Insult reflects tribal division in Namibia

An intemperate outburst by Namibia’s youth and sport minister, Kazenambo Kazenambo, in which he lashed out at some of his senior Cabinet colleagues as “stupid Ovambos” who are “just like the Boers—worse, because you are hungry, stupid”, has ignited a political storm and posed sharp questions about Namibia’s policy of national reconciliation.

The comments, allegedly made during an interview with a local vvsenior reporter from news magazine insightNamibia, has also laid bare the deep political divisions in the Swapo-led government.

A senior reporter at the magazine, Tileni Mongudhi, demanded to know whether “KK”, as the fiery-tempered former political reporter is better known, had not acted more as a Herero than a national minister in his conduct during a recent trip to Germany to collect 20 Herero and Nama skulls from an academic museum.

The question seemingly so provoked KK that he physically threatened Mongudhi and seized his voice recorder as “evidence”, an action he later justified as confiscating an “enemy tool”.

“In battle, if you capture an enemy tool then you keep it,” KK told the newspaper, after the reporter laid a charge of theft against him.

In a later response to the Namibian newspaper KK defended his comments as a justified response to what he perceived as tribal bias against him.

The subtext here, however, is the fact that KK hails from the minority Mbanderu tribe, as a segment of Herero-speaking survivors of the German colonial war are known. General Lothar von Trotha’s brutal “extermination order” in 1904 was aimed at wiping out the Herero.

Survivors fled and settled in Botswana
A small number of survivors fled the genocide and settled in Bechuanaland (now Botswana). In 1999 the descendants of the genocide survivors who had fled to Botswana were repatriated to Namibia.

KK’s inclusion in Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba’s Cabinet is widely seen as part of the political balancing act among Namibia’s 40-odd tribes. Tellingly, Pohamba is yet to publicly call KK to order. As the smallest group among Namibia’s Herero-speaking people, the Mbanderu punch above their political weight because of their tragic history.

KK’s outburst—just the latest in a series of perceived racial incidents in which he has been involved over the past year—amounted not only to a political but also a cultural faux pas. Most of his Cabinet colleagues are both older and from the Oshiwambo-speaking tribes of central northern Namibia, the country’s largest population group.

But his comments have bolstered his reputation for speaking out about what many non-Ovambo Namibians perceive to be a definite bias in favour of the Ovambo people.

Although KK later denied making those comments (but so far has not released the confiscated recorder), they found a lot of sympathy, especially among the unemployed youth who are not fortunate enough to belong to what has become known as “the executive tribe”.

As proof of this bias, many point out the rapid urban development in the so-called “four Os”—Omusati, Oshikati, Ohangwena and Oshikoto—the area comprising the former Ovamboland, while most towns in the east and south have become increasingly run-down and desperate for development.

What KK’s outburst signalled most clearly was that national reconciliation among Namibia’s political classes was a “sham”, said Tjiurimo Hengari, a lecturer at the Rouen School of Business in France and a regular local political columnist.

“Namibia is still peaceful, not because its people have overcome racism and tribalism, but because economic conditions have not yet deteriorated to a state in which the ethnic frustrations will boil over,” Hengari said.

Patience wearing thin
But patience among minorities—who amount to about a third of the population—was fast wearing thin over the uneven allocation of national resources, Hengari warned.

“You can’t have a policy without raising issues of national concern. It is a policy that is not accompanied by any substantive mechanisms checking on the efficiency of the policy and the process of national reconciliation.

“As a shallow policy in terms of its content, it has never been accompanied by any exemplary acts on the part of many of our politicians. It is therefore not a document that has been translated in exemplary citizenship and political leadership,” Hengari said.

The outburst is regarded as an example of the power struggle in Swapo. KK has previously upset many in the leadership by calling for a non-Oshiwambo person to become the next president of Namibia.

This person, KK has made clear, is Trade and Industry Minister Hage Geingob, whose lack of a tribal constituency is widely seen as his political Achilles heel.

Geingob’s most obvious competition for the top job is Justice Minister Pendukeni Ivula-Ithana, who also occupies the powerful party secretary general position. The succession race will be settled at the Swapo congress later this year.

In the end, political insiders speculate, Ivula-Ithana will be the one to decide KK’s political future, but a move against him could alienate the party’s Herero voters, who have helped Swapo hang on to a two-thirds majority in Parliament since 1996.

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