National Council chairperson Margaret Mensah-Williams walks Toivo Ndjebela through her journey from the dusty streets of Aimablaagte in Mariental, to becoming the first female Namibian to lead a parliamentary house.
Toivo Ndjebela (TN): In your own words, who is Margaret Mensah-Williams?
Margaret Mensah-Williams (MMW): I’m from a dusty town that I’m proud of – Mariental. I was born and bred there. My parents are from //Kharas Region – my father from Lüderitz and my mother from Karasburg. My father was teaching at a Catholic school in Mariental. I first lived in Aimablaagte, but my father later got a house in a coloured neighbourhood, even if he was black. That’s because he was a teacher. We grew up in a two-bedroom house, although we were ten children. So I’m just an ordinary girl, coming from an ordinary family. We were raised to love, respect and have principles.
TN: So how did an ordinary girl, from an ordinary family and ordinary town make it to the pinnacles of politics, including becoming chairperson of the National Council?
MMW: I grew up as a scout in the Catholic Church. In there we were taught about leadership. We were also taught leadership at home. This moulded me. As I grew up, I saw so many things that awakened me – such as the segregation. So I learned to stand up for myself. My mother started working as a domestic worker from the age of 13. She taught us how to work hard because she baked vetkoek, doughnuts and so forth. Politically, I was shaped by people like Hendrick Witbooi who was a close friend of my father. When I went to Keetmanshoop for high school, we met a lot of young black teachers, many of them from the University of the Western Cape. They taught us about our rights. There was a German teacher, a certain Schlechter, who taught us with a gun in his hand, and we were opposed to that. My political life started around that time. I went to South Africa for studies and women activists there taught us how to demand what belongs to us in terms of rights. When I came back, many Namibian women had become activists. People like Lindy Kazombaue, Rosa Namises, Nelao Kondombolo, Othilie Abrahams, late Jacky Basson and Dr Absai Shajavali and many more. These are people who taught us how to fight for justice and speak for the voiceless. We did not always agree politically but in terms of issues we spoke in unison. I also belonged to civil society organisations with Uhuru Dempers, Ronny Dempers, Petronella Masabane, Ivan Lombard and many others. I was in fact supposed to go into exile with Charmain Hammond, a friend of mine, but she left me behind and left a note that I was too young to join. When people came from exile – I remember Erica Rhamakhutla, Michaela Huebschle, Loide Shinavene, Ellen Misialela, Meme Pendukeni (Iivula-Ithana) and Meme Netumbo (Nandi-Ndaitwah) – and we met because I was already a member of the Swapo Party Women Council central committee. These people helped groom me. I joined Swapo because of my beliefs.
TN: You are perpetually rumoured to have been a DTA member. Is there truth in this?
MMW: The first time I became a regional councillor, Henk Mudge, the son of Dirk Mudge who was in charge of the DTA, didn’t know me. Not that it matters, but I challenge whoever says that to prove their claims. The problem we have is entitlement. People think if you have my skin colour, you are automatically DTA, if you are Herero you are automatically NUDO and if you are Wambo you are automatically Swapo. By the way, in Swapo you cannot assume a leadership until you’ve been in the party for at least ten years. My card was signed by Moses Garoeb and Asser Kapere when I was 18, working at Rössing in Arandis. I met Bernhardt Esau, Alpheus !Naruseb and many others that time. I won’t lose sleep because of those allegations.
TN: Tribalism is rife in Namibia right now. As a national leader, what has been your observation in regard to where this is coming from?
MMW: One thing is entitlement. Another one is hunger for power. People run to their tribesmen and women to get the support for positions they are vying for. I saw it in the last election when people were saying ‘let’s vote for someone who speaks our language’. There is no single tribe that is the best or the worst. In each tribe there are good individuals and bad individuals. I’ve been councillor for a long time and I can assure you that the majority of people who voted for me are not from my tribe. We can’t say now it’s time for this or that tribe to rule. I can’t tell myself that I’m better than everyone else. If we want to be tribalists, let’s leave national institutions and go practise our evils in our little corners. Let’s not tribalise institutions.
TN: What have been your key achievements over the years as councillor of Khomasdal Constituency?
