Thursday, December 11, 2014

Week Ten: Migration and Political Participation

By: Kumari Lewis and Ben Williams

Migration is something that seems to come naturally to humans and animals. We began as nomads, moving from place to place following our food sources as they too moved but we eventually began to settle down and establish more permanent, immobile ways of life. Animals never ceased to migrate and probably never will as they continue to fulfill their basic needs for sustenance and suitable weather conditions through constant movement. It seems as though, for a time, migration became stigmatized: only those too uncivilized to sustain a sedentary lifestyle, such as animals, would migrate. But eventually the human desire to learn and discover new things overtook the stigma and explorers set out to traverse the oceans and greater distances than ever before.

Nowadays curiosity is what drives many of us to travel. I believe that is the mainreason most of us on this trip decided to study in Namibia for the semester: a basic desire to explore the world. But it is sometimes easy to forget just how many thousands and millions of people are forced to travel, to migrate because of dangerous political, economic, and social situations in their home country. This past week in our Politics of Development class we were visited by immigrants from Zimbabwe, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a Namibian who had immigrated to the Unites States for ten years but recently returned. Curiosity may have played a role in their migration, or at least hope that Namibia would provide a better life for them, but ultimately many of them were forced to leave their countries because of such dire political and economic circumstances.

Having lived in the "western developed" world my entire life, the concept of living in a country where: the currency is literally abandoned because it has become so inflated, the government is so corrupt that millions of public funds disappear annually into the pockets of politicians, or people live in fear of speaking or writing anything against the government because they may be imprisoned or simply disappear, all of these situations are so foreign to me and yet these are the heart wrenching realities of the immigrants we spoke with. It is one thing to read statistics in a textbook about how corrupt and inefficient some government regimes are but it is entirely different to speak with men and women who have had the personal experience and struggled for freedom but have yet to establish a supportive lifestyle for themselves and their families. The statistics show that Namibia is a middle income country, but in reality there is a huge wealth disparity, and immigrants are often falling on the losing end of that disparity. Even very well, if not over qualified immigrants are often denied jobs simply because of their nationality. Namibia has an unofficial unemployment rate of 50% thus it makes sense that the government would want to employ Namibians instead of ‘foreigners’ but it seems that Namibians who are significantly less qualified are receiving jobs instead of immigrants purely because of their nationality. There is a brain drain from immigrant host countries because people have hope that they will be able to use their qualifications elsewhere, but ultimately Namibia is more concerned with hiring Namibians instead of the most qualified applicant so the host country of immigrants loses knowledge and Namibia fails to take advantage of it. So while the idea of hiring Namibians to reduce Namibian unemployment is at first glance a great tactic, delving deeper reveals that these policies may not actually improve Namibia’s economy as much as they hope to. 
After the short time that we have spent in Namibia that actually feels like a lifetime, it has become painfully obvious that things, particularly politics and economics are not what they may first seem. There is much more to see and understand than what is on the surface, and our immersive experience in Southern Africa has allowed us to delve deeper and discover so many new things about ourselves and the societies that make up this wonderful place we call Namibia. 

This past week at CGE Namibia has been quite a lively one, ripe with speakers and trips that begin to define our experiences here in Windhoek. Week ten in Windhoek is just past the halfway point, so it’s far enough along for us to begin to think of some defining experiences that we will take back with us to our respective colleges and universities. One of the reasons I was attracted to this program was because of its captivating title: Nation Building, Globalization and Decolonizing the Mind. Two critical components that comprises all of the aspects of the title are politics and political institutions. At the forefront of the aforementioned is Namibian’s governance, its three tiered system, fit with executive, legislative and judicial branches. Our Politics class reading for the week summed up the process of and adoption of Namibia’s constitution. The constitution was adopted in February of 1990, the same year Namibia won its independence.  It was with this information under our belts that we took a trip to Namibia’s Parliament in downtown Windhoek. Namibia’s Parliamentary building sits atop a hill in Windhoek, overlooking Parliament Gardens, an immaculately kept garden with colorful flora.

As we entered the Parliamentary building, we were met by our host David. He proceeded to show us around the buildings while providing us with a wealth of knowledge about Namibia’s Parliament and parliamentary procedures. Here’s a brief snippet: Parliament currently has 72 members, 37 of which constitute a quorum; it is in session from February – July and August – November, meeting Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2:30 P.M. – 7:00 P.M.; the dominant party is SWAPO, which holds an overwhelming majority; there are two houses: the National Assembly and the National Council; the National Assembly makes laws, while the National Council advises the National Assembly on the laws it makes. One of the most prominent aspects of the tour that stood out to our group was the participatory aspect of Parliament. It has an open door policy which allows for citizens to sit in on sessions, as well as question their representatives about issues at hand with the session and legislation. However, despite this fantastic opportunity, our guide informed us that not many people show up to the sessions. Trying to understand why this is the case is something that has baffles me. I understand that many people lead busy lives, but especially for such a newly independent nation, it seems that many who fought with arms twenty five years ago, would use this a a resource to make their country a better place. On the other hand, with the ruling party, SWAPO, having such a firm grasp on politics now, I can understand why citizens would simply assume that SWAPO’s agendas would just pass, which is what has happened.
CGE students visit parliament!

At the end of the day, it is easy for me as a foreigner to criticize Namibians for not going and participating in their own Parliament, but it is crucial to try and understand the thought process that goes into decision making.Further, non-participation in political processes is not a foreign concept to me as an United States voter. During presidential election years, voter turnout is around sixty percent of all registered voters across. For midterm elections like the ones that just took place, turnout is even lower. This is abysmal. Furthermore, just from hearing some of the rhetoric from each country, it seems as if voters in both countries, at times, do not feel as if their vote will count. More than likely one single vote will not make a difference in an election, however if this ideal becomes pervasive than these voters collectively will make a difference in their inaction.

 During the rural homestay a few weeks back, my host mom told me that SWAPO could do no wrong in her eyes since they fought for the liberation of this country. Throughout the semester we have encountered many people with this thought process, so it is easy to understand why some people do not participate. Because of the liberation struggle, they see political leaders as their brothers and sisters, thus, they feel that the politicians have their best interest at heart. Namibians and immigrants alike seem to invest much faith in the Namibian government, society, and economy. And despite SWAPO’s wrongs Namibia is still seen by many as a greener pasture, a country of significantly more opportunities than their home country that they would leave everything behind to start over in Namibia.

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