On 25 July 2018, Samuel Shali Nghihepa, a sergeant in the Namibian Police Special Reserve Force Division, murdered his ex-girlfriend, Alina Kahehongo, in full view of her colleagues at a local supermarket in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, before turning the gun on himself.

This is one of many cases of so-called “passion killings” which have rocked the nation in the past few years. Dozens of such cases occur every year, in which women (primarily) are murdered by their lovers. This appalling incident has once again left many Namibians asking “why?”, and has brought the Namibian police force under greater scrutiny.

Earlier this month, a 20-year-old man murdered five members of his family. In both instances the police had received tip-offs, but took no action.

One local radio DJ attributed this epidemic of brutal murders to some sort of mental illness. But perhaps it is Namibia’s social fabric that should be challenged; Namibia is often portrayed to the outside world as a success story, in large part due to its impressive stability compared to other countries in the region.

But even aside from these violent killings, Namibia still faces some extreme challenges, many of which are a legacy of an especially violent 20th century.

The first genocide of the 20th century

With the Black Lives Matter movement trending in the 21st century, one could argue that this was long overdue given the atrocities suffered by Africans at the height of colonial rule.

Between 1904 and 1908 German soldiers committed the first genocide of the 20th century. Led by General Lothar von Trotha, the German forces set out to annihilate the Ovahereros and Namas in southwestern Africa in a brutal war which involved poisoning water sources and the mass confiscation of property. The order given by the general in October 1904 belied his intention:

“Within German borders, every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at.”

Herero genocide 1904 to 1908
General Lothar von Trotha (centre, standing), Oberbefehlshaber (Supreme Commander) of the protection force in German South West Africa, Keetmanshoop, 1904. Photo credit: Bundesarchiv Bild/Wikipedia Commons.

Until August 2004, the German government had not officially apologised for these atrocities. Suffice it to say that the statement of apology made by the German Minister for Development and Economic Cooperation avoided directly using the term ‘genocide’, conceding that at the time the word might have been appropriate, and referring instead to annihilation. To date, there has not been any agreement on the form of compensation to be provided by Germany to the victims’ descendants.

After World War I, control of Namibia (then called South West Africa) passed to South Africa, which was given a mandate to administer the territory by the League of Nations until it was sufficiently prepared to act upon its own self-determination. South Africa interpreted this as an invitation to formally annex the territory and went on to rule it under a system of apartheid.

Apartheid and independence

South Africa held on to South West Africa for two reasons. Firstly, the vast mineral resources in the country were exploited for the benefit of white South Africans, and secondly Namibia provided a buffer from the guerrilla war which was raging in Angola between the Cuban-backed MPLA and the UNITA movement supported by South Africa Defence Force (SADF).

With growing opposition to South African rule, Namibians began to agitate for independence. An insurgent movement, the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO), was set up under the leadership of Sam Nujoma and began fighting what is commonly known as the South African Border War between 1966-90. With assistance from the USSR and China, the independence movement prevailed and Nujoma became the country’s first democratic president following the 1989 multi-party elections.

Since then, the SWAPO party has held power. President Hifikepunye Pohamba took over from Nujoma in 2005, and handed over to the incumbent, Hage Geingob, in 2015.

Post-apartheid performance

Despite, or perhaps because of, SWAPO’s record in bringing about independence from South Africa, the party has been criticised for abusing, torturing and detaining members suspected of spying for South Africa during the liberation struggle. In 2000, an organisation called Breaking the Walls of Silence released a list of 700 people which it alleged to have disappeared during the liberation struggle whilst in the hands of SWAPO.

It has applied similar, heavy-handed brutality to anyone else that the party considers its foes. After the Caprivi Liberation Army’s (CLA) ill fated secession attempt in 1999, in which a CLA raid on the strategically vital region of Caprivi was quickly crushed by the Namibian army, the government rounded up hundreds of suspects, many of whom were tortured and detained for prolonged periods without trial. Neither of these matters have been addressed satisfactorily by the SWAPO and could be contentious in the future.

A true success story?

Nevertheless, Namibia has been hailed as one of African success stories, especially since it inherited a highly unequal country at independence in 1990. The country’s efforts in reducing poverty have been largely recognised as successful, and in 2015 then-President Hifikepunye Pohamba received the Mo Ibrahim prize for African Leadership.

In recent times, though seemingly reinventing the country’s name, US President Donald Trump praised Namibia for its efforts in self-sustaining health care.

That said, what these success stories often miss is the searing inequality of the country and its effect on socioeconomic development. Namibia remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. Windhoek in particular is notorious for egregious rental and property prices, and sprawling shacks and shanty towns dominate the less affluent parts of the city.

Windhoek cityscape
Windhoek’s development is deeply unequal. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

In addition to this, Namibia has high levels of youth unemployment: according to the World Bank, Namibia’s youth unemployment was 44.9% in 2016, an increase from 39% in 2014. When the current President Hage Geingob came to power in 2015, he vowed to fight poverty in all its forms, establishing a Ministry of Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare.

However, his term in office has coincided with an economic recession. In 2017 the economy shrank by 0.77%, and Geingob’s administration has reacted by implementing austerity.

Much to be done

Despite enjoying a significant level of stability in relation to many countries in the region, Namibia still needs to do a great deal to foment social cohesion – not least because, in a nation of 2.5 million people with 13 ethnic groups and a dark colonial and apartheid history, this is no mean feat.

But few of these negative aspects are reported, with coverage of the country’s positive profile being overwhelming. Some might argue that this is a good thing, given the generally dismal picture painted of Africa by media around the world, but perhaps the answer also lies in the country’s inequality: it suits the well off to present an affluent face to the world while burying and failing to acknowledge difficult truths.

But this is changing, the country’s Affirmative Repositioning (AR) movement, which aims to improve the socioeconomic conditions of urban youth, has emerged to ask key questions of the country’s status quo, and represent the poor and downtrodden. What is certain is that Namibians need to address post-colonialism and post-apartheid as soon as possible, reckoning with the past to build a constructive future.

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