Is tribalism an issue in Namibia? (Part 1)


There have been some discussions, helpful and not so helpful, about what is considered tribalism in Namibia twenty-six years after independence. Like in all societies, Namibia has its fair share of building a nation out of different segments of communities and societies that (a) existed as autonomous entities with their own patterns of authority and rulership, evolving like that over time and generations; (b) never perceived or considered themselves as sub-sets of a bigger whole; (c) arguably have not been part of the Namibian nation had it not been for the colonial adventurism of Europe that forced communities together and split up others as part of the new logic of arbitrarily drawn colonial borders. In the absence of suitable terms to describe these hitherto autonomous communities, the colonial administrations invented terms such as tribe, ethnic groups and the like. At times these descriptions happened after the people were lumped together and for purposes of divide et impera (divide and rule).

In most Afrikan languages the term tribe does not translate to mean the same as tribe, stam or Stamm. When people refer to themselves in historical contexts they call themselves communities or nations, and their traditional leaders are referred to as kings or noble rulers – not chiefs. In all the Kavango languages, the term used for what is called chiefs in English is Hompa or Fumu, in Otjiherero Ombara, in Oshiwambo languages Omukwanirwa or Ohamba, in Setswana Kgosi, in Silozi Litunga. The Namas as one of the founder communities in Namibia equally had their traditional order with a supreme ruler called Gaob.

These terms mean king or supreme ruler in the same manner reference is made to God, therefore denoting the supremacy and finality of their authority and as courts of final appeal in their jurisdictions. The Basters had evolved out of very difficult circumstances and constituted their own traditional authority in the Gebiet with a supreme leader, the Kaptein. It would appear that in the evolution of communities with their authorities and command structures, it was the Damara and the various segments of the San (!Kung) people who did not have a history of structured traditional hierarchies of power as it was the case with communities of the Caprivians, VaKavango, Aawambo. Ovaherero, Namas, Batswana and Basters. The point is that communities that had traditional authorities were not tribes, but very proud nations with distinct traditions and conceptualizations of the relationships between the ruler and the ruled on the one hand, and between the people under the ruler and their God on the other.

The term tribe occurs for the first time in our human civilization in the Old Testament when the twelve sons of Jacob, who was renamed Israel, were assigned the nomenclature of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They all acquired lands over which they were to reign as independent nations according to the dictums of the God of Israel. When the Bible used the term tribe to describe these emerging kingdoms of Israel as the whole, the understanding was not to develop them in order to be ruled by some superior structure from elsewhere. The twelve kingdoms were the fulfilment of the prophecy of the autonomy over the affairs of the people of God, but with accountability to the God of Abraham.

The importance of beginning with these definitions lies in situating the conversation correctly so that we begin to understand that what we are quarrelling about is perhaps not tribalism, but something different altogether. What we call today tribes were not tribes but nations and would not have been where they are today had it not been for the history and experience of colonialism. The first problem with managing these nations (now tribes) within artificially crafted borderlines of identities is that the state in Afrika never managed to adapt the business of the state to the realities on the ground. The Afrikan elite inherited the colonial state and embraced it as the vehicle to deliver Afrikans to the Promised Land. The new Afrikan elite borrowed the unhelpful words and terms and vocabulary of talking about themselves as if they descended from heaven and are now here to fix the rest – just like the colonialists were intent on doing. It is in this context that we find leaders who are either ashamed of or apologetic about their identity as members of historical communities who have been given tribal labels by other people and not themselves.

There is no society without enclaves of identities that are disparate from one another. Old states such as the United Kingdom have serious issues with English-Irish relations that would not be obvious to most people, but they know the differences. Germany has segments that are often described as communities based upon tribe or linguistic dialect, but they perceive themselves as different, and at times were antagonistic towards one another. Throughout old Europe, this phenomenon was part of the challenge of nation-building. In more enlightened nations of today, tribal or ethnic cleavages exist that must be managed with care, caution and consideration, and from time to time these differences flare up in the form of the hubris of ethnic cleansing, historical intolerance, social marginalization and economic exclusion. What we are beginning to talk about in Namibia is whether after political independence the nation has grappled sufficiently with building a nation from the different peoples that existed and who would not have been together if it were not for colonialism, and how to manage these communities when they from time to time express displeasure with the manner in which they perceive being treated as a group in the totality of the nation.

