In some societies pluralism (read diversity) is regarded as boon yet in others seen as a bane. The question is how do different societies address and balance cultural, religious, epistemological and political diversity? In some societies diversity is seen as creative but in others it is perceived to be a curse.
In what terms do we see our diversity? Yes, we fought for one Namibia. But are we moulding a society built on the pillars of diversity? This is a question that many people are now increasingly asking 23 years into our independence. Some people feel they are being left out or marginalised altogether. Broadly, the issue is whether heterogeneous societies are prone to divisions and thus to economic and political failure as opposed to more homogeneous ones?
The point, however, is that most societies that are torn apart in Africa are characterised by at least two main factors: ethnic conflict and class struggle. In Namibia there are, in addition, divisions based on regionalism and the problematic division based on who stayed behind and who went into exile during the struggle years – giving us a ‘special’ group of ‘war veterans’ and ‘struggle kids’.
Would it be appropriate to liken our society to the Biblical Tower of Babel story? We seem to be speaking in different tongues and thus unable to understand one another and are therefore unable to reach a consensus on many of the major issues that confront Namibia today. And without a sense of common vision and purpose, we can’t do much on the development front.
A good part of our time and energy is thus wasted arguing over conflicting priorities, some actually misplaced. Our country seems more divided now than it was at independence because the glue of nationalism is no longer binding. With time, our society has been evolving into a socio-political direction where tribe, race and class, regionalism and partisan politics are now the defining factors of our society. One might argue that we found these at the dawn of independence and that might be true. But did we do enough to soften the edges of class struggle or to harmonise racial, ethnic and tribal animosity, the policy of national reconciliation notwithstanding?
The unfortunate thing is that public policy decisions taken with tribe, race or even class in mind, tend to be irrational most of the time. If the apartheid system had made some rational decisions at that time, a good part of Namibia would be developed by now, not just a few pockets in urban areas. But unfortunately this was a system based on the advancement of the welfare of one race. Put this in our contemporary context: We all know that the Caprivi and Okavango regions offer some of the best agricultural land rainfall in Namibia for crop production and could become the bread-baskets of the country, yet these regions are given scant attention today in terms of government agricultural policies safe for the sporadic ‘green schemes’ in the Okavango Region. So the government would rather pursue bad policies - because we design our public policies through an ethnic lens - even though the majority of Namibians would benefit from increased agricultural production in those regions.
Again, I always meet people who complain that they didn’t get that job or a scholarship because of their ethnic origin. This could be real or just a perception. But we have seen such cases in practice – the Chinese scholarships saga comes to mind. So, it boils down to the same problem. In a setting in which decisions are taken in a racial, tribal or class context, those allocating the scholarships or deciding on who to appoint to a specific job don’t worry about the best possible outcomes. The benefit to the broader society doesn’t matter in such a case.
There is thus an inverse relation between ethnic and class inequality and economic growth. When a large part of your population is reduced to pauperism, then there is no time for this section of the population to engage in other productive endeavors beneficial to the larger society other than foraging for food on a daily basis – sometimes at dumpsites.
Thus class and ethnic inequalities then, is a sure recipe for continuing underdevelopment. But ethnic and class diversity need not necessarily lead to conflict and warfare. But this depends on how those differences have been negotiated politically, socially and economically. And it also depends on the quality of democracy and its institutions and leadership. Theoretically, we are a plural society which is polarised in practice.
*In last week’s column the word NOT was omitted and left the sentence suggesting this writer felt the Attorney General and Presidential Affairs Minister, Albert Kawana, was independent of his party interests. The writer meant Kawana’s dual roles are not ideal.