President Hage Geingob tomorrow marks two years in office. On the eve of the big day, to be celebrated in Rundu this year, he spoke to New Era Publication Corporation’s managing editor Toivo Ndjebela about the Namibian liberation struggle journey, which he walked from the very first step, and how the nation has progressed over the past 27 years.
TN: Mr President, thank you for the rare opportunity to interview you. To start with, what inspired you to join politics?
HG: It started in the late 1950s at Augustineum. At the time there was a lot of talk about a black man in charge of an African country [Kwame Nkurumah in Ghana]. It was exciting. It wasn’t a sophisticated debate at the time, but it was still inspiring. Augustineum was meant to segregate us, but actually united us. We started talking politics. We had student protests there, first about the quality of food. After Augustineum, I became a teacher at Tsumeb – which is my home town. Swapo was active there. Every Friday night we met at Tate Levi Mwashekele’s house. I met people like Vinea Ndadi, Kanana Hishoono, the late Kalenga and others.
TN: You eventually went into exile. How did that come about and how, in terms of routes and challenges, did you leave the country?
HG: It happened in 1962 when for the first time the United Nations was allowed into Namibia, then South West Africa, to come and assess the conditions in the country. The UN was given a list of puppets who they’d engage. We wanted the UN to meet authentic representatives of our country, not the puppets. We insisted to go see the UN representatives, but the police commissioner at the time said if we had anything for the UN people, we must give it to them (police) so that they delivered it on our behalf. We had a letter that we wanted to give to the UN and therein we wrote the list of who they must see, the authentic people, not the puppets. A few days later, Kalenga and I were rounded up and taken to the police station where the notorious officer, Mr Amapindi, was awaiting us. We were asked why we went to see the UN people and we told him we wanted to give the list of authentic people who they must speak to. ‘We’re going to get you,’ he warned us before letting us go. We were not deterred. We made it clear that this [colonial] regime is a nuisance and we cannot tolerate it. The UN offered scholarships because South Africa was saying blacks are not educated and therefore cannot rule the country. The UN actually passed a resolution in 1960 to provide comprehensive scholarships. In 1962 there was a letter signed by [Mburumba] Kerina and [Fanuel] Kozonguizi. Kerina used to be our chairman in Swapo, so he signed on behalf of Swapo about unity which must be forged between Swapo and Swanu. They later appeared in The Contact, a South African newspaper. I formally became a Swapo member in 1962 – that’s when I got my membership card. It was in 1962 that I first met President [Hifikepunye] Pohamba. I also met Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo around the same time. He spoke good English that even white people couldn’t comprehend. It was unbelievable at the time. Later, we, together with our Swanu colleagues, decided to escape the country. Swanu gave us a lift from Tsumeb to Windhoek and Swapo was to provide transport from Windhoek to the border with Botswana. We crossed into Botswana in the dead of night and met Daniel Munamava there, a Swanu representative. I then went to Francistown where I stayed for a long time waiting to proceed with the journey. The rest, as they say, is history.
TN: Listening to your story about how young people – from different tribes – worked together back then to confront the common enemy, how do you compare the level of tribalism in the country then, to today?
HG: Even the farms where we lived, the location and the schools we attended, we had a good mix. I long for those days. We even spoke each other’s languages and gave our children names from other tribes. We only had a Swapo tribe. It’s shocking how you, young people, have become drivers of tribalism. The old-timers were never like that.
TN: What were some of the key positions you held in Swapo during the liberation struggle?
