Namibia's Gender Zebra

By Alexander O'Riordan · 3 Jul 2014

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Picture: Libertina Appolus Amathila, Namibia
Picture: Libertina Appolus Amathila, Namibia's deputy prime minister from 2005-2010 courtesy Joris Komen/flickr.

A quiet gender revolution the like of which has been unseen in Southern Africa and perhaps anywhere in the world, is now firmly underway in Namibia. The ruling party, SWAPO has not only committed to filling half of its seats in parliament with women but also committed to what they call a ‘Zebra system’ whereby if a Minister is a woman then the Deputy Minister will be a man and vice versa. Even more ambitiously, the implication is that the roles will be switched in successive elections. What this means is that Namibia’s likely appointing a man to the presidency in 2014 is being read by many decision makers as a SWAPO commitment to appoint a woman to the presidency in 2019.

The reason why this is a revolution and not just another election promise, is that SWAPO is already moving to operationalise this commitment to gender equity. SWAPO initially agreed in 2002 to pursue greater gender equality in calling for 50% of leadership positions in parliament, government and state owned enterprises to be occupied by women. At the most recent SWAPO conference, it was agreed that this policy will be operationalised in the November 2014 elections that SWAPO is almost assured of winning. Currently 25 members of parliament out of 72 are women meaning that if the policy is operationalised as many as 11 male members of parliament risk losing their seats, if 36 seats are to be filled by women. SWAPO’s response has been to expand parliament thus removing the fear of losing a seat as a major obstacle to implementing this new ‘Gender Zebra’ policy.

Last month, the Namibian government executive took the first steps towards expanding the number of seats in parliament’s national assembly from 72 members to 100.The issue was discussed in Cabinet on June 27th 2014 with the press reporting that a bill is now being prepared for circulation. The meeting was called at a high level, being chaired by Prime Minister Hage Geingob, indicating that SWAPO is serious about this. Already, SWAPO has sent a directive to regional executives on the election of parliamentary candidates. In the July 2014 electoral college vote, the directive calls for the zebra list to be applied. SWAPO’s future secretary general will be a man and his deputy a woman with the subsequent 20 positions alternating between men and women.

To be clear this is not entirely driven by a selfless commitment to gender equality. It has not escaped the attention of sceptics, that SWAPO, like the ANC, is dominated by those members that were activists in exile. Exiled activists tend to be older than those that remained in the country and thus the current political constellation is threatened in the near term future with leaders retiring and dying. With women living longer and spouses of the current political elite tending to be younger, the move to gender equality could be about maintaining the current political constellation.

Women leaders in Namibia tend to be associated with the ‘softer’ aspects of governance. While three of the five standing committees in parliament are chaired by women, ministers of strategic ministries like transport, agriculture and those related to managing the economy tend to be men. This sets up the popular perception that women members of parliament will not rock the boat, devoting their attention to ‘women issues’ like calling for better health and social services. This perception will be proven wrong. As women get more power they will be able to better compete for the strategic positions. Men compete for leadership of strategic ministries because of the political and economic incentives they embody. Women will compete too. After all, every woman who has challenged a man has done so despite assumptions to the contrary.

And herein lies the crux; Namibia’s pushing gender equality is less a sign of progress than a political leadership blinded by over twenty years of being a ruling party. Behind closed doors, as is the case in many Southern African countries, the leadership of SWAPO is treated with absolute respect. The real politics that shapes policy is non-confrontational and always a negotiation based on respect for the existing political elite. The push for gender equity has been slow and steady within the party focusing on manufacturing the perception that the women that are coming through the system want what men do too. This perception is manufactured for political expediency. Women do not want a continuation of the status quo. Women in Namibia, as is the case in most parts of Africa, are only too aware that government’s attention is increasingly focused on the needs and interests of a tight cabal of men that are focused on wealth creation and mass projects that fundamentally empower a selected few rather than the majority.

As is the case in South Africa, the current leadership is more interested in portraying Namibia as a successful, rich country than it is on improving equity and ensuring meaningful service delivery. Like in South Africa, a growing urban, black middle class masks endemic and entrenched rural poverty, widening inequality and structural impediments that are actually undermining social mobility. Like in South Africa, a rural education combined with a first world economy means that if your parents do not have the resources to augment a shoddy government education system, you, your children and children’s children will remain in poverty.

The Achilles’ heel of both South Africa’s and Namibia’s current political constellations is that the political system is increasingly seen to voice the interests of only a vested few and with that vested few rapidly greying it is only a matter of time before they retire or die. Youth and women are not part of the political equation. While the leadership is talking about being an international player, building a first world economy and blaming their failures on the legacy of colonialism or apartheid, youth and women are talking about violence against women, jobs, alcoholism, basic social services and basic access to food and water.

Equally, as in South Africa, a sister political party to Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters, the Namibian Economic Freedom Fighters (NEFF) has been established in the country. The NEFF is clearly positioning itself to embody an alternative narrative. As is the case with the ANC, SWAPO has failed to enfranchise its youth league thus strangling a much needed supply of up and coming male leaders to perpetuate the current system. While it is not assured, the current cadre is at threat by simple demographics. Should women and the youth join forces, and they very well may do so, there is a real opportunity to turn the current system on its head.

O'Riordan is an Aid Effectiveness and Donor Funding Researcher.

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David Helgren
4 Jul

Namibian Zebras

Our author misses a key point in that gender equity is traditional throughout Namibia. Among the San women have always had equal status and among the Herero female leadership is fundamental.

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