Once the elections are over, the educated elites retreat into state institutions where they proceed to govern through a system the vast majority of their people do not understand. The proceedings in parliaments are in a colonial language, the laws are framed in the same foreign language and the various organs of state conduct their affairs in a language understood by a minority that was fortunate to receive colonially designed education. This means that for the most part the masses do not understand what is being said and done in their name.

While the principles of democracy are universal, it appears African societies are hugely disadvantaged in their application, to the extent that they are rendered meaningless. For instance, if democratic governance refers to “the capacity of a society to define and establish legal order — which requires institutions based on the principles of equity, freedom, participation in decision making, accountability, and promoting the inclusion of the most vulnerable sectors of society”, how would we see this happening if the majority of the people have no idea of what is going on in the governance of their country?

Mosibundi Mangena, “Introduction.” In: Political Parties in Africa, edited by Ebrahim Fakir and Tom Lodge. 2015. More info.

  • This is definitely a problem in Namibia. It’s arguably becomingd less of a problem, because English-first education means an increasing number of people do speak the language of government. (Though education is not nearly doing as well as it should, and too many folks come through the system with an inadequate ability to write and read english)
  • I still think SWAPO made the right decision when they opted to go for English as the official language. I don’t think the state could cope with the translation and interpretation required to translate in a truly multilingual society. Instead, what would have likely happened is that people who speak minority languages would be marginalised in the name of saving resources.
  • In other words, I think one language represents a better shot at giving everyone access than several languages.


  • More Broadly we have to wonder what the current state of affairs means for democracy. Can we claim that Namibia is a democracy when most people arguably can’t follow what politicians are doing?
  • Or is it enough that people vote based on whatever incomplete information they do have? (and let’s face it, in no country do voters have all the information — government is complicated, that’s partly why we outsource it to politicians in the first place!)
  • For now, government has to do a lot better at communicating what’s going on. Bills debated in parliament should be summarised in easy-to read language. State-owned media should talk about policy in a neutral manner rather than simply parroting what government is saying. Opposition parties need to work to explain policies to voters, and give details on what they would do differently.

update: an example from yesterday

(This is a post from the Sunday Scholarship series, where I summarise academic articles into something a bit more easy to read. Overview here, other posts here.)

Title: Political Homophobia in Postcolonial Namibia.

Author: Ashley Currier

One-sentence summary: The attacks on gays and lesbians by Swapo politicians in the 1990s had several political purposes: they were supposed to intimidate opposition, remind Namibians of Swapo’s power, and aimed at promoting one specific view of history. Full article here.

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I wrote last year about the Bad Sex Awards, given for bad writing about … well, sex obviously. Last year Manil Suri carried it with this fine exemplar:

“Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.”

This year Ben Okri, author of “The Famished Road” took it. The BBC’s write-up only  contained a short extract, which I didn’t find too bad at all:

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Update: I added the DTA manifesto too. 

So I decided to generate a quick word cloud from the two biggest parties’ manifestos. Word clouds are fun because they can tell you at a glance what a document focuses on; which words crop up more often than others. Here we can use them as an informal way of looking at the issues these parties talk about in what is really their major declaration of their intentions, policy-wise.

Note though, they can be misleading and are by no means a rigorous appraisal of what these parties’ priorities are.

Here’s why: When making this word cloud, I had to pick to what extent I wanted exact matches for words or put similar ones into the same category: in other words, do “agriculture” and “agricultural” count as two different categories, or as one? What about “farming”? If a word has many different versions, it may not even show up in the count, while others seem large. So, for example, there are many ways of talking about business (industry, entrepreneurship, commerce, etc) while there is only one way of talking about HIV. Even if the focus is on the economy, not health, it may seem like HIV is the main issue because the attention on the economy gets ‘spread’ across different words. Just an example, but still, please don’t take these too seriously.

But still, they’re a lot of fun to look at. Click on an image to see an enlarged version.

First, here’s the one for SWAPO:




And here’s the cloud for the RDP:


Finally, the DTA:


Alternative, more colourful layouts: SWAPORDP, DTA.


More comparisons to follow.

The title undermines the message. Who says this is “upside down?” Image from the oxfam blog

I’m going to start jotting down some highlights of what I’m learning at Oxford every week. So every thursday/friday I’ll see which reading I liked most and quote extensively from it (especially when it’s not available to people outside the closed walls of academia). For the first week, the  reading I probably enjoyed most was from Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World byArturo Escobar. We read chapter one, in which he troubles notions of development.


