War on poverty needs all resources

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While participating in the Global Africa Investment Summit earlier this month President Hage Geingob was interviewed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on its popular HARDtalk show, which is broadcast globally. He was vigorously probed on issues related to Namibia and the war he declared on poverty.
Below is part of the interview where Sarah Montague asks Geingob what difference he feels he can make in Namibia, which has one of the most unequal societies in the world.

For all Namibia’s relative wealth, the statistics on poverty are fairly alarming, a quarter of the population according to the World Food Programme are living in poverty and according to the United Nations more than 40 percent of Namibians are undernourished. You came to the presidency and declared war on poverty and even created a new ministry on poverty. What difference is this ministry making?

Thank you very much. You said Namibia is rich in minerals but people are poor, you should know the history that there was apartheid and blacks were left out, both politically and economically. When we got our independence we reconciled the two parties and you cannot just take from the rich and give to the poor. We increased the old age pension from N$600 to N$1 000. This made a big difference because social pensions maintain the elders as well as poor children dumped with their parents, with the pensioners. We have been there for eight months and started off by setting up a clarion call for unity to revive the idea of one Namibia, one nation because we are drifting away from that oneness and about to go into the tribal kind of affiliations. So my aim was to reestablish that we are one Namibia, one nation.

The extraordinary thing is that the unemployment rate is pretty much the same as it was at independence in 1990.
I don’t think so. Unemployment the way ILO (International Labour Organisation) classifies it is that anyone who has something they can sell is regarded as employed, but in Namibia people were employed by whites. They want to be employed by someone and that is why able-bodied people who are not employed by someone are classified as unemployed in Namibia. That is why the figure is so high.

You talk about the tone but you were the prime minister of Namibia since independence and then after years you left and came back as prime minister again. What is it that you can do now that you were not able to do then?
You can definitely not claim we did not do anything. I set up the administration and the public service. I was not an executive prime minister but an administration one. We have a presidential system so the prime minister works under the president.

Were you frustrated about what you could not do?
Not necessarily. We have done what we could do, Namibia’s status now and what it was is not the same thing.

What I am trying to establish is that you arrived in March and there is this hope that you are able to rejuvenate things and you can make a difference, but you do of course come from the political class that has been in place for a long time, so I am trying to establish what you can do that is new?

The political class you are talking about has done a lot, we lifted people out of poverty in Namibia and we have done a lot to unite the people, and infrastructure has been built such as hospitals, clinics and roads … that class has done that. Now I am the next one. We said Sam Nujoma brought independence and unity, [Hifikepunye] Pohamba brought stability now I am charged to provide prosperity.

So it is more of the same?
What is supposed to be different, a revolution to destroy everything? Take from whites and give to blacks? Grab the land that will be the difference, isn’t it?

So you are continuity?
Yes I am a continuity, of course. If you have something good why do you break it? There is peace, you never hear Namibia fighting and we have elections every year.

Is it possible to eradicate poverty?
People are saying let’s reduce poverty meaning if you are half poor it’s okay. We are saying the aim must be to eradicate it, if you reach 80 percent you have done something. So yes it can be eradicated. But we are saying let us first look at the hunger by creating food banks. We are talking about basic income grants, which we rejected that time because we did not think you should give everyone N$100 but rather look to those who need it. Come March we will roll out our programmes.

And the solidarity tax you proposed, the idea that those who are wealthier would be taxed?
We did not say solidarity tax. We first talked about the disparity you talked about that Namibia is one of the most unequal countries and we looked at how we can narrow the gap.

What happens with solidarity tax?
We did not say solidarity tax, we are saying we must do something and one of the ideas is that we must share, Namibians should not be greedy and they must share and taxes are one of the ways. One way is to say they must voluntarily contribute.

And which one do you favour?
Tax.

So you will introduce a tax?
We will introduce a wealth solidarity tax if Cabinet approves it.

And there are those that are critical of the idea who feel there are other things you should focus on such as not building a new parliament that cost the equivalent of US$70 million, that you should be building a hospital instead, focus on unemployment, education….
That is being done, I do not know where they are living, are they living in Namibia?

But the unemployment statistics are still high and you are building a new parliament?
I don’t build a parliament, you must know that we are a democracy and in a democracy you must build institutions that you can use for democracy. Parliament is not mine, it’s not for the executive, it is legislative position and that parliament belongs to all parties and Namibians but it has nothing to do with the president. I cannot be asked to stop that [parliament construction] because then you will say I am interfering in the legislature, they are independent and they have their own budget so go and talk to the Speaker about that, not the president.

But you are making the point of course that as president you have the control to deal with things to eradicate poverty and it is that whole thing I am trying to focus on and whether the wealth solidarity tax is going to be enough?
I said when you declare war you use everything at your disposal and it is a multi-faceted strategy. Why is everyone jumping about this tax, is it because whites will be taxed?

Now let us talk about the reasons that there are the problems that Namibia face. Windhoek has a high amount of informal settlements. When the Pope was in Nairobi [Kenya] he talked about the dreadful injustice of urban exclusion and he described it as new form of colonialism. He was saying that type of informal settlement is inflicted by minorities who cling to power and who squander while the majority is forced to flee to abandoned filthy and rundown peripheries. Do you think he is right?

Maybe he is right about other countries, not about Namibia. In Namibia you should know there was apartheid, people were kept in the so-called homelands and not allowed to move. Now that we got freedom you cannot stop them, they therefore move freely to settle anywhere and that is the cause of it. You cannot stop them because you will be the first ones to cry that people are being pushed out of their homes. So we have a systematic approach on how to solve that problem. The Pope was talking about the situation in Nairobi.

In your argument you talked about one Namibia one, nation, do all Namibians sympathize with those on the peripheries and in need?
When I am trying to tell them to do that you are questioning my solidarity tax that is why I am saying all Namibians should care for their brothers, if we can have a tax we must do something and care for them.

Could the Pope have been talking about Windhoek?
The Pope was talking about what he has seen, he was not in Windhoek.

But I wonder if the same applies for Namibia?
The ghettos are everywhere, I can go to Brixton here in London or in Harlem where I lived, there are ghettos everywhere.

And it applies to all of them?
It applies to all Brixtons of this world.

You were the first Namibian leader to declare your wealth, you showed your wealth and that of your wife, the net worth is about US$7 million. This is held up as a good thing but it illustrates the difference between those who are wealthy and those who are not in society.
They must also declare first so we can judge it.

And what progress are you making on that?
It is not yet time and they are not obliged to declare just like I was not obliged but I did it. Instead of welcoming it [declaration] you are questioning it. What wealth is that, what is US$7 million? It is actually the assets not the cash and it’s because I bought the land when I came back … land which was stolen that I could have grabbed but I bought it.

Do you expect your fellow politicians to declare what they have?
I don’t judge them, but are you saying we have been there for 25 years and nobody made money, when you are employed from 21 March [1990], what hypocrisy is that? Are you saying we do not know how to make money? If you got the money honestly it is your money, just like you have your money but it must be declared.

So everybody should go public?
Yes.

And if they do not do it voluntarily?
We do not have a law yet but they are allowed to declare in parliament.

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