This is the basic question that has been left imprinted on my consciousness, sub-consciousness and my conscience by the University Council of the University of Namibia (Unam)’s decision to prevent its staffers from holding any office in any political party thereby infringing on their political, civil and human rights.
I also want to emphasize “holding office” the University’s own emphasis. In fact such a provision to my mind only stops short of totally banning employees from belonging to any political party, let alone partaking in any political activities. I’ll come to that in a while – why I think this to be the case.
Article 17 of the Namibian Constitution explicitly provides: “All citizens shall have the right to participate in peaceful political activity intended to influence the composition and policies of the Government. All citizens shall have the right to form and join political parties and; subject to such qualification prescribed by law as are necessary in a democratic society, to participate in the conduct of public affairs, whether directly or through freely chosen representatives.”
Rather than extending the interpretation of this provision, the Unam policy-makers seem to narrow it to fit their own parochial world, rightly or wrongly.
There is no way that this provision reads so that it allows for the suspension of such rights save for subjecting them to a qualified prescription by law. The University’s policy can definitely not be interpreted to be such a prescribed law as intended under the Article 17 to which the political rights contained therein can be subjected. The exercise of the right by all citizens to form and join political parties of their choice also, I am inclined to reasonably interpret, presumes their freedom and right to also be elected or elect others of their choice to positions in these political formations. I don’t think it is and should be the business of the University Council to prescribe to their employees, and lawful political formations of their choice for that matter, what privileges and rights they can enjoy and the role and responsibilities within such formations.
Equally, I don’t think the Article envisaged a partial exercise by any Namibian citizen of this right. Because saying you may belong but in your belonging there are certain things that you cannot is prescription. I would have thought any political party, or nay other formation for that matter is an entity with a rightful existence from Unam and it is thus the prerogative of its members to define the rights and limits of their office bearers not the University Council.
Of course within its own constitutional parameters as informed by the country’s Constitution, not by the personal policies of Unam or any other employee for that matter.
I am inclined to think that the Council’s decision may be informed by a colonial and archaic understanding of what a political party is. To my understanding a political party is no more than just another civic organization.
Civic organizations in our society abound, serving their constituent members according to their needs, aspirations and interests whether socially, culturally, politically, religiously and what-have-you. The sportive equivalents of political parties like the Swapo Party of Namibia, Democratic Turnhalle Alliance (DTA) and the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP), to mention but three political parties, are football teams like Black Africa, African Stars, Orlando Pirates and Tigers, amongst others.
These football teams are as much civic organizations as are these political parties. The only difference is that they have different interests from the political parties. If Unam’s Council’s logic is extended, this means Unam’s employees or those of any other institution for that matter, should not hold office in these football teams as much as the University Council proposes that they should not hold office in any political party.
Perhaps, the Council shall come forward with the rationale informing its policy decision. However, currently the decision is coated in mysterious irrationality especially in view of the fact that it came after the fact. The decision taken by the Council on November 23, 2007 came after the fact when those affected by the decision were already in the employment of Unam, making a farce of its rationale. Had the decision been in place all the time those affected would not blame Unam. Still this would not have made the decision constitutional. I think it should be the business of those who occupy multiple positions in different organizations how they balance their various responsibilities and commitment to these organizations. Equally, the onus is on the institution prejudiced in one way or the other by such multiple engagements, and that includes the University of Namibia, to sort this out with the individual concerned than slapping a blanket ban on its employees for perceived or imagined prejudice or conflict of interest as the case seems to be with the University Council.