HG: Well, I was a full-time student. I arrived in the US on 3 March 1964. President Sam Nujoma knew of me, though we didn’t meet then. So he came around to Philadelphia where I lived and we met. He appointed me as the chief representative with comrades Theo-Ben Gurirab and Hidipo Hamutenya as my deputies. We represented Swapo at the U.N. I worked my lungs out to ensure Swapo is known. In New York, I would be wandering around the UN headquarters and get ignored but I never gave up. Terrible days. Hidipo, may his soul rest in peace, always liked saying I was responsible for getting Swapo recognised internationally. I then became part of the Swapo executive committee (currently called politburo). I was then appointed director of the United Nations Institute for Namibia in Lusaka, Zambia. There was hardly anything so I had to set up structures. It became a prominent institution that produced the likes of [Judge President Petrus] Damaseb and [Justice Minister Albert] Kawana. Those were good achievements. I was also tasked to represent Swapo on economic affairs with Comrade Ben Amathila. At the same time negotiations started and we wanted white people to be part of the negotiations so that we could clear the fear of the unknown that they had about us. Hidipo, Gurirab and I had to engage them and show them that we are not what they thought we were. We told them that we wanted to build a country in which all its citizens contribute to its development. When negotiations started the people involved were Hidipo, Gurirab, Tjiriange and Nyamu – I was initially not part of it. They called us ‘Omutondi’ (enemy) at the time because they were under the impression it meant ‘revolutionary’ [laughs]. Comrade Hidipo and I were sent to Sweden to meet a group of white people from home, the likes of Anton von Wietersheim. We were then sent to meet the Cubans. I was in the leadership tasked to lead exiled Namibians home [during the transition period] and we came back in style. There was no assurance that we’d come back alive. I brought a lot of people back, except President Nujoma, Ya Toivo, Garoëb and the old man [David] Meroro. When we entered Namibian airspace, we had to – for security reasons – come through Walvis Bay. It was mesmerising seeing the country from above – the desert, sea and moutains.
TN: How was it like leaving your friends, family and your town to go into exile where you’d face hunger, rejection and all difficulties associated with being on foreign soil fighting for independence?
HG: Once you come to Swapo church, you get indoctrinated. In my case I met [Peter] Nanyemba who was good at that. Maxton [Mutongolume] and [Peter] Mweshihange were others in this regard. Sam Nujoma was a true leader. When situations were bad he would tell us ‘the next [Swapo] meeting will take place on the outskirts of Windhoek. Really, we are going home.’ He’d been telling us that for over ten years [laughing]. He was a very inspirational man. But we were inspired by many things. The Black Power movement in the USA was among those. While we were there we met people like Malcolm X who brought the names of myself, Hidipo and others when he came to Cairo.
African and world solidarity was also inspiring. White people in Scandinavian countries were also very encouraging, that’s why I call upon white Namibians to be like those from Scandinavia. I don’t like the fact that they [local whites] are opposed to NEEEF.
TN: There is this recurring debate of whether our independence was brought about by the barrel of the gun or diplomacy. What would be your response to this?
HG: They supplemented and complemented each other. They can be applied concurrently. There had to be a diplomatic side of the struggle, especially when engaging the UN at the time. People who fought from inside didn’t use guns. The armed struggle was key in convincing the world that if no diplomatic solution was found, we’d continue to fight the actual war. It was an important statement. We started with petitioning the League of Nations. In Dar es Salaam, Nanyemba issued a statement in which he said, ‘We are our own liberators. We didn’t expect the United Nations petitions to free us. We’ll cross many rivers of blood until we reach our independence.’ Later, on August 26, 1966, we launched our armed liberation struggle. If people refuse negotiations, the next natural process is war. Discipline was key, that’s why you never hear that Namibian leaders were out there misbehaving. So both diplomacy and the armed struggle played an equal role.
TN: Swapo inherited a bad country on March 21, 1990. What were the party’s key priorities at independence?
HG: We were racially and tribally divided. At the Geneva talks at the time, President Nujoma said he was leading a delegation of Namibians, while the DTA had people divided along – and called by – tribal identities. The first priority was therefore to unite our people. Namibia was rich while people were poor – which is still the case today, but far better. Nujoma, just like Comrade [Robert] Mugabe, was a revolutionary but also a transformational leader. Reconciliation and forgiving white people is often credited to Comrade [Nelson] Mandela, but presidents Mugabe and Nujoma were the first to do that before President Mandela was freed. These days people are talking about the economy, but we’ve excelled at that. The GDP at independence was about N$5 billion. Today it’s at about N$160 billion. That’s 30 times more than it was at independence. We did a lot of things. It’s easier for you guys [media] to criticise us, but we have achieved a lot. We have a constitution respected by the entire world. Then we have education, which is the greatest liberator and equaliser. First we wanted to improve access where all people of school-going age had to be put in school. The second part was quality and equality in education. We established new towns. There was no Outapi, Eenhana or Omuthiya… Swakopmund and Windhoek were small towns, but look at them today. But that’s not the answer. People still live in ghettos and it’s something we are tackling. When people are hopeless they suffer in silence. When they are making a lot of noise, it’s because there is hope. They see things coming and want everything expedited. So when we see that kind of noise, we are encouraged and convinced we are doing something right.