MMW: I built a community and have moulded people into leaders who can take charge. We have five secondary schools, four primary schools and about 15 pre-primary schools. We have a new clinic in Otjomuise so people don’t have to go to the Khomasdal clinic. We have a mobile police station and a new police station that is nearly done. We developed informal settlements in the constituency. Importantly, I’ve built leadership. When I’m at parliament, people in my constituency stand in for me. We are a team and developed the constituency together. What impresses me most was when our constituency office was being built. I insisted that it must have a public library, a computer room where children can do research, a community hall for not only meetings but where children can also sit and study – especially those from noisy neighbourhoods. I don’t do anything as Margaret, I always involve the people. The food bank initiative, for example, is manned by a coordinator while elsewhere councillors are in charge of it. I do quarterly community meetings, meaning we do four per year. We also do fun days where we help bond our people and get them to respect each other’s cultures. We now also have the state-of-the-art Mao Zedong High School in the constituency and a new fire station that has helped reduce shack fires. We have registered vulnerable people and those living with HIV whom we are helping. We are battling with the expansion of the population in the constituency, but we are coping.
TN: Under your chairpersonship, the National Council has rejected bills such as the citizenship one last year and, this week, the PPP Bill. This is quite contrary to popular belief that the National Council can’t stand up to the National Assembly…
MMW: I would not say we stand up to them. We are elected to represent our constituencies and we stand up for our people in order to carry out the mandate they have given to us. As a leader of this institution I always remind my colleagues that we have a social contract with the people who put a cross next to our photos on the ballot paper. They keep us accountable to them, that’s why we consult them. I’m lucky to have been vice-chairperson of this house and built certain competencies over the years. We had a very robust induction for all our members, where we also impressed upon them to read anything that comes to us with great understanding. We also have to investigate. I told them the people shall govern. We had previously rejected two constitutional amendments. We are not just rejecting bills at will. Regarding the PPP Bill, we rejected it because we had credible reasons. I was presiding, so I wasn’t involved in its rejection. It’s the members who engaged actively and gave their final thoughts.
TN: What opportunity does the 2017 Swapo elective congress present to women – in the greater scheme of things?
MMW: The constitution of Swapo will prevail. Women will get equal opportunity and I don’t foresee a clash between men and women, but rather between individuals. In Swapo, there is a culture – not a law – that the president serves two terms [as head of state]. And Tate Sam [Nujoma] set a good precedent when he stepped aside as party president so that the head of state also remains the head of the party. The vice-president’s position became vacant democratically. We have not yet had our first central committee meeting yet, but women and men will have equal opportunities. I don’t know what will happen, but I know that Swapo doesn’t easily break its cultures. But it’s democracy, people have rights to stand.
TN: Your name has been thrown around as a potential vice-presidency candidate, if the president’s position remains occupied by a man. Is it something you are thinking about?
MMW: I am not interested right now, maybe in the future. I’m true to the culture of Swapo. Sometimes you should have patience, learn and build experience. It makes you a better leader. We must also learn to take each step of the stairs. I cannot want to jump from branch chairperson’s position to a position in the politburo. You must not just be wanted by the people. You as an individual must also be convinced about your competencies to deliver what is required. We are servants of the people. The party is always the bigger picture.
TN: How is the legislature, and particularly the National Council, helping the government with the thorny issue of skewed land distribution in the country?
MMW: Since I became a member of the National Council land has been a thorny issue. In the party [Swapo] land gets discussed robustly. But what is good is the commitment of the President [Hage Geingob] towards the issue of land. There is a Land Bill being worked on and the President ordered the minister to put it on hold. He also rendered an ear to AR and other groups fighting for land. We have amended the Act regulating last in the past, so the will is there. The problem is that people have always found loopholes around whatever new amendments we have made to the law. Let’s wait for the land conference and incorporate the ideas of everyone so that we come up with solid solutions.
TN: Finally, Swapo occupies 40 of the National Council’s 42 seats. How has this dominance affected the quality of debate in the house?
MMW: I don’t feel that the dominance of the ruling party has had any negative effects on our debates. We are cognisant of the fact that our constituencies are not only comprised of Swapo members. Swapo has never misused its dominance. As a collective, we have already made history as the National Council when we drafted our first ever bill – the Constituency Development Bill. We are waiting for the minister of urban and rural development to take it to the Cabinet committee before it goes to the National Assembly, return here [National Council] and go to the President before it’s gazetted.