Reflecting on President Geingob’s first SONA (Part I)

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Exactly one month after the third President of the Republic of Namibia, Hage Geingob, swore solemnly to defend the Namibian Constitution and protect all Namibian inhabitants, he took the National Assembly by a storm by introducing a presidential style that the nation has not seen before. In more ways than one, Geingob’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) performance was beyond the mundane Afrikan ruling party rhetoric strewn with aplomb, self-congratulation, boogeyman politics and defensiveness. In the first place, Geingob was very aware that the expectations on his broad shoulders were higher than ever before in the history of state of the nation addresses in Namibia. Geingob went to Tintenpalast an hour or so earlier to make certain that the venue was ready for what high class America calls the bully pulpit. (The word bully pulpit was used by America’s 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, when referring to the Presidency as a most prominent position to expound a public agenda). Geingob used his maiden SONA to articulate and expand on matters of the nation that he cared about and had thought about for a long time.

It is therefore not too far-fetched to say that for the first time the nation’s Grand Assembly witnessed a man on a new mission, a man with a futuristic statement by the Head of State on a range of pertinent issues affecting the nation as a matter of principle and urgency. He punctuated matters that he saw as ingredients of the mandate he was given by the nation’s electorate. Hence his use of the metaphor, a very powerful, and for that matter a biblical metaphor, of a House for All. Those of us who have followed Geingob’s political career could feel his heartbeat during the address, and realize that the idea of a House for All is an abiding dream for the President – something he had thought about and cares about immensely as part of his internalized national agenda for Namibia based upon profound national interests that chased him to leave the country and his Standard 1 learners in search for a bigger and better place for them all, and their children. For Geingob ascending to the highest office in the land is almost a spiritual mission beyond his own making. Hence the consistency in his main public utterances since he won the 2014 elections by a landslide. On the day of the election results, he spoke very words instead of a victory speech. He made reference to his pastor who said the previous Sunday that what happened in Namibia was the will of God. He started his inaugural address on 21 March 2015 with a call that this was the day that the Lord has made and that all should rejoice in it. In his first SONA he went to the Book of Matthew and gave a short homily, as it were, about the wisdom of building a solid house, not in the sand, but on the rock. In the last 25 years Namibia has built a house on a rock, for which we ought to be grateful to those who toiled at it individually and collectively.

Hage went to Parliament fired up and spoke from the heart. Even those who had misgivings about his public speaking skills were affirmed by his new energy that they too were in the right house at the right time for the right reasons – not politics, not language, not class, not tribe, but their birthrights as Namibians, as Afrikans and as human beings! The nation had as much an interest in the speech as the President himself. His walk into the august chamber was serious, stately, elegant and wholeheartedly presidential. Everyone in the room, in fact even outside, could tell that someone walked into the room, and was ready to hear, ready to learn, ready to be persuaded, ready to be guided on the way forward.

To all intents and purposes, Hage’s SONA was the first on the Afrikan continent to showcase a Head of State using a teleprompter instead of reading pages and pages of a speech with his head bowed. This shows thoughtfulness and the attention to the details of the speech by the President and his speechwriters who need to be commended for a job superbly done. Hage was conscious that his presidency was about taking this nation beyond the stability and consolidation of democracy to a higher level, that of economic emancipation for the greatest number of the inhabitants of the Land of the Brave. He was responding to the assumptions and aspirations of the wide electorate that entrusted him to take the country forward from liberation to true self-governance, or what he rightly referred to as prosperity. In more ways than one, Hage took Afrika from the department of anthropology in universities to the world of modern communication.

For instance, in his first SONA the word ‘Swapo’ appeared only once whereas the word ‘nation’ appeared 36 times! This is a sign of a man on a (new) mission. A man who is very mindful that his 87 percent electoral mandate could not have come from Swapo membership alone, but from the majority of the Namibian citizenry. Hence the metaphor of a house, not an apartment in a complex, not a room in the house, but a dwelling space of and for all, offering equal opportunity to all and demanding equal measure of commitment and responsibility from all. One wonders whether the nation is getting this man’s message and its significance. Instead of talking the politics of us versus them, Hage skillfully avoids the ‘othering’ of those Namibians who might NOT hold his views, or those who arrived into this house in a manner or at a time different from his. As a nation we have become accustomed to the politics of self-righteousness and habitual vilification of those who differ from us. The President says the house belongs to all who live in it. The president is saying the house is as strong as the unity of its inhabitants.

Hage’s SONA does, to all intents and purposes, herald a new phase for Afrikan politics for three fundamental reasons. First, it introduces a new language of politics not only in Namibia but the SADC region and the entire Afrikan continent by shifting the meaning of politics away from the liberators to the people and the nation. Second, it communicates to the rest of the free world that democracy is not the exclusive domain of western countries but a project that all countries must defend and contextualize seriously as a realm wherein those who are leaders are servants of the people to whom they must account. Third, it places Namibia, small as we are, in the centre and in front of the New Afrikan March towards its rendezvous with history in global politics – not as a beggar continent, but an equal participant in the international conversations to determine the Novus Ordo Seculorum.

The Hage Moment beckons that Afrika’s time has come. To paraphrase the President, this is the moment for Afrika to redefine itself in more positive and self-respecting terms. We as Afrikans cannot remain extensions of other people’s opinions. Hage’s evocation and invocation of a New Afrika is a clarion call to all of us, wherever we happen to be – a reminder that this is our only home, and thus Afrika cannot be marginal to us. President Geingob is absolutely right to challenge us all to partake of the project of either completing the construction of this (our) house, or its ongoing maintenance.

Having said this, I wish I was not asked to offer an opinion on the President’s declaration of his wealth and health. I will offer my response with a heavy heart beginning with a confession that though I admit that this was an extremely courageous move on the part of the Head of State, I am not altogether convinced that the President’s declaration of his wealth and health is an addition to his worthwhile agenda as contained in the State of the Nation Address. I know enough about politics to feel nervous about the repercussions of this development from three perspectives: First, is the nation ready to appreciate the meaning of having a Head of State who declares that he is a multi-millionaire and healthier than others, and who expects his Cabinet to declare how equally rich or poor (and how un/healthy) they are. Second, how does this make others feel as they are doomed if they declare and doomed if they do not.

Third, is it good that the talk about how much leaders are worth has shifted the national political conversation that started with servant leadership in the State of the Nation Address to a voyeurism on the wealth and medical records of political leaders. I truly wish this did not happen or that it was done differently with more empathy for the not so wealthy and the not so healthy in our national leadership. (To be Continued).

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