NAMIBIA: ‘We are trying to treat all Namibians equally’
Thomas Cromwell

Namibia is an African country that has made a fairly smooth transition from the revolutionary rhetoric of its founding as an independent country in 1990 to market economy stability today. Until World War I the area was the German colony of Southwest Africa. During that war it was occupied by South Africa, which after WWII annexed the country.

The independence fight against South Africa was led by the Marxist South-West Africa People's Organization, and Namibia has been under SWAPO control since. But whatever role Marxism played in guiding early revolutionaries it has little if anything to do with how the country is run today.

“SWAPO was never Marxist, per se,” Ambassador to Washington Patrick Nandago, told in a recent interview. But we were supported by the East Bloc. “At independence, we adopted non-alignment,” he said.

“We are a democratic country,” he added. “We have common values with the United States.”

Elections in 2005 brought current president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, a former vice president, to power, replacing founding president Sam Nujoma.

Ambassador Nandago said that the SWAPO government has delivered “peace and stability” and that national reconciliation after civil war “has worked.”

About half the size of Alaska, and with a population of just two million people, Namibia is largely a desert country, with the bulk of the population living on a fertile strip of land that borders Angola, in the north. “Sixty percent of the population lives on 10 percent of the land,” the ambassador said. Only Mongolia has a lower population density.

Windhoek, the capital, is the only city of size. Located at the center of the country, it boasts a population of just 230,000.

Namibia is a favorite destination for big game hunters and has some top-notch lodges to accommodate them. Its rugged deserts, with apricot dunes and exotic wildlife make it a fascinating place to visit for the adventurous.

On its exotic coastline, sun-baked waves of sand dunes meet Antarctic-cooled waves of the Atlantic Ocean, often creating dense fog. The northern coastline is called the Skeleton Coast, thanks to the shipwrecks; the southern is called the Diamond Coast, and is believed to be the richest source of diamonds in the world.  

The ambassador noted that “the best dunes” are in Walvis Bay, which Namibia took possession of from South Africa only in 1994. The bay with its natural harbor was long of interest to imperial powers, and today is the center of the coastal tourism industry.

There is little rainfall over most of the country, and “when it does rain, the desert changes dramatically,” the ambassador said. And while the rain is insufficient for most agriculture, it does sustain large herds of antelope species, making Namibia a hunter’s paradise.

But hunting poses a problem today. Much of Namibia’s arid areas are owned by South Africans who visit for the hunting season. For most of the rest of the year, the land is unused. “Most people have no access to land,” the ambassador explained.

The government is trying to get control of some of these farms through purchase. “Absentee landlords are a problem,” the ambassador said. Farms in dry areas may not be well suited to crops, but can be used for raising cattle or other livestock. Namibian beef is rated only second to Argentina’s, and Namibia is trying to get FDA certification so that it can be imported to the United States. Sheep and goats are also raised on some of the farms.

Aware of the problems created by Zimbabwe’s policy of taking farms from white owners, for now, the Namibian government policy is “willing seller, willing buyer”.

However, “sometimes the prices are exorbitant” and not all sales are voluntary. “In some cases the farmers have to sell,” the ambassador said. Disputes over sales and ownership quite often end in court, he said.

This past rainy season saw extensive flooding, “the worse people have seen in their lifetime,” the ambassador said. Bridges and roads were washed away, fields flooded, crops ruined and schools closed for two months. Many people in rural areas were cut off from hospitals or any sort of assistance.

All of which only exacerbated the chronic lack of modern infrastructure, something the government is addressing as a priority, and hopes to receive Millennium Challenge Corporation funding for. “Most MCC funding will go for infrastructure development,” the ambassador said:  “Expansion of schools, more and improved roads, improved agricultural output and environmental protection.”

SWAPO’s slogan is “One Namibia; One Nation.” But there continues to be a wide disparity in incomes, with 55.8 percent of the population living on just $2 a day, and 34.9 percent on $1 a day. Most are engaged in subsistence farming. 

Ambassador Nandago noted that the government is working to address this disparity. “We are trying to treat all Namibians equally,” he said. We are trying to extend our services to formerly deprived communities, especially potable water, roads and schools.” Progress appears to be slow so far.

English is the official language. By using English, conflicts among the country’s many ethnic and tribal groups over which local language to use are avoided, the ambassador noted.

The government is also using English to unify 13 educational systems, based on different ethnic groups, into a single, national system.

Namibia is rich in minerals and most of the country’s wealth has long been derived from exporting those minerals. Most members of the wealthy class are the owners of mineral rights and mines, and 3 percent of the population is employed by the mining sector.

In addition to diamonds, traditionally the number one export, Namibia exports uranium, copper, zinc, gold and marble. The ambassador noted that there will be 12 uranium mines by 2010, making this the second most important export. He pointed out that Namibia’s marble is top quality, and can be favorably compared to Italian varieties. He said some Italian companies source their marble from Namibia.

Other promising sectors are fishing, tourism and agriculture.

The ambassador said that Namibia has the potential to be a transportation center in southwest Africa. He noted that a railway passes from South Africa to Angola through Namibia, a road connects the country to Zambia and that the Trans-Kalahari Highway connects Namibia to Botswana and South Africa.