Namibia: a land of haves and have-nots

Tupa is from the Republic of Namibia in southwestern Africa.  To better understand this remote and seemingly sleepy country and why something like human trafficking is a very real issue, one has to put aside idyllic images of its wildlife and desert landscapes and focus on one thing: inequality. 

 

To most Westerners, the Republic of Namibia is either an unfamiliar or vaguely familiar place, existing so far beyond our daily imaginings that it can be difficult to find some kind of spatial or substantive metaphor for it, something to better explain it.  If mentioned in casual conversation, most people tentatively ask, “Is that Africa?” to which one is usually forced to reference its position vis-a-vis South Africa with the hope of establishing a more accurate and mutually understandable geography. This often leads to a silent, only slightly more assured nod of the head.  Namibia’s lack of reference in the popular imagination is notable even for a continent that, for most people, generally lacks country-specific reference points.  Ryszard Kapuściński, the noted Polish journalist who spent a lifetime observing and writing about Africa in elegant, effecting prose, once said that the continent was too varied and immense to describe, so much so that “…Africa, except as a geographical appellation…does not exist.”  Like Kapuściński’s Africa, it often seems like Namibia does not exist, though this may be due as much to our own ignorance as to its rich diversity.

 

If there was ever a period when the region consistently made headlines, it was during the tumultuous years leading up to independence in 1990.  Namibia, known throughout most of the 20thcentury as Southwest Africa, was officially made a mandate of South Africa by the League of Nations following World War I and the ouster of the German colonial government.  The Germans left a legacy of genocide and brutal policies that would foreshadow Nazi governance less than two decades later (in fact, the colony’s first governor was the father of Hermann Göring). When South Africa transitioned to an Apartheid government during the 1950’s, however, life proved just as oppressive as that under the Germans. What ensued was a bloody and frustrating struggle for independence that included decades of fruitless negotiations with a weak-kneed United Nations, internal strife and uncertainty, an international exodus of Biblical proportions, and a conflict – fought largely in Angola – that at its apex had become a convoluted mess of political ideologies, rebel factions, and self-proclaimed people’s movements.  Such a sustained stretch of violence involving several countries (and would-be countries) in a seemingly far-flung and largely ignored corner of the world could only have been made possible courtesy of the Cold War.  For the United States, it was like Southeast Asia minus the dilemma of having actual troops on the ground.  So, while the region made news, it did so only to a point and only in a certain, highly controlled manner.  In the end, the Apartheid Regime of South Africa collapsed under the culpable weight of its own policies and the spotlight of international attention. Namibia became an independent nation in 1990, the same year that Nelson Mandela walked out of a South African prison a free man.

 

Today, if you were to walk through Namibia’s capital city of Windhoek, you would find little evidence of the countries turbulent past. Downtown Windhoek is neat and orderly to the point of monotony, with workers moving about their daily business in a hurried detachment that comes with the daily grind.  There are plenty of shopping malls, plazas, and department stores where you can buy anything from iPhones to Calvin Klein perfume and pirated versions of the most recent movies.  There are enough high-end boutiques and posh restaurants to make you feel underdressed and vaguely exposed.  Groups of young people move about this consumer heaven posturing for one another in designer jeans, gaudy jewelry, and sunglasses, all the while texting or chatting on their cell phones.  And in case you succumb to the lull of Western advertising and chic merchandise, there are hundreds of tourist shops to remind you that this is still Africa. Most of these cater to a mixed European and North American crowd on route to any number of luxury safaris in the countryside.  The second largest city – Swakopmund – is more of the same, with the addition of beautiful white beaches and oyster bars.  Serenity, comfort, and a calming air of familiarity can easily be had in Namibia.  Among the ex-pat crowd, it is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Africa for beginners.”

