Liberty and Property: Social history of western political thought on the Constitution of Namibia


In trying to examine and understand the history of political philosophy and its role in shaping the world political systems, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau left an incredible work for us to ponder on, expand our thoughts and engage on moral and ethical issues of the world.

Today, the values of life, liberty and property, which Locke so passionately promoted, are deeply entrenched in the constitutions around many countries of the world. Namibia is one such country. The Preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of Namibia puts emphasis on the recognition of the “…right of the individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” We have also entrenched the property clause in our Constitution.

The State of Nature and the State of War

For Locke, the State of Nature, the actual natural condition of mankind, is a perfect and complete liberty. Locke argued that human beings as human beings, separate from all government or society, have certain rights which should never be given up or taken away. Contrary to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Locke does not believe that a person can, by consent or contract, enslave himself to someone else or place himself under the arbitrary power of another.

In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes captures his imaginations and main thesis around morality being same as the law. For him, our behaviour and actions are governed by the law and not our conscience. He essentially argued that in the state of nature, no laws exist. It is more like every man for himself and God for all. It is no secret that human beings can be selfish by nature. The desire to accumulate more, and in the process alienate others, is a reality.

The fundamental flaw of Hobbes’ theory is the failure to recognise that moral obligations and duties are reciprocated. The basic dictum is much more of do unto me what you would expect others to do unto you. Although Locke views the state of nature, as a state of perfect and complete liberty, he cautions that this does not mean a carte blanche to commit crimes. Even if there are no laws, state of nature is not a state without morality.

So in a nutshell, state of nature is not same as the state of war, as asserted by Hobbes. But the interesting dimension is that the state of war is not necessarily ruled out. A state of nature can degenerate into state of war, specifically, a state of war over property disputes.

The above could well find a meaning in Namibia’s history of the liberation struggle. Kaptein Hendrik Witbooi and Chief Samuel Maharero took up arms during the struggle for national resistance to engage the German Imperial Government over land dispossession and protection treaties. The end result was the infamous Genocide in 1904. The primary aphorism of the liberation movements, such as Swanu and Swapo was all about the land. The struggle was primarily about the illegal dispossession of the land and other concomitant natural rights. Today, the Property Clause is the thorn in the Namibian Constitution.

It is sad that in our hastiness for independence that our founding fathers of the Constitution did not thoroughly discuss the property rights clause inclusion as influenced mainly by western philosophy, as represented by their chief representatives, the Western Contact Group. African philosophy could have arrived at perhaps a different conclusion.

African philosophy in the context of property distribution was seen as inferior. In this instance, Swapo sold us out. The ANC was also so blind to carbon-copy our property clause in their constitution.

The rise of the Affirmative Repositioning in Namibia in November 2014, under the populist zeitgeisty Job Shipululo Amupanda lends credibility to this argument and also points to the failure to grasp the full meanings of equality and justice as a fairness principle, as advanced by John Rawls in The Theory of Justice (1971) and to a certain extent Robert Nietzsche in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). Inequitable distribution of resources can also lead to protracted conflicts. This happened in Niger Delta region in Nigeria in the early 1990s over tensions between foreign oil corporations and a number of the Niger Delta’s ethnic minorities.

The critical fact is that since in a state of nature there is no civil authority to which men can appeal to, complicated by the fact that the law of nature allows them to defend their own lives at all costs necessary, once war begins it is unlikely to stop. This is one of the reasons put forward by Locke that men have to abandon the state of nature and reach out to each other and form a civil government.

*Henny H. Seibeb is the co-editor of the book, “The Politics of Apologetics” published in 2010 in Windhoek.



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