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

I’ll be reading and posting a lot about China in Namibia soon, because it’s an issue that has come up in the news a lot lately. Xenophobia seems to be on the rise, while the newspapers and some politicians seem to be quite happy to encourage it. So this week I’ll cheat and write a few words about a book that is technically non-academic, but should still be on the top of anyone’s reading list on the topic.

Title: China’s Second Continent: how a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa.

Author: Howard W. French

One-sentence summary: French travels across the continent and speaks to ordinary Chinese migrants on the ground – farmers, traders, businesspeople. This contrast to the many other books on the topic of China in Africa, which focus on the state, allows for a lot of insight and a fresh perspective. Book info here.

Continue reading

I’ve got a piece in this month’s Insight Magazine where I talk about how I think we’re focusing too much on Vocational Training.

I think vocational training has its uses, of course. But we’re not funding much of it, and there are doubts that the money we spend is very effective (Why do we have to send students to South Africa to learn boilermaking and welding?). In a more broad sense, I’m concerned with the way we talk about vocational training as a solution for our education problems.

the role VT occupies in the national discourse has long outgrown its current scale or future potential. Looking at the way it is name-checked in every speech with even remote links to education, it is hard to shake off the impression that VT is viewed as a panacea for Namibia’s educational and economic woes. It is striking that, at the same time as the graduation rates of high schools kept declining, there has been more and more talk about vocational training. This juxtaposition leads to the impression that VT is supposed to make up for the dismal performance in secondary education.

The thinking seems to be: The kids aren’t reading and can’t do maths? Let’s teach them something to do with their hands. The prevailing attitude is expressed by the NPC when it frames vocational training as an alternative for “poorly performing learners in Grade 10 and 12”. However, this is no solution. VT needs to complement tertiary education, not replace it. In a functional education system, students pursue the paths that best fit their skills, making sure that their talents are maximised. Vocational training should be a specialised career path, reserved for those with particular aptitudes and interests in such professions and careers. Those with the talent for and interest in sciences, engineering, and so on, should pursue an education in those fields. Instead, vocational training is mooted as a last alternative for students doomed by a sub-par primary and secondary education, students who might have talents in other areas, which they cannot fulfill because the system has failed them.

The full article is on the website here.

I’ve seen a lot of people on twitter talking about how they are disillusioned about the SWAPO party, and so they say they will boycott the elections to “send a message.” I just wanted to note quickly why I think that’s a terrible idea.

Most likely, you are not sending a message at all

The idea behind a boycott — whether organized by voters or by opposition parties — is to delegitimize the regime in power. This kind of action can be used when elections are rigged. The people say: We will not participate in this sham so that you cannot claim you represent us. If a large proportion of people stay away, the rulers will find it harder to maintain their support — be it domestic or foreign– and the regime is more likely to fall. But individuals staying away is not a boycott, it is an act of apathy. A potent message can only be felt if a large proportion of people coordinate and publicize their boycott. Otherwise this likely won’t be noticed as turnout fluctuates.

If you are sending a message, it’s the wrong one

If you stay away from the vote in an act of apathy, that’s supporting the status quo. The ruling party will be happy if all those who don’t like it don’t vote. That’ll push up their percentage. And opposition parties whose support remains unchanged still have their safe seats and benefits. If you dislike the regime, vote against it — it’s that simple.

But what are the alternatives?

Granted, this is the problem. Many people are staying home because they like neither SWAPO nor the opposition. And it is true that, whatever you think of SWAPO, opposition parties have done very little to impress. Some have an argument that is very straightforward: SWAPO must be denied the two-thirds, so just make sure to vote for any opposition party. That might be strategically appealing but I understand that morally, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. After all, voting for undeserving opposition parties just encourages them to continue as is. And especially given how hard the vote was fought for very recently, it seems callous to vote against someone you dislike rather than for someone you support. But there actually is a range of opposition parties, and voting for one of them can send a signal to the others to raise their game. And frankly, if you’re willing to throw your vote away by not voting, you might as well protest properly and throw it to a different party. Only that sends a message.

I’m not advocating that people just blindly vote for the opposition. Nor do I think you should vote for SWAPO if you don’t like them. All I’m saying is, staying away from the vote won’t send any message, except that politicians can continue as they have for a while. And it seems that’s the last thing we want.



P.S. of course if we want change, just turning out on election day is not enough. Change can be pursued within parties or outside them; there is lots of space for activism. But taking an hour or two once every few years also matters– even if we only use this right because it was earned at such a great sacrifice.

Update: Today’s New Era quotes McHenry Venaani as saying this will no longer happen. Still, would have been interesting to see the effects of this policy. 

The Namibian led with quite the headline on Wednesday: “Death of Opposition.” The article detailed a whole host of proposed constitutional amendments, the most of which are frankly dangerous. But one of them might actually have the (unintended?) effect of strengthening the political opposition in Namibia – although it is a long shot. Here is the logic:

  1. The five percent cutoff for the National Assembly means that, if things are similar to the last election, only the RDP makes it into parliament.
  2. Quite a few of the leaders of the smaller parties, suddenly deprived of their parliamentary seats, have a very big incentive to join forces with the RDP – the RDP would get their votes and they get to hold on to their seats.
  3. The opposition coalesces behind their strongest member, and we end up with a two-party system – perhaps like they have in the U.S.

Namibia’s opposition has been fracturing. In 1999, eight parties contested the election; in 2009 voters got to chose between 13. In the last decade alone, we saw five parties splinter off from their parent bodies. That many parties have an increasingly ethnic flavour to them does not give me any confidence that this fractionalization is a good idea.

A low-hurdle proportional representation such as ours comes close to the ideal of democracy in the sense that it does allow for many different groups to gain representation in parliament. But too much variety comes at the cost of cohesion: many quiet voices fail to represent the needs of the people when a stronger, unified voice could.

Of course there’s a big problem with my convenient plan: getting opposition leaders to cooperate is a particularly outrageous flight of fancy. These people are where they are to a large degree because of their egos. getting two of them, let alone a dozen, to pull together — it’s almost impossible.

But we can dream, no?