Economist Apr 22nd 2017
Hage Geingob is in a bind. After years of perkiness, Namibia’s economic growth rate shrank from more than 5% in 2015 to a dismal 0.1% last year—and may now have stalled completely. But though President Geingob is an avowed friend of the market and seeks foreign investors, populists within his ruling South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) are calling for measures that would hobble the economy still more, by implementing a draft bill known as the National Equitable Economic Empowerment Framework (NEEEF). It would knee the business class in the groin, especially the white part of it, which still drives the economy.
Under NEEEF, all businesses, however small, would have to be at least 25%-owned by “previously disadvantaged persons”, broadly meaning black Namibians. No company would be allowed to “allot, issue, or register the transfer of any portion of its ownership…to a person that is not previously disadvantaged or to a domestic or foreign enterprise owned by a person that is not previously disadvantaged”. At least half of all company boards and management would have to be black, too.
If NEEEF were enacted, it would probably be abused by ruling-party bigwigs to grab stakes in other people’s businesses in the name of uplifting the previously disadvantaged, as has happened in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Many white-owned businesses would close, and foreign investors would shy away. So Mr Geingob, hitherto more pragmatic and business-minded than his two presidential predecessors, seems loth to go ahead with the bill, first put forward in 2015. But a souring political mood has revived talk of NEEEF. He has also spoken recently of expropriating white-owned land, albeit with fair compensation, another recipe for clobbering productivity. His prime minister, egged on by the country’s first president, Sam Nujoma, who still hankers after the socialism espoused during SWAPO’s long years in exile, is said to be a NEEEFer.
Calls for black empowerment resonate because, although Namibia is deemed a middle-income country with bountiful reserves of minerals (in particular diamonds and uranium), a tiny population (2.3m) and a prosperous if small black middle class, it is also one of the world’s most unequal. Poverty is rife. Some 40% of the population still live in shacks. The unemployment rate, some reckon, is at least 40%.
Mr Geingob was elected in 2014 with a whopping 87% of the vote. Yet he is sounding unusually twitchy in the run-up to a party congress later in the year, at which he is likely to be re-elected as party leader, but may find a new vice-president breathing down his neck.
Aged 75, he hails from a minority group, the Damara, numbering barely 7% of the population, whereas power in SWAPO has in the past been held mainly by the Ovambo, who account for half of Namibians. Many still look to the wily, ruthless 87-year-old Mr Nujoma, who ran the party as a fief for 45 years until his official retirement in 2005.
One reason for the economy’s sickness is the collapse of the building industry, which relied on a string of big government-funded projects that can no longer be afforded. A class of rich black businessmen, known as “tenderpreneurs”, invariably well-connected to SWAPO, has benefited hugely from NEEEF-like contracts. This is causing resentment in the densely populated slums of Windhoek, the capital.
While a chunk of the SWAPO old guard regards Mr Geingob with suspicion, another wing backs a self-styled revolutionary faction calling for “affirmative repositioning”. One of its leaders, Job Amupanda, a bearded 29-year-old university lecturer, espouses “Fanonian Marxism with Namibian characteristics”, admires Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. He also calls for the expropriation of land. “We want urban land for our youth and if we don’t get it we’ll take it,” he says.
Mr Geingob will probably, for the moment, fend off his rivals. But it is unclear whether, in doing so, he will feel obliged to make populist concessions along the lines of NEEEF. Most reckon he won’t. If he did, he might buy himself time, yet send Namibia’s economy further down the drain.
WHAT GERMANY OWES NAMIBIA
Economist May 11th 2017
On October 2nd 1904 General Lothar von Trotha issued what is now notorious as “the extermination order” to wipe out the Herero tribe in what was then German South West Africa, now Namibia. “Within the German borders every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot,” his edict read. During the next few months it was just about carried out. Probably four-fifths of the Herero people, women and children included, perished one way or another, though the survivors’ descendants now number 200,000-plus in a total Namibian population, scattered across a vast and mainly arid land, of 2.3m. The smaller Nama tribe, which also rose up against the Germans, was sorely afflicted too, losing perhaps a third of its people, in prison camps or in the desert into which they had been chased.
