SWAPO and the ANC: how deep is freedom?

2013-10-11

Whether it’s because of conscious imitation, revolutionary solidarity, mere contagion by proximity or just the result of similar historical and current circumstances, Namibian ruling party politics track those of South Africa in some important respects. Or vice versa, Namibians would probably assert, reminding South Africans that they had their first democratic elections four years before South Africa did.

The similarities are underscored – and perhaps exaggerated – by the fact that the two countries are on the same basic electoral cycle, with Namibia also going into elections next year.

Like South Africa and in fact more so, Namibia is a de facto one-party state. At the last elections in 2009 the South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO) won almost 75% of the vote (compared to just under 66% for the ANC) and the Namibian opposition is even weaker and more splintered than South Africa’s. And so – even more so than in South Africa – the focus of political analysis is on divisions within SWAPO rather than on opposition from outside the party. SWAPO is also a ‘broad church’ accommodating a wide spectrum of political ideology under its umbrella, from moderate technocrats to leftwing radicals. And also, like South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), the pragmatic moderates are currently in control, which means that SWAPO governs Namibia significantly to the right of its party mandate and rhetoric. And that creates tensions in the party.

As its five-yearly elective congress last December SWAPO re-elected Hage Geingob as deputy president of the party and prime minister of the country. This came as a surprise to some observers who had expected the moderate and internationalist Geingob to be ousted by then justice minister Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana or the more radical Jerry Ekandjo. Not least because Geingob is not an Oshiwambo, the ethnic group which has dominated SWAPO to date, providing all of its leaders.

SWAPO’s Youth League, perhaps predictably, backed Ekandjo. In the end Geingob saw them off, though with just over half the vote. The election of Geingob effectively anointed him to succeed SWAPO and national President Hifikepunye Pohamba who must stand down before the 2014 elections when he will have served his constitutionally limited two terms.

Geingob has been busy consolidating his power since then in what one Namibian academic called a ‘grand shuffle’ moving his supporters into key positions. But the victory of the moderates has inevitably inflamed the left and Youth League secretary-general Elijah Ngurare was particularly vocal and public in criticising the party leadership (like his South African counterpart Julius Malema). He also emulated Malema by extolling the virtues of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, and urging his own leaders to follow them in nationalising land and business. The SWAPO Youth League even insisted on publicly characterising a traffic accident involving its candidate Ekandjo, as an assassination attempt.

In June this year, Pohamba and Geingob called a meeting of SWAPO’s Central Committee (yes and it also still has a Politburo) to try to silence Ngurare, hoping to get him suspended from the party. They didn’t get quite that far but did manage to shut him up, at least temporarily, by extracting a rather groveling apology.

Though Geingob has, on the face of it, been anointed as Pohamba’s successor, the political establishment is by no means sure he will in fact succeed. For one thing he is not well. This week he issued a statement confirming that he had suffered bleeding on the brain but had fully recovered. Dark rumours are also circulating in Windhoek that the tribal and ideological resentment against Geingob is so fierce that something else might befall him before the elections that are expected to be held towards the end of the year.

On the other hand his demise could be quite legitimate and purely political, as SWAPO, in this respect unlike the ANC, has a provision that the party must confer again shortly before the elections, to confirm his candidacy. That ought to be formality, but might not be, or so the political gossip goes.

Above all, what SWAPO shares with the ANC, is the sense which both evoke that their political tolerance may run only as far as it will not threaten their hold on power. In a briefing to visiting African and Finnish journalists in Windhoek on 7 October, Graham Hopwood, executive director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) noted that the media freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders had ranked Namibia the 19th-freest country in the world for media, first in Africa and beating even the United States and United Kingdom.

It is also true that Namibia consistently ranks high in global indices of political and civil freedoms more generally, for example being one of the handful of African countries always rated as ‘free’ (rather than ‘partly free’ or ‘not free’) by Freedom House. Yet Hopwood also identified several significant shortcomings in media freedom, not least the lack of any constitutionally or legally guaranteed access to public information and a government prepared to resort to a 1947 law (i.e. dating back to the era of apartheid South Africa’s control of the country) to deny the public what should be relatively innocuous information, such as the report of the Delimitation Commission which investigated provincial boundaries.

Hopwood believes SWAPO’s virtual monopoly on power has been good for the country in one important respect – it has contributed to political stability. But the downside is that it has made SWAPO complacent and arrogant and so it has not addressed vital national problems such as poverty and unemployment. And corruption is rising. And authoritarian legislation is beginning to creep into a Parliament which rubberstamps it without question. Hopwood sees the possibility of SWAPO losing a little ground in next year’s elections, if not to the weak opposition, then to apathy.

And if it does start losing support, he wonders if its highly rated political tolerance will start to slip away and whether, for example, a threatened state-controlled media council to regulate the press might not be pushed through Parliament. All of this sounds familiar. If the neighbouring ruling parties are exchanging notes, so should others.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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