Bright, Bold and Focused

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She has shot through the ranks of government and surprised every one – including her adversaries – with her proclivity for hard work and quick wit. Minister of Finance Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila represents a young and energetic generation of Namibian leaders. By Catherine Sasman WINDHOEK From an early age, Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila has been a very focused, independent and individualistic person – she does what she wants to do and how she wants to do it – to the best of her abilities. What other people think or say about her is of little concern to her. And so far in her life, this independent streak has worked. “I inspire myself and determine my own goals,” she said determinately when speaking with New Era in her boardroom at the Ministry of Finance. “I do not think it is helpful to preoccupy yourself with things that other people say about you.” Having emerged gracefully from the public scandal involving her husband, Onesmus Amadhila, who stands accused of sexual harassment and rape, Kuugongelwa-Amadhila is more focused than ever on serving the nation in her capacity as the Minister of Finance. Unwilling to discuss the sordid allegations, she dug her heels in and stands firmly behind her family. “I have decided that I will not concentrate on what people say about me or my family. I will concern myself with what I am intended to do,” she announced. It is exactly this steely resolve to attain her goals that sets Kuugongelwa-Amadhila apart. She was the youngest Director General of the National Planning Commission, a post she assumed at the tender age of 27, and is the first female – and youngest – Minister of Finance for the country. Her rise in the ranks of public office has not come as much of a surprise to her colleagues. “One of the objectives of the Swapo Party is women’s emancipation,” said Dr Albert Kawana at the Office of the President. “With her academic background, it is not surprising that she is in the position that she is today. She is a very efficient person and conducts her affairs in a very professional manner.” DTA Shadow Minister of Finance, Johan de Waal, concurred: “She’s a very genuine and dedicated person. She believes in what she says and if she thinks there is something wrong, you can bet your bottom dollar that she will fix it. She is a very capable minister of finance.” The Beginnings Kuugongelwa-Amadhila was born the last of five children in the small village of Otanamzi in the Okahao constituency on October 12, 1967. Her mother was the school principal of the small school in the village, and her father worked as a contract labourer first in Oranjemund and later in Swakopmund. He died when the young Saara was just nine years old. At the age of 10, Saara moved to Okahao to do her Grade 5, and the following year again moved, to Ombalantu where she completed her Grade 6, and then back to Okahao to complete her Grade 7. “That was where I was first introduced to the world of politics,” she exclaimed. Often fantastical and exciting stories told to her by her sister, Herta, of Swapo combatants sweeping the neighbouring countryside, fired her imagination and proved to be life changing. “I came home one weekend and found my sisters extremely excited because they came into contact with PLAN combatants. They were on cloud nine politically speaking. They were talking about our country as Namibia and not South West Africa, and talked of how we could all join Swapo abroad and learn to speak English and specialize in fields we never dreamt of before,” she recalled. Herta, then 21 years old, convinced the 11-year-old Saara to leave the country for Angola with her. Since then, remembers Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, it was as if her spirit had left and joined the fight for independence, while her body was still stuck at her small school. “I was walking around like a zombie because my mind had already left,” she said. “And when the day came, I gladly joined my sister.” Herta, who had snuck away from home, went to pick her up at her school at Okahao, and lying to their relatives about where they were going, they packed their belongings and headed for the Angolan border. The two sisters crossed the border in the middle of the night in 1980, two years after the Cassinga massacre. Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, who witnessed how survivors of the massacre were held at a Koevoet base camp near her school and tortured, would normally be scared of going anywhere near the border. She would hear intermittent gunshots and see the South African army convoys, instilling a deep fear in her. “But when my sister introduced me to politics, I forgot about Cassinga and that I could actually die in the war. I was not afraid of anyone anymore. I thought that I would get military training, and get my own gun to defend myself.” Life in Exile On their arrival in Angola, the two sisters were immediately separated. Herta went off for military training, and Saara was sent to a centre for children called Greenwell Matongo in the Lubango area. “I thought there would be some separation of some sort, but I didn’t imagine that it would be that way,” she said. “But I didn’t cry for my sister. I merely said goodbye to her because I had the notion that she would go off for training and I would go to Russia and later come back as a medical doctor, fight for my country and never die.” But life at the children’s centre was tough, she contended. With only one meal per day, the children had to walk two kilometres to another camp for lunch; they had no beds or blankets, and had to dig shallow trenches to sleep in at night. “But I never complained because I anticipated good things to come out of that experience,” she related. Her