Education Southern Africa. 13 March, 2014. Guest Lecture. Windhoek, Namibia.

[4] “List of countries by income equality.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., date last updated (25 March, 2014). Web. Date accessed (11 April, 2014).

[5] Simasiku, Frederick. Political Science 353. Augsburg College Center for Global Education. 11 March, 2014. Class trip to the Parliament Building, Windhoek, Namibia.

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