TN: Tuesday, 21 March, marks your two years in office as president. How, in your own assessment is your declared war against poverty going?
HG: First, we started a narrative. The narrative about war against poverty, poverty eradication, Harambee and so forth. We are saying no one must feel left out, One Namibia One Nation, the proverbial Namibian House where we don’t see blacks and whites, Damaras, Owambos or Hereros. I was told a story recently, a funny story about a guy whose girlfriend left him and he said ‘the President said no Namibian should feel left out…’ [laughing]. The narrative has captured the nation’s imagination. In terms of infrastructure, more roads have been built in this country, including the new one I opened on Thursday last week at Okondjatu. We have done more in terms of social safety nets, and have spent so much money on educating our young people. We have spent a lot of money on the education of our young people. Yes, we have a bloated civil service. We are not denying that. When we took over at independence, whites dominated key positions in the civil service, while blacks did the sweeping of buildings, unless they were puppets. We are careful not to downsize the civil service and therefore contribute to unemployment. We need to rightsize, not downsize. We are not saying we did everything satisfactorily, but a lot has been done. We have maintained peace, which is important but is often undermined. Look at Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places where peace doesn’t exist. It’s easy to destroy but very difficult to build. We are aware of the land issue but as I always say, Swapo fought to free each part of this country. So you can’t accuse us today of not wanting people to have land.
TN: Do you ever, at some stage, consider yourself to be very unliked because of your presidency whose performance is impacted upon by external economic forces and natural phenomena like drought?
HG: To the contrary, no. I tell my colleagues that we now have an opportunity to prove ourselves. What are leaders for? Great leaders must emerge from events like this. But I was warned by a leader in West Africa that I must be careful that if I declare war against corruption, I’d have people coming back at me. Tenders, like the N$7 billion airport one, are just done without people following procedures. We can’t allow that. Look at the storage [at the coast]. Too many things where people are being reckless. We are not targeting anyone. We want blacks to come into the mainstream economy, but they must not take shortcuts. People must follow procedures. The airport tender was first at N$3 billion but suddenly we were told it’s at N$7 billion. And I must just watch on idly? No. I’m only in my second year by Tuesday, I still have three years to go. You can’t say I failed already when I still have three years to go. It’s laughable.
TN: You’ve been aggressive in your approach to economic diplomacy. What’s your goal around this?
HG: Gone are the days of cold war. We haven’t really spoken about developing the people. Our focus as countries has been on repaying countries that helped us attain our independence. We are bringing in skills to negotiate with other nations to help develop our economies. Our ambassadors must be economic diplomats, not political diplomats. They must talk about trade figures, our infrastructures and facilities. In China, when I asked if they were suddenly becoming capitalists, they said ‘yes we are, but everyone who comes here would do business under our terms’. This is exactly what we are going to do here. People must play by our rules.
TN: Is government broke as is often inferred, Mr President?
HG: I can assure Namibians that we believe in transparency. We’ll not hide anything. We realised we have economic headwinds. Oil prices going down in Angola, SACU revenues going down and foreign reserves being affected by huge international contractors who get paid in foreign currency. All countries that depend on commodities went through the same problem as ourselves. We took a painful exercise to carefully cut expenditure. We are already projecting that the deficit would go down by three percent. Growth would be at 2.5 percent, the highest in the region. With good rains that have come, the prospects really look good. We’ll take fair criticism. Your freedom, which I fought for, ends where mine starts. We are not against criticism, but we’ll defend ourselves and our families. There are elections every five years. When you are not happy with our work, you can democratically remove us. We are humble servants of the people. There are unwarranted attacks on us by failed politicians, people whose movements are not issue-based but anchored on attacks against personalities.