 

Namibia’s overt consumerism stems from its full embrace of the global free market at independence.  The country emerged onto the world stage comparatively late, inheriting a capitalist economy from South Africa at a time when economic globalization and free trade were in full swing.  Sam Nujoma, Namibia’s charismatic first president and leader of the South-West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), was immediately tasked with attracting foreign investment dollars.  One of the first things he did was travel to the United States to meet with then President George H.W. Bush and an eager team from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.  With their support, he signed agreements with the U.S. government to encourage foreign investment and craft Namibia’s first budget, which focused heavily on private sector growth and an export-oriented industrial base.  To further these objectives and encourage free trade, Namibia became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.  All subsequent budgets, ‘Vision Plans,’ and investment schemes have been more or less the same and developed in close collaboration with the IMF, World Bank, and WTO.  The “Big Three” are a constant presence in the government halls of Windhoek, assisting with public expenditure reviews and training high-ranking government officials and staff. Namibia has by no means followed the road less travelled; it is a well-beaten path of liberalization, structural reform, and participation in the global free market that almost every country in sub-Saharan Africa has been pushed, prodded, and pressured into with an elaborate array of carrots and sticks.  Nobody seemed to mind or notice that it was entirely at odds with the “scientific socialism” put forward by Nujoma and SWAPO during the liberation struggle. After decades in the wilderness, Namibians were hungry for the benefits of development and modernity, they wanted everything and they wanted it fast.

 

On the surface, Namibia’s participation in the global free market seems to have paid off.  It is consistently ranked as one of the wealthiest countries in Africa; with a per capita income in excess of U.S. $6,000, the World Bank defines it as an upper-middle income country.  It also ranks in the top tier of African countries in terms of GDP per capita and various other economic indicators.  Since 2000, Namibia’s overall GDP has steadily increased (though it has hit trouble of late). And all of its post-independence growth has occurred against a backdrop of relative calm and political stability.  SWAPO remains popular while being able to point to a constitution that is frequently hailed as one of the most democratic and progressive in the world.

 

But Namibia’s broad-based economic and political indicators can be as misleading as the glossy downtown shopping areas of its capital city.  Perhaps the most telling feature of the economy has to do with exactly wherethe money circulates.  Namibia has the dubious distinction of having one of if not the most unequal income distributions in the world: the top fifth of the population shares 79% of the country’s total income while the bottom fifth is left with only 1.4%.  The remainder of the roughly two million people are much closer to the bottom than the top.  This gives its income distribution profile the appearance of an hourglass with an abnormally long base, as if some over-zealous designer was afraid that the whole thing would topple over.  Well over half of the population survives on less than U.S. $2 per day, while a miniscule 0.1% makes over $4,500 per month. When you add to this an unemployment rate that hovers around 30% (with some recent estimates as high as 50%), you begin to realize the extent of the situation.  In Namibia, you either sink or swim – and the overwhelming majority sink.

 

You would experience this inequality if you extended your walk outward from downtown Windhoek to the city’s periphery. Here, you would come across Katatura, Windhoek’s largest and most lively neighborhood.  Katatura was developed in the late 1950’s as an Apartheid township for Windhoek’s black population, who were forcibly moved here from long-established neighborhoods in the city center.  In fact, almost every major town in Namibia has what is generally referred to as “the location,” or the black neighborhood.  Katatura literally means “the place where we do not want to settle.” Following independence, it was provided with improved services and infrastructure in an attempt to make it more livable and perhaps less inexcusable.  Today, Katatura is a sprawling jumble of shantytown dwellings constructed largely of recycled wood and sheets of corrugated iron, interspersed with larger and more permanent structures of mortar and cement.  A glut of slow-moving taxi’s maneuver along an intricate spider web of pitted roads and dirt tracks that weave through suburbs with names like Havana, Babylon, and Soweto. It is a bustling mass of dust and humanity – its sheer liveliness and energy sets it apart from the rest of Windhoek as much as it’s crushing poverty and sprawling slums.  These qualities play a big factor in the growing popularity of guided tours into the former township for those who want to see “the real Windhoek.” Some people simply call these “poverty tours.”

 

But the differences between the haves and have-nots in Namibia are most pronounced when you leave the city altogether and make your way to the countryside.  And there is no better or more remote example of the countryside than the harsh, desert region of the Kunene – Tupa’s home.  Here, Namibia’s crushing inequalities collide with the power and weight of history and tradition to create a complicated picture of a society that is as vulnerable as it is resilient.