Traditional Leaders Shouldn’t Be Puppets

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By Dr Abisai Shejavali

History Repeats Itself

Before delving into the key purpose of this article, I would like to congratulate His Excellency, President Lucas Hifikepunye Pohamba on becoming the President of Swapo. I would also like to congratulate him on the work he has done in the creation of the Anti-Corruption Commission, to try to root out corruption in Namibia; and on his concern and determination to fight HIV/AIDS, poverty, unemployment, and problems in education.

It is a big job, with still much to be done, and requires our wholehearted support and dedication. I wish him God’s blessings and wisdom, and the strength to solve these various issues and to carry out his presidential duties under God’s grace.

This article has been written as a means for me to respond to the speech of His Excellency, the President of the Republic of Namibia, which was delivered to the multitude of people on Saturday, 15th December 2007 at a Swapo rally in Oshakati, and part of which appeared in the New Era of Monday 17th December, p.5, and in The Namibian newspaper of Wednesday 19th December, p.3.

The president’s speech, whereby he urged traditional leaders (kings, chiefs, headmen, and village leaders) to choose between politics and traditional matters, has certainly caused me to be confused.

It seems to me that His Excellency is speaking like our past oppressors of the South African Apartheid regime, who often spoke against church leaders involving themselves in politics by criticizing the socio-political injustices and all brutalities exercised by the former regime against the black people.

I, myself, when I served as the General Secretary of the Council of Churches in Namibia, was visited by people in authority from Pretoria, asking why the churches had involved themselves in politics, and why they didn’t speak strictly on religious matters only.

And we know how many pastors and village headmen were either beaten up or detained at that time, because they were speaking against issues which were not building social justice for all, or because they were supporting and feeding the freedom fighters.

We also know of community leaders who were replaced by those who were for the South African regime, because they were against the injustices and oppression of their people or because they were Swapo supporters. I do not understand why the president, a former oppressed, is speaking and telling the traditional leaders not to involve themselves in politics. By doing so, he, as a former oppressed, makes the history of the former oppressors to repeat itself.

For me, politics concerns issues and interactions that we deal with on a daily basis. If, for example, I look critically at issues with which government is dealing (which affect my life or that of my family), I’m looking at issues that affect my political and social life.

If the village headmen are looking critically at the present government or at Swapo activities, and pointing out where the needs for the well-being of the people have failed to be met, then it is their human right to do so because that affects their situation, their life, and the lives of their followers.

And in fact, I am even suspicious about the way the terminology of ‘traditional leaders’ is used in this context. What does that really mean? It is my understanding that village leaders generally look after the affairs of the village unit – maintaining peace, and playing the role of ‘judge,’ together with their communities in a collective and democratic way.

All these functions are done on a voluntary basis; and their responsibility certainly cannot be compared with that of the president, who runs the political affairs of the state, and who has to be paid for that.

In essence, whatever village/traditional leaders are dealing with – the issues within their villages which may be developmental, judicial, social, or in whatever the case – are these not all a part of politics?

I think the main issue is that we should not try to keep the village/district/community leaders from participating in the issues which have something to do with their lives, with their futures. If we have to prevent them, then this means that we have to dictate them … and democracy is contrary to dictatorship.

A few years ago, we had kings and headmen in the far north, with their followers demonstrating for a fourth term for the former/founding president.

Were those not real, clear and direct political issues? No one stopped them from demonstrating then. Why now? People have the freedom to participate in the issues affecting their lives politically and socially.

Traditional leaders have been long involved in politics – it is not something new. And Swapo has of course recognized this, which is why the names of these traditional leaders are often mentioned in their speeches: Hendrik Witbooi, Mandume yaNdemufayo, Nehale lya Mpingana, Samuel Maharero, Iipumbu yaShilongo, Jacob Marenga, Kahimemua Nguvauva, Hosea Kutako, and so on.

These traditional leaders had the interests of their people at heart, and they realized that Namibia was dear to them, and worthy to die for. When we touch Namibian dollars, walk along the streets of Namibian towns and cities, or visit the international airport, their names remind us of their selfless sacrifices for this country. To now prevent traditional leaders from involving themselves in politics is seriously contrary to what their forefathers did for this country in the past.

Traditional leaders should be allowed to exercise their freedoms of choice for the just interests of their people/communities, as long as they do not intimidate their subjects and force them to join or to remain in political parties against their will.

It seems to me that Swapo feels happy when traditional leaders are for the party, but disapproves of their involvement in the political framework when they are attracted by other parties. In fact, His Excellency seems to be threatened by the Rally for Democracy and Progress, which is why he is now confusing the people.

What he is trying to tell the traditional leaders is to remain with Swapo and not to join RDP. To do this is to interfere with the free choice of the people!

During the apartheid regime, we had puppets for the regime. And some of those village/community leaders were made to be and work for the regime, and to maintain the status quo. Hence, they were not really moving freely and working freely for the liberation of the country. I hope that our present ‘traditional leaders’ will not be forced to live in fear and to work as puppets.

They should have the freedom to praise the government when it has done good, or to criticize it when it has done bad.

But those who are paid for being tribal leaders should not have their salaries reduced or stopped for doing so.

We are fortunately in the era of democracy, and democracy should be held most dear.

Any form of dictatorship from now on should be fully rejected.

If we put fear into our people, they will not feel free!

They will even be afraid to move freely, and to learn from others because when they are seen by their headmen and political leaders, they will be afraid of being considered part of those of other political parties…whether or not they are.

We see this fear even in the Bible, during the time of our Lord Jesus Christ, where the Pharisees were so strong that the people were afraid to be seen by them associating freely with Jesus Christ. That’s why we hear in John 3, about Nikodemus, who went to Jesus Christ in the middle of the night to learn things about the kingdom of God. He could not do it during the day because he was afraid to be cast out, even from his position as an elder.

I think it would be good in our situation in our country, to let the people have freedom to its fullest, rather than to enslave them with the fear of losing their positions, or of losing favour, and so on.

If we were once oppressed and enslaved, we should not try to do the same to the others, or to make them be afraid.

One of the weapons of the apartheid regime/system was to intimidate, humiliate, and create fear in the black people. In a free Namibia, let us try to help our people to recover that humanity they lost during colonialism, apartheid and racism.

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