10 rules for aspiring politicians, according to Namibia’s First Lady

“As a first lady, people tend to assume you don’t know much, and I’m okay with that, as I’m not always in the mood to talk. It gives me time to observe people and power.” So said Monica Geingos, Namibia’s first lady, speaking on Wednesday at the African Leadership Institute’s virtual conference for International Youth Day, which coincided with the launch of the Institute’s new report, Greater Inclusion of African Youth in Public Service and Governance.

“It’s always a lesson to see how power is used by those who have it, and how people who don’t have it behave around it,” she observed. “Power is corrosive. It does change people… When you have power, always remember how it felt not to have power, and behave accordingly.”

An accomplished businessperson and economist, Geingos’ career took a back seat when she married her husband, President Hage Geingob, in 2015 (he became president in the same year). But her proximity to power has given her a unique insider’s understanding of how power and politics works. 

“There are rules to politics,” she said. “The worst thing about these rules is that many of them are unwritten and unspoken, and we often need a guide to ensure that we don’t break what we don’t even know exists.”

Geingos says there are ten rules that young, aspiring politicians must know if they want to get ahead. They are:

1. Avoid taking sides

“Try avoiding taking sides when politicians start clashing. There are a lot of grievances in the political space and if you’re not careful you will be forced to take sides. Politicians don’t have permanent friends or enemies, they only have permanent interests. And when they fight each other, they normally don’t include you when they make peace with one another.”

2. Have a backup plan

“De-risk your political career with an economic vulnerability plan. I believe young people seeking to enter politics or the public sphere should first have marketable skills, a qualification, or a means of earning an additional income. There is no more vulnerable position than relying on the discretion of politicians for your livelihood, especially if you’re unemployable outside of the public sector.”

3. Learn to accept defeat

“I’ve seen many bright careers destroyed by the inability to accept defeat, whether it’s electoral, whether it’s not being considered for an appointment you felt you were best suited for… If you take public office, don’t build your personality or your status around it. Positions are temporary. The worst time for a politician, that I’ve observed, is the day after he’s been appointed. Because that’s the day his phone starts to ring and he’s being reminded by everybody whether they remember how hard they worked and what positions they reserved. Don’t be that person.”

4. Create your own space

“Politicians are drawn to those who can articulate themselves properly. That doesn’t mean that they will like it. They will respect it, however. Create your own spaces, write papers, be engaged, be strategic, be smart. [Senior politicians] can’t and don’t know all the young people who are capable and competent. The only way you can get their attention is through newspapers, television and radio, through thought leadership.”

5. Pick a lane

“Decide how you want to participate. Do you start your own political party? Do you stand as an independent? Do you find an existing political vehicle that you identify with? Do you go against the mainstream? Take a leap and stick with it.”

6. Pick your battles carefully

“You’ll always find yourselves in disagreement with your political principles. There will always be things that can be done better in the public sector. Learning what to keep quiet about, and what to fight, is a skill. Decide what is important and fight for it. Conflict is part of this public space, this political space, and a skill you want to learn is conflict resolution. And not taking ad hominem attacks personally.”

7. Get in the belly of the beast

“The system can be changed, but it will first try to eat you. I believe that to see real reform you need to get into the belly of the beast. I struggle to convince capable young people to work in the public sector or join politics, as they often feel that there is no upward mobility. They feel there’s too much backstabbing, remuneration is too little, and they aren’t being taken seriously. Get in, in order to make a difference. Understand that there is a price to pay. What you must always understand is that when you are trying to change the system, the system is trying to change you. It’s important to not become so blinded that you can’t see when something is going very wrong. If you find yourselves always angry, frustrated, in needless disagreement with your principles, then you need to introspect.”

8. Never become like those who fight you

“That point is relatively self-explanatory.”

9. Patriarchy doesn’t sleep

“Politics are a mirror of our societies. And if our societies are patriarchal, so are our politics. Women are judged harshly, and given the narrowest margin of error, and are often not included when late-night political deals and strategies are being discussed. Another element is how consensual sexual relationships are more likely to cost the woman as opposed to the man. Worse still, sexual harassment in politics and in the public space is not taken seriously.”

10. Be careful of your friends

“Watch how your political allies fight their enemies. Be careful of your allies, who use dirty tactics and de-campaign others. One day, when they disagree with you, they will use those same dirty tactics against you.”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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