Thursday, December 11, 2014

Week Eight: A Week of Class and Walvis Bay: Human Rights and Development

By: Nikala Pieroni and Miranda Weinstein

This week has been very busy. We had classes until Wednesday, and then on Thursday we left for Swakopmund and our travel seminar towards the coast. While we only had half a week of actual classes, our history class this week was of particular interest. In class, Pauline Dempars [1], a former torture victim and survivor came to speak to us. The focus of class this week mainly dealt with the subject of torture during the later half of the liberation struggle. SWAPO, (South West Africa People's Organization) the liberation party in Namibia that has been the ruling party since 1990, created a special investigation department that started investigating everyone for possible espionage, if found guilty or the possibility that the person committed crimes of espionage, then the person was tortured in a SWAPO camp in Southern Angola. During that time, many academic and journal articles have stated that it was widely known that many of the accusations were false, and people only confessed as a result of coercion and torture, yet hundreds suffered these horrible actions. Many people who went missing during the 1980s and are thought to have been victims of torture in the dungeons have never been found. Their bodies have not been found either. Pauline talked personally of her experiences both during the torture and having to live with the repercussions and side effects as a result of the ill treatment. Having her come and speak to us in class really touched me personally as I am a big advocate of human rights, coincidentally, am working with a torture case at my internship. She spoke of how she was hung up and left in a pit along with many others. Everyone inside of the dungeon kept together and tried to ensure that they all survived. She struggled after being released from the dungeons because they had taken her daughter and she wanted her back. She ultimately had to steal her children back. When she was telling us the story, she was tearing up, which made me sad as well. When Pauline returned to Namibia, she was ostracized and people would not listen to her stories or believe them. People still do not believe them to this day.

What really struck me as Pauline was telling her story is how widely this aspect of the liberation struggle is overlooked. I think this is mostly because people will highlight the good deeds, and necessarily the bad. At the end of the Civil War in the United States, slavery was not abolished, but people tend to not look at this aspect of American history. Everything I have heard about SWAPO in regards to liberation is that it was always that they saved the country from the South African colonizers and lead Namibia to independence and freedom. They were amazing soldiers who stood up to the government and are our heroes! But are they really our heroes if they were able to achieve independence at the cost of their own citizens. If over 20,000 of your people were tortured and are still missing as the result of your orders, what does that say about your means of achieving independence? The independence of the country came at a horrible cost, but one that is often necessarily addressed or as widely known with the ‘born-free’ generations. Not only has Pauline never gotten answers for what happened to her, but politicians also refuse to answer her questions as to why she was tortured. They listen to her stories as well as her feelings that she is still being tortured, emotionally. Listening to Pauline’s story hit close to home as I have been working with another torture case at my internship, NamRights. The recent cases of tortures were not associated with the liberation struggle, but politics in the present day. The fact that SWAPO continues to cross the line and torture or ill-treat their citizens in present day shows that they have not learned anything from the tortures of the 1980s. This could be because they never had to apologize for their actions or order some form of reconciliation.

The second half of the week was spent at the coastal towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, where we had the opportunity to observe historical monuments, current developments, and the different settlements around the area. During our day at Walvis Bay, we observed product shipments coming in and out of Namibia. We were able to speak to Jan Kruger [2], from the Export Processing Zone here in Namibia. We discussed how these zones are no longer a physical space, but a fluid term used throughout registered companies throughout Namibia. These were created to promote companies to invest in the country, and the zones offer many incentives including no corporate tax, import duties or stamp and transfer duties. Essentially, to get companies to spend money on Namibia, they reduce the amount of money a company has to spend on Namibia. This certainly seems to have its benefits; Namibia has many large companies under its belt at this point, including many mines which bring in a huge amount of labor opportunities for a country. With such a high unemployment rate, creating incentives for investment does make sense, but we are worried that some of these incentives might be too big a price to pay.

Workers rights have already seemed to be poor according to many laborers we have talked to, and allowing companies to escape certain laws may mean even worse working environments and wages. Jan said that they do check-ins with the businesses to assure things are okay for workers, but they can only do so much. While the creation of jobs is a good thing, I worry that these jobs are harming Namibians more than helping them. Is it truly worth workers well beings to throw just a few more dollars in your GDP? It seems without these laws though, Namibia might find itself without investors, losing them to other countries with enticing EPZs. It seems that to draw this line between creating multiple inadequate jobs, as opposed to a few skilled jobs is a tough balance, that no matter what will cause upset. I had similar reactions on our trip to Namport [3], the port authority at Walvis Bay. We discovered that they are expanding a port into the ocean, so that the port may accommodate thousands more crates and ships each month. While this will eventually lead to a 40% increase of jobs on the port, most of which will be Namibians, the current expansion contractors are all Chinese. All construction and mine work that the EPZ and Namport works with are challenging jobs, and it seems that they need to be doing better providing a safe and fair work environment for all within its borders. I’m hoping that Namibia is truly ensuring that all of its workers are receiving fair pay, and a healthy environment, but I have serious concerns about this. Hopefully, we will see Namibia continue to grow its security for workers, and this need to be enforced in any sector of labor. 

This blog is the work of our students. To learn more about Center for Global Education programming, visit us at


[1] Pauline Dempars; Conversation on 07 October 2014, Windhoek, Namibia. 
[2] Jan Kruger; Export Processing Zone: Conversation on 10 October 2014, Walvis Bay, Namibia.

[3] Cliff Shikuambi: NamPort: Conversation 10 October 2014, Walvis Bay, Namibia.

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