A variety of German politicians have since acknowledged their country’s burden of guilt, even uttering the dread word “genocide”, especially in the wake of the centenary in 2004. But recent negotiations between the two countries’ governments over how to settle the matter, the wording of an apology and material compensation are becoming fraught. Namibia’s 16,000 or so ethnic Germans, still prominent if not as dominant as they once were in business and farming, are twitchy.
The matter is becoming even more messy because, while the German and Namibian governments set about negotiation, some prominent Herero and Nama figures say they should be directly and separately involves and have embarked on a class-action case in New York under the Alien Tort Statute, which lets a person of any nationality sue in an American court for violations of international law, such as genocide and expropriation of property without compensation.
The main force behind the New York case, Vekuii Rukoro, a former Namibian attorney-general, demands that any compensation should go directly to the Herero and Nama peoples, whereas the Namibian government, dominated by the far more numerous Ovambo people in northern Namibia, who were barely touched by the wars of 1904-07 and lost no land, says it should be handled by the government on behalf of all Namibians. The Namibian government’s amiable chief negotiator, Zedekia Ngavirue, himself a Nama, has been castigated by some of Mr Rukoro’s team as a sell-out. “Tribalism is rearing its ugly head,” says the finance minister, who happens to be an ethnic German.
The German government says it cannot be sued in court for crimes committed more than a century ago because the UN’s genocide convention was signed only in 1948. “Bullshit,” says Jürgen Zimmerer, a Hamburg historian who backs the genocide claim and says the German government is making a mess of things. “They think only like lawyers, not about the moral and political question.”
“None of the then existing laws was broken,” says a senior German official. “Maybe that’s morally unsatisfactory but it’s the legal position,” he adds. Indeed, German officialdom still makes elaborate semantic contortions to avoid a flat-out acceptance of the G-word, presumably pending a final accord between the two governments. Above all, Germany is determined to avert legal liability for reparations of the sort it accepted for the Jewish Holocaust in an agreement in 1952, while stressing that it is ready to raise the level of every sort of development aid to Namibia, to which it already gives far more per head than it does to any other country in the world.
Meanwhile, Namibia’s ethnic Germans are keeping their heads down, wary of recrimination over the distant past. “The German government does not represent us; we are Namibians,” says a local businessman. Very few of today’s German-speakers are, in any event, descended from the Schutztruppe (literally, “protection force”), the colonial soldiers who slaughtered the Herero and Nama in 1904-07.
All the same, few are happy to use the G-word, let alone accept its accuracy. “We grew up with talk of the colonial wars, the Herero uprising,” says a veteran writer on the Allgemeine Zeitung, Namibia’s German-language daily. “We don’t use the blanket term genocide.”
Namibian Germans often echo Hinrich Schneider-Waterberg, an 85-year-old farmer who has made a second career as a historian bent on rejecting the genocide charge (and who owns the land where a crucial battle between the Germans and the Herero took place). He contends that the Herero started the killing; that German civilians suffered atrocities, too; that the extermination order was soon rescinded in Berlin; that the number of Herero deaths is exaggerated; and that those of the Nama in prison camps were not intentional, thus not genocidal. These points are dismissed by most historians in Germany as “denialist”.
Burgert Brand, the jovial bishop of the branch of the Lutheran church to which most white Namibian German-speakers belong, acknowledges a German burden of guilt but shrinks at comparison with the Holocaust; some historians in Mr Zimmerer’s camp trace a direct link back to the earlier crimes and racial attitudes of 1904. “It is very frustrating for us bridge-builders, who must start again from scratch,” says the bishop.
Many Namibian Germans are nervous lest the argument over reparations spill over into calls for their farms to be confiscated, as Robert Mugabe has done in Zimbabwe. Werner von Maltzahn, a 69-year-old farmer, recalls how his grandfather, a Prussian baron who settled in the same arid spot in 1913, had to start all over again when the British army requisitioned his cattle in 1915. “Maybe I should ask the English for compensation,” he jokes.