From the economic development theories of the 1950s to the “basic human needs approach” of the 1970s… the main preoccupation of theorists and politicians was the kinds of development that needed to be pursued to solve the social and economic problems of these parts of the world. Even those who opposed the prevailing capitalist strategies were obliged to couch their critique in terms of the need for development … In short, one could criticize a given approach and propose modifications or improvements accordingly, but the fact of development itself, and the need for it, could not be doubted. Development had achieved the status of a certainty in the social imaginary.


But the concept of development is all but clear. Escobar wonders  “why so many countries started to see themselves as underdeveloped in the early post- World War II period.” What are called “developing countries” were seen as having certain problems, which then had to be fixed, bringing about a development discourse that has been shaped mainly by one group of countries while applied to another.
Is there an objective difference between “developing” and “developed” countries? I don’t know. You can use income figures, but you’ll have to draw a line somewhere, which will have to be a normative undertaking. And of course “developed” implies that a country is done developing, which is laughable at best and rather arrogant. In the U.S., according to some studies, African-American males have a lower life expectancy than the average man in Equador, China, or Syria (that last statistic might change once the numbers are updated of course). Who’s more developed now? In the latest round of the Human Development Index, Portugal (a “developed” nation) scored below Brunei, Barbados, and Chile, among others.

Very important points also about the power relations that gave rise to this way of talking about development (and the concept itself) — while the discourse now reinforces the power differential . (In fact, that’s really the focal point of the paper. Quoting those arguments is a bit more difficult. You ever cited a deconstructivist? It’s hell). The reading made many people uncomfortable, brought about a lot of disagreement: awesome.

Honourable Mentions:

    • Ingham, Barbara. “The meaning of development: Interactions between “new” and “old” ideas.” World development 21.11 (1993): 1803-1821.
      A very well-written, concise summary of many key ideas in development. Manages to pack an incredible amount of debates into fewer than 20 pages. Only downside: Written in 1993, so lots of recent developments are missing. But super awesome nonetheless.
    • Development Economics by Debraj Ray. We only had to read a chapter, but I’m going to go ahead and buy the book to read it all. Very well-written (something you have to treasure with economists!)


McCann thanked him for saying that. He was no psychologist, he said, but he believed it was necessary to acknowledge how powerful despair can be. The question was how to get to a place beyond that. “You have to beat the cynics at their own game,” he said, echoing, consciously or not, George Mitchell on that day in Belfast. There was nothing the least bit preachy in his tone. “I’m not interested in blind optimism, but I’m very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’ But it takes time, more time than we can sometimes imagine, to get there. And sometimes we don’t.” He couldn’t fathom what they were going through, he said, but he knew that the struggle against cynicism would be the challenge for them, as it is for anyone, for the rest of their lives.

Colum McCann’s Radical Empathy by Joel Lovell, on the author’s visit to Sandy Hook survivors

Two days ago, Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole (buy his book) started publishing a dictionary of received wisdom on twitter. I actually screencapped it all with the intention of posting it here, because it’s too good. Luckily he saved me from the work by collating and posting it at the New Yorker. Here a brief, random excerpt. All of it is good:

AFRICA.   A country. Poor but happy. Rising.

ALMOND.   All eyes are almond-shaped.

AMERICAN.  With the prefix “all,” a blonde.

ARTICULATE.   Say “you’re very articulate” to young blacks, and then ask where they are from.

ARTISAN.   A carpenter, in Brooklyn.

Read the full dictionary here.




Once upon a time, journalists from all over the world were asked to write a story about the elephant. The Frenchman wrote L’éléphant et l’amour. The American wrote Thirty-seven Miracle Diets and the Modern Working Elephant. And the German wrote The Socio-Dynamic Nature and Fundamental Psychological Constitution of the Elephant: Volume I, The Burmese Ceremonial Elephant, Chapter 1, “From Karl the Great to the Present.”

from Understanding Cultural Differences by Edward Twitchell Hall and Mildreed Reed Hall

Why we need to get better at naming things.

In my previous roundup, I linked to an Op-Ed about “The Charitable-Industrial Complex” by Warren Buffet’s son, Peter. It’s a pretty good piece, especially given who wrote it. The title is an allusion to the term “Military-Industrial Complex,” which was coined by President Dwight Eisenhower to refer to the relationships between the political establishment and the industries which profit from warfare. Homages in nomenclature like this one are a runaway trend in our discourse, and in my mind they’re a real danger: they facilitate a shallow approach to problems by glossing over differences and creating lazy mental shortcuts that might be easier, but lack subtlety and truth.

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