brother eventually followed his sisters to Angola, and their mother died a year later. “Her death was related to the war,” she said. “She was killed but we never found out exactly how.” Kuugongelwa-Amadhila would later be sent deeper into Angola to another children’s centre in Kwanza Sul, where she was selected to continue with her secondary schooling in Sierra Leone at the age of 14. “As much as I had an introduction to English for two years by then, it took me quite some time to get used to the way people pronounced their words in Sierra Leone,” she now laughs. “I struggled a bit but caught on and finished my secondary schooling in the anticipated five years.” Something else happened there that would again veer her life into a different direction. She befriended a local girl whose father was the governor of the central bank in Sierra Leone. “When my friend told me what her father was doing, I thought, ‘This is it, I don’t want to become a medical doctor anymore; I want to become the governor of the central bank!'” She eventually moved from a small rural school run by Catholic nuns to the Koidu Girls Secondary School in Freetown, and passed her last year of school with first grades. She returned to Angola in 1987 at the age of 19, and went for military training at Lubango. She was later trained as a political commissar, and then posted to the headquarters at Lubango where she was given administrative duties. There she worked until 1989 before her return to Namibia. Return to the Motherland With her Grade 12 qualification, Kuugongelwa-Amadhila was amongst the first persons to be integrated into the post-colonial government, working at State House until 1991. That year, she got a scholarship to study for a BSc in Economics at the Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, USA. After four years, she completed her degree with the second highest marks in her class. On her return, she said, she was “spotted” by former president Sam Nujoma while back working at State House, who offered her the position of Director General of the National Planning Commission (NPC) in 1995. The move into that position was sudden and difficult at times, she contended. “But I seized the opportunity because you can touch so many people’s lives in a way that you never thought you could,” she said. And as a young person she felt people related to her more easily. “I think that was the most challenging task I had ever taken up; I was not familiar with public duties let alone political duties.” She plunged herself into her work and all the requirements of the job, devouring as much information as she could. “Going home every night after a hard day’s work, I felt that it was all worth it. I knew that my work there meant that someone in Namibia would be happier and a bit more relieved because of something that I had done. I had the opportunity to make a contribution that other people do not get to make.” After seven “very gratifying” years at the helm of the NPC, Kuugongelwa-Amadhila was propelled to the position of Minister of Finance, which she now holds for four years. It is this position she feels particularly passionate about. “There is never a day that I can say there is not a lot of work to do at the office; it is so much work at this ministry,” she said. “I have to literally force myself out of the office because it gets too late and I have to go home, and then I wake up too early because I cannot stop thinking of what I still have to do,” she said. Among her staff she is known to drive them to the utmost, putting in a 10-hour day of work herself. She is also known for always carrying large bags of documents with her on off days, and is always available to her staff on her mobile phone – “even while I was in hospital delivering my children or when I am on holiday”. When preparing the budget, things get even more hectic. “During the budget time, I sit with my young and very energetic staff in the boardroom sometimes until 10 at night. We allocate responsibilities to ourselves and take full ownership of the process,” she explained excitedly. “I can sense the anxiety on the faces of every staff member a day before I present the budget to Parliament, and after that, they all look so relieved before they get nervous when the comments start coming in.” Her biggest achievement as the minister of finance, she said, was her push for improved revenue collection and the reduction in debt. Under her guidance, the ministry has similarly introduced a new financial management system, the Integrated Financial Management System that aims to significantly improve controlling expenditure as well as increasing revenue collection. The government is currently reviewing the Procurement Act. “Here we want to ensure that we get value for our money, and make sure that the procurement policy is addressing the inequalities of the past where people on the margins of the economy also have the opportunity to participate in the economy.” When she is not busy with work, Kuugongelwa-Amadhila enjoys the entertaining company of her two daughters – now aged four and two. “I find it very rewarding that my daughters are people of very strong character,” she proudly boasted. And when she finds the time, she hangs out with her friends, or watches her favourite soapies – “I particularly like The Gardener’s Daughter – or read up on how other countries are faring financially. When she breaks away from Windhoek, she prefers to head off to the rural areas in the north to visit her family. “My life has turned out to be such a surprise,” she said. “When I lie dying on my deathbed when I’m old, I’d like to know that I have done as much as I possibly could and because of that I have changed the lives of many people.” (In yesterday’s edition of New Era, we misspelt Minister Saara Kuugongelwa Amadhila’s name. We apologise for this error.)