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Herero chief next to a monument

Old wounds reopen in Namibia

  • The ruling party has failed to improve living conditions
  • Citizens are dissatisfied with compromise politics
  • Ethnic tensions could flare up, stoked by populism

Within the South African Development Community (SADC), Namibia’s political transition illustrates some of the main challenges on the path to successful democratic consolidation. After gaining independence from apartheid-era South Africa in 1990, the country has struggled through three decades of experimentation with democracy. 

The democratic project in Namibia has not reversed the legacy of colonialism. Despite political freedom, poverty and inequality have deepened in the country. In 2019, the United Nations Human Development Index ranked Namibia 130 out of 189 countries. For comparison, neighboring Botswana is 94. 

Expiry date

Namibia’s founding liberation party, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), has been governing the country since independence. Much like Botswana’s Democratic Party (BDP), South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) and Zimbabwe’s African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), SWAPO has won every single election since the transition to democracy. This could be celebrated as a sign of political stability. However, the accomplishment is overshadowed by the fact that these long-reigning liberation parties have not improved the living conditions of the majority of their citizens.

Namibia and South Africa have inherited sharp ethnic and racial divisions from colonial rule
In South Africa, many say that liberation parties have a life expectancy of 25 years, after which they begin to decline and disintegrate. Namibia’s SWAPO is now past this expiry date. The country’s politics and broader challenges generally mirror those of South Africa, especially historical ethnic inequalities and land restitution. 

The land question is a significant burden on the politics of the region. In Zimbabwe, it ultimately led to Robert Mugabe’s controversial land reforms, which violently expropriated landowners in an attempt to distribute land more equitably. A recent decision from the South African government to reallocate land without compensation has stirred fears of a similar outcome. 

Both Namibia and South Africa have inherited sharp ethnic and racial divisions from colonial rule and the apartheid system. In such divided societies, any government would need to undo past divisions through effective state policy. But liberation parties have failed to do so, and deep resentment lingers. 

As voters are becoming increasingly impatient, it is relevant to look at possible alternatives. Will the decline of the ANC in South Africa and SWAPO in Namibia go hand in hand with a collapse of centrism?

A German farmer in Namibia
A German farmer stands on his 20,000 hectares of land near Otjiwarongo, Namibia. His forefathers started running the farm in 1908. During Germany’s colonial rule, European settlers were encouraged to cultivate large swaths of territory in the area (source: Getty Images)

National agenda

Namibians are questioning whether SWAPO can address the current challenges facing their country, particularly rising youth unemployment and poverty. For all its decades in power, the government has yet to implement a clearly defined national agenda. While it is still holding on to a comfortable two-thirds majority, it has lost influence in the public debate.

Once a liberation party is no longer able to rally the nation behind a convincing national strategy, citizens turn to alternative agendas – often in the form of populism. Such governments tend to move away from the pragmatic political center where compromises are possible, usually falling prey to gridlock. Namibians are not only showing signs of fatigue with SWAPO, they also seem to be rejecting the centrist policies the party failed to implement, possibly leading them to abandon the idea of a united national identity. 

Most liberation parties in the SADC – South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique, for example – are center-left of the political spectrum. They have become virtually indissociable from centrism in these newly independent nations. Like South Africa’s ANC, SWAPO has sought to build an inclusive nationalism based on the need for national unity among all Namibians irrespective of their ethnicity or race. Now both ANC and SWAPO are experiencing a legitimacy crisis due to corruption and policy failures that have exacerbated historical poverty and inequalities. Disillusioned voters could feel as if they have nowhere to turn except to divisive ethnic politics. 

Many observers noted that Namibians voted along ethnic lines in recent elections
The recent local government election held in Namibia in November 2020 confirms this trend. Results show that ethnic politics is gaining momentum as SWAPO loses significant ground in key regions. The ruling party was defeated in economic hubs like Windhoek, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. 

Regional political consolidation will be at play in Namibia in the next few years, and ethnic issues could drive mobilization. Many observers noted that Namibians voted along ethnic lines in recent elections. 

The challenge with this type of politics is that it pushes societies further away from the necessary pragmatism needed to address structural inequalities and poverty. In Namibia, there are fears that the center will not hold. The foundations laid by SWAPO in the last 30 years could lead to an unstable future.

Scenarios

Will Namibia survive the post-SWAPO fallout, or is SWAPO the glue that holds the nation together? The same question applies to the ANC in South Africa. Democratic consolidations are not linear, and they are difficult to predict. The pattern at play here sees voters blame state failures on ethnic domination instead of governance issues. Stagnation brought about by liberation parties has radicalized the youth. If citizens resentful of centrist compromises turn to divisive populism, the odds of pursuing a successful national agenda will drop sharply. 

Ethnic politics is seductive. It presents itself as a straightforward solution to a society’s problems
Ethnic politics is seductive. It presents itself as a straightforward solution to a society’s problems. Political opposition to ruling parties has a role to play in any democracy, but in Namibia, there is a risk that ethnic rivalries could undermine national unity. The idea that ethnic groups are unfairly represented in key state institutions is commonly heard in the public discourse. This sentiment could lead to calls for retaliation, meaning that long-term development aims would be forestalled. This is one of the most concerning risks facing the region when it comes to further democratic consolidation.

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