Now if we accept that these are not tribes but something else, then why do we call behaviour from individuals or from the collective that exists tribal? To all intents and purposes, what we call tribalism is perhaps more something of the following: (a) people feeling inclined to be with and around members of the bigger whole, who sound the same, share jokes and anecdotes, fears and even share the same expressions and a greater proximity of childhood stories and dreams. Birds of the same feather flock together and it is not ‘bird tribalism’. ‘Gleich und gleich gesellt sich gern’ sagt man im Deutschen. One has just to observe how Namibians meet outside the country, or people from the Afrikan continent run into one another in China – there is great affinity that can even surpass real historical relationships.

(b) When we are not mindful, we are all inclined to help the ones we know, as we expect them to help us first. The English language has it as an old age idiom that ‘charity begins at home’. In the Afrikan context where home as in a village is more important than the national territory, people are mindful of where they will be buried and who will be there when we are on our own, without titles and state accoutrements. The identifications happen by names, places of birth, church membership, totems where necessary or even by where people went to school. (c) In the political and socio-economic environment, where institutions and systems are very weak and people feel increasingly insecure, they are naturally prone to employing or getting closer those whom they trust the most, because they understand every word they speak, they can share secrets and can gossip together about other people when their English runs out.

It is important to note that political party membership never cuts through these layers, especially when it comes to matters of morality and ethics. This is so because (a) political party membership is the voluntary choice of an individual, whereas these other alliances are imposed upon us as people at birth, and we always return there when we are most vulnerable; (b) political party membership can be terminated at will but community membership is an identity that sticks like our fingerprints, and is therefore part of our DNA wherein our history is encoded for as long as we live; (c) in as much as we purposefully chose English as the only official language, most Namibians can tell from the way we speak English whether we are white, black, and even a Herero, Damara, Ndonga, Kwanyama or a Rehoboth Baster, for there is a shadow that follows us and reveals who we are – wherever we are.

We must acknowledge that, considering how far we have come against our divided history, we can boast to have done pretty well. Therefore we need to be careful when we accuse others of being tribalistic. There are a few immediate problems with our understanding of tribalism in Namibia. First, we have not tackled the ignorance that precedes tribalism or racism. People naturally fear the unknown in order to self-preserve. Second, we often assign motives to people when what they are doing is not motivated by politics. Not everything that others do is against us or against the powers that be. Third, not all of us are ashamed to be members of the communities from which we come and which helped shape our understanding of life and the world wherein we live. Fourth, tribalism means different things to different people at different times and indeed for different reasons and purposes. For instance, when in 2014 Chief Justus Garoeb opted out of the presidential race and urged UDF membership to vote for a fellow Damara, SWAPO candidate Hage Geingob, candidate Geingob did not denounce Garoeb as a tribalist because at that time it was ‘helpful tribalism’.

Fifth, the term tribalism has a strong racial connotation with an anthropological element of backwardness attached to it, while blaming black people for a term they never created. For instance, only black people are members of tribes, even though in the make-up of Namibia as a nation of 13 distinct groups white Namibians must be counted as a tribe. White people cannot be tribalistic but racist, whereas black people cannot be racist but tribalistic. The outcome is the same, namely arrogance and machismo that culminate in a superiority complex and the exclusion of others who internalize an inferiority complex –leading to inevitable conflict. Sixth, the notion and/or process of national reconciliation was not thought through in the context of Namibia’s history. These entities were autonomous and therefore reconciliation was not the appropriate word. That is why the political leadership got stuck when it came to reconciliation beyond black-white configurations.

Like most isms, the trouble is not what they represent, but how those in power exercise their power to either punish or reward other people along the lines that designate diversity. They usually use power in ways that cause experiences or perceptions that people are being treated this way or that way because they belong or do not belong to this or that historical community. Almost always, those in power cannot understand the cries of those who feel marginalised or excluded. (To be continued)


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