On 21 March 2017, we commemorated our 27th anniversary as an independent nation. The burning question we now face is, are we, to all intents and purposes, a nation yet? In our relatively short history as an independent nation, our country has never been as ethnically polarised as it is right now. It is a serious cause for concern. We need to take a break and start a conversation about some of these issues.
When I was studying in the former Yugoslavia in the 1980s, I asked a friend of mine from Burundi about the ethnic tensions between the Tutsis and Hutus in both Rwanda and Burundi – both countries have the same ethnic composition – which were simmering at that time. His response was: “No, we are one people and there are no problems at all!”
That was until the Rwanda genocide took place about twenty years ago or so, in which more than 800 000 people lost their lives. His response was a typical African response, because in many cases we want to close our eyes to ethnic problems, until things get out of hand.
In my article published in Volume 28/2011 of “The Thinker”, I argued, “…because of colonial boundaries, the typical African state is a constitutional and legal entity, but not necessarily a coherent socio-cultural entity; and therein lies its fluidity”.
Namibia is not an exception to this; and we need to remember that a constitutional framework and political declarations will not necessarily create national consciousness. I think since the dawn of independence in 1990, our approach to the Namibian collective identity has been mechanical and uncritical.
In other words, we tend to think that the attainment of Independence; the constitutional provisions and the territorial sovereignty of Namibia, will automatically translate into national unity and national consciousness, and that is totally wrong.
There is therefore an urgent need to give content to our common overarching national identity; and filling that content should be anchored on conscious and deliberate efforts.
We need to have the presence of mind to engage issues around our collective national identity in a calm, honest and sober manner. We need to ask hard questions like: what does it mean to be a Namibian; does belonging to an ethnic group and being proud of my ethnic roots necessarily contradict my national identity as a Namibian?
Apartheid has left deep scars on our collective psyche, which is a direct result of the whole complex situation of economic, socio-cultural and political domination visited upon us by Apartheid over many years.
It is important to remember that Apartheid did not only divide Black and White or Black and Coloured, but also Africans along ethnic lines. The ultimate result thereof was a serious identity crisis on the part of the oppressed, which manifested itself in different ways such as an inferiority complex, self-doubt, prejudice against other ethnic groups and ambivalence towards whites (i.e. a mixed feeling of fear and hatred).
In other words, a false social consciousness was ingrained in the minds of the oppressed. It is therefore logical that 27 years into our Independence, one of the greatest challenges we are still grappling with is the paradigm shift to truly identify ourselves as Namibians.
The struggle for Independence led by SWAPO and supported by many other progressive forces was a national project, which unified the people around one common goal – the attainment of national independence. The slogan One Namibia, One Nation was our lodestar that evoked a great sense of nationalism.
The common goal of achieving political independence has been achieved but it is imperative to appreciate the fact that “national consciousness” as a social phenomenon is shaped or influenced by time and space.
However, I want to underline the fact that ethnic identity can only be a problem if it is played out at the expense of other ethnic groups. The bottom-line is, my ethnic social space and ethnic cultural rights should end where the ethnic social space of another group starts. Most importantly, we need to bring our ethnic identity to the table to weave the Namibian cultural tapestry.
I think we need to look at the simple things in life that hold us together as a nation and use those as building blocks to build the “Namibian house” – to borrow from President Hage Geingob’s popular phrase. For example, Frank Fredricks in his heyday as a sprinter brought joy to all of us as a nation, regardless of ethnic or racial origin, so how can we capitalise or maximise on that to build national unity?
Our local boxer, Julius “Blue Machine” Indongo scored a historic first round knockout against his Russian opponent in the ring last year, and he again delivered a sterling performance recently when he outclassed his Scottish opponent in Glasgow – almost hands-down, as it were. The boy did that under the banner of our national flag!
We also need to find a way to nurture that township language that is widely spoken in many townships in Namibia e.g. Tsumeb, Grootfontein, Walvis Bay, and Windhoek. I refer to that language, for a lack of a better word, as Namibia’s fanagalo.
That language is wrongly referred to as Otjiherero but is in fact a mixture of Oshiwambo, Otjiherero, Afrikaans and even English. I think it is a very interesting language, which certainly needs further research to see how it can be categorised and utilised to build national unity.
Again, there is the issue of Afrikaans, which apart from being the first language of some Namibians, has also re-surfaced as a street language commonly employed by many black kids when they are socialising.
Are we being realistic by simply writing off Afrikaans as the “language of the oppressor” – a language which, for better or for worse, is part of our history?
I think we should find a way of “re-visiting” Afrikaans, especially street Afrikaans and see how we can harness it to build national unity. This whole debate about language and culture brings me to the story of my own daughter (a young woman in her thirties now), who was born in exile to a Kwanyama mother and an Omuherero father (yours truly).
She grew up between these two cultures and as a result, she is “struggling” to define her ethnic identity. She speaks both languages (Oshiwambo and Otjiherero) with an accent. I want to give my daughter the liberty to define herself.
I have been reliably informed that in countries like Uganda and Rwanda there are vibrant Government-supported initiatives to promote national unity, including programmes in the education curriculum that are aimed at instilling national consciousness in the minds of children at a very young age.
Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna is the Director in the Office of the Speaker of the National Assembly. However, the views expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of the National Assembly.