Narrowly read, this is a function assigned, by the constitution, to the President in terms of Article 32(3) (h) which accords him/her the power to … “confer such honours as the President considers appropriate on citizens, residents and friends of Namibia in consultation with interested and relevant persons and institutions”.
The recent issuance of new N$10 and N$20 banknotes, bearing the portrait of former President Sam Nujoma, has once again brought the matter to the fore. The question being raised again is who is a hero/heroine? Above all, what merits the awarding of the honour?
The choice of heroes/heroines and associated honours bestowed upon the selectees appears to be driven, almost exclusively, by partisan political considerations and for this reason we must perhaps welcome the “Conferment of National Honours Bill” which has recently sailed through both Houses of Parliament. The Bill now awaits the President’s signature before promulgation.
Given Article 32(3) (h) above, what will the proposed Act add to the entire process of sourcing and recognising individuals, within and outside our country, who are worthy of such honours? Though other categories of possible honourees are mentioned, if almost as an afterthought, the proposed Act is preoccupied with the status of veterans, the conferment of a State Funeral and interment at the National Heroes’ Acre. For this very purpose, a government committee will be created as per this Act to assist the President to “vet” the nominations being considered for national honours.
In essence then, the Act is about the cemetery at the southern perimeter of the capital city where largely Swapo grandees find their last resting place. Some by choice, others by oversight, are not interned at this facility.
A letter to The Namibian last week admonishes the authorities for their lack of care for Nathanael Maxuilili’s last resting place, which is about to be consumed by the Namib Desert. But since the President, through the fiat of this Act, can confer this honour of a site in the Windhoek cemetery posthumously it should be possible to right this wrong.
The “benefits” for latecomers, such as our country, is that we are not working on a tabula rasa and can, therefore, navigate around the pitfalls and benefit from the rich history others have bequeathed us. So unlike the parochial undercurrents of this proposed Act and the selection of honourees with similar backgrounds thus far, we need to throw the net wider to recognise many Namibians and friends who have batted for our country with honour in a multiplicity of human endeavours. Why not accord a national honour to Namibians who have proudly trekked treacherous weather and hoisted the Namibian flag at the South Pole, for example. Why turn a blind eye to Namibians who have developed or invented products or processes for which they are recognised beyond our shores? Have the selectors heard of the pioneering work in malaria, which is going on at the University of Namibia?
Or are the selectors engrossed in their misplaced self-importance to care? We are not petitioning for these worthy Namibians to be interned at this select cemetery nor do many of these pioneering Namibians have any aspirations to that end. But a normal society honours its pioneers, which recognition then serves as a motivation for others to scale even higher mountains in the name of Namibia.
Closely related is the whole question of repeated honours – to the exclusion of others – to a select group of Namibians. This has not gone unnoticed and serves as seeds of discontent, which soil such an honourable act which must be free of any sectarianism or self adulation.
Perhaps it was always clear that these acts of self adulation were inherent in the very decision to erect a national Heroes Acre. The point is, who and how many heroes were you going to intern at this place given simply its size? The same principle and consideration applies to naming of public places and spaces. We must create a Namibia which is able to recognise itself and able to live with itself at peace. It is perhaps for this reason that the very constitution of the envisaged committee populated by bureaucrats is so unfortunate. We have seen too often, in recent history, the tearing down of national monuments and statuettes all around the world. But such is the price of cult and sectarian narration of a nation’s history.
So as a committee is soon to come in place as a result of the Conferment of National Honours Act, we can look forward to and will scrutinise its actions which will honour the Churchills, Shakespeares, Kate Winslets and Kate Mosses of our nation.
That is to say that our future honours lists need to include a full spectrum of men and women of politics, of letters and literature, of arts and music, of science, etc. So our honours lists will, we hope, begin to recognise the extraordinary deeds and contributions of many ordinary Namibians which make our country what it is. And it is for this reason that the preoccupation of the Conferment of National Honours Act on veterans and the National Heroes Acre is unfortunate.
Perhaps on his recent trip to London our President may have asked the Queen to slip him a copy of their honours guidelines.