Corruption, made in Namibia

Tens of millions of Namibian dollars that were dished out as credits to black empowerment initiatives by the Namibian Development Corporation (NDC) will not be repaid during the parastatal’s liquidation, the NDC’s executive secretary told Parliament last month. This is despite the fact that many of the recipients are among Namibia’s nouveau riche.

The NDC’s announcement is yet another example of how the Namibian state has empowered the formerly colonised by generously supporting the relative haves to move further up the social ladder.

Limits to liberation

Since independence in 1990, Namibia’s government has blamed the country’s exploitation under settler colonialism for the unabated social disparities.

Indeed, the transfer of political power left the existing socio-economic structures largely untouched as part of the negotiated settlement.

The inequalities endorsed the status quo in terms of constitutionally protected ownership and property rights. Limited social change had to be induced inside this legally binding framework and was guided by a policy of “national reconciliation” and “affirmative action”. As a result, the privileged segment of society became racially less exclusive.

But, according to the empirical evidence presented by the annual Human Development Reports of the United Nations Development Programme, Namibia remains among the most unequal societies in the world — despite an average per capita income ranking it as a lower middle-income country.

A 2005 report, commissioned by the World Bank, said these inequalities “represent a threat to national cohesion, peace and political stability”.

A UN country assessment warned of an unfolding humanitarian crisis because of the combination of HIV/Aids, food insecurity and the ineffective delivery of critical social services to the most vulnerable groups.

Despite such concerns, the government has refused to introduce a basic income grant — demanded for years by a broad church-based alliance — as not feasible in terms of its fiscal constraints.

Yet, more than a billion Namibian dollars spent on a luxurious new high-security state housing complex was justified as a “pro-poor” measure during the budget debate in Parliament in April this year. Also during the debate, an MP of the Swapo demanded, in all seriousness, that posh cars should be exempt from the speed limit on Namibian roads.

Power, privilege and poverty

BEE has so far served the interests of a new political-bureaucratic elite from the ranks of the erstwhile liberation movement.

Those who liberated mainly themselves profitably cashed in on their access to the country’s resources through their political and public service offices. Corruption and misappropriation of funds nourished a parasitic minority. This had been spectacularly confirmed by several high-profile cases of fraud and self-enrichment schemes, which have looted pension funds and other public finances.

Shady business practices illustrate, in textbook fashion, that the infamous “fat cat syndrome” prevails.

Prime Minister Nahas Angula called the abuse of several hundred million Namibian dollars from the state-administered pension funds through get-rich-quick schemes masquerading as BEE as “just asset stripping”. 

Several BEE groups have come under scrutiny in what Insight magazine described as the “mother of all empowerment deals” in March last year.

The deal was set up between South African oil giant Sasol and a conglomerate of locally created pseudo-firms, without any proper offices. The main Namibian beneficiaries were a former trade union leader and several high-ranking government officials operating within an intricate web of pseudo-enterprises.

The former trade unionist declared, in defence of the deal, that the shareholders were “just black entrepreneurs who needed the money and took advantage of a given situation”.

A popular school of thought within critical poverty research holds the view that it is the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of narrow, privileged groups that creates and perpetuates inequalities. According to such an understanding, the analysis of power is fundamental to any examination of poverty.

Privatisation of public resources allows officials in higher political administrative posts and political office-bearers to exercise personalised power. Such networks are turned into a kind of business enterprise, in which continued support is secured through personal favours among the clientele.

The result is an increasingly authoritarian and incompetent state that rarely responds to public pressure.

The (class) struggle continues

Since independence, Namibia has produced a crypto-capitalist, petty-minded, self-enriching new black elite, which spends its energy exploiting the public purse.

In the absence of a meaningful, profit-generating industrial sector, in which capital would be accumulated through surplus production based on the exploitation of value-adding labour (which implies at least employment for a majority of people), the creation of individual wealth relies on the privatisation of natural resources (mainly in the sectors of fishing, mining, agriculture and tourism), or benefits linked to privileges in the public sector and the state-owned enterprises.

Public procurement and other outsourcing activities by those occupying the commanding heights of the state agencies turn “affirmative action” and BEE into self-rewarding schemes among loyal members of the erstwhile liberation movement.

Such co-opting into the ruling segments within the existing socio-economic system is far from social transformation. BEE continues to cultivate human and natural exploitation for the benefit of few, at the expense of far too many.

It turns decolonisation into a private business for self-enrichment. A result of such cleptocracy is the gradual loss of legitimacy. The Zimbabwe-type decay is the writing on the wall.

Decolonisation of such a kind is not about redistribution of (the relative) wealth for the ordinary people. It is self-enrichment for a new elite and business as usual.

Dr Henning Melber is executive director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala, Sweden. The son of German immigrants, he joined Swapo in 1974 and was the director of the Namibian economic policy research unit from 1992 to 2000

Henning Melber

Henning Melber

Henning Melber (PhD) is also Senior Research Associate, The Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala; Senior Research Fellow, The Institute for Commonwealth Studies/School for Advanced Study, University of London; Professor Extraordinary, Centre for Africa Studies/University of the Free State, Bloemfontein; and a Director emeritus/Senior Advisor of The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, Uppsala/Sweden. He is the van Zyl Slabbert Visiting Professor for Sociology and Political Sciences at the University of Cape Town in October/November 2017. Co-editor: Africa Yearbook/Managing co-editor: Africa Spectrum/Editor-in-chief: Strategic Review for Southern Africa Read more from Henning Melber