Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The need for open debate - Villager 14/08/11

Open and critical debate is not always welcome in our country.  In the days of apartheid-colonialism, expressing views openly (especially political ones) often led to persecution, even detention and death.
With independence, such repressive practices came to an end as a liberal constitution was adopted that enshrined basic human and political rights.  However, a living democracy requires more than a few democratic rights on paper and the occasional holding of elections.  A living democracy requires the appreciation for robust debates as well as policies to guarantee that the basic economic needs of all citizens are met.
Despite the many praises for Namibia’s peace and stability since independence, I would argue that we are still falling short in some aspects of our democracy.  Namibia is among countries with the highest levels of income inequality in the world and virtually all spheres of life are still characterised by inequalities on the basis of colour, gender and class. 
 A large part of our population is thus engaged with a daily struggle for basic survival and the fact that 500 000 Namibians are living in shacks as reported recently by this paper, exemplifies this point.  I will analyse the levels of inequality and what can be done to change them in a future column.
Today I will focus on another aspect, namely our lack of appreciation for open and robust debate.  This was not always the case.  At the time of independence, Namibia was bustling with activism and debate.  
The Namibia National Students Organisation (NANSO) and the trade unions under the umbrella of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) were spearheading debate and action as they had done during the final years of the liberation struggle. 
However, after the elections of 1989 and the achievements of independence in 1990, things began to change gradually.  Having elected “our own” Government and believing that the “fruits of independence” would become visible soon, mass organisations lost their vibrancy or were deliberately dismantled.  This was not unique to Namibia but has happened in many other African countries after independence.
With weakening community-based organisations and an increasingly dominant role of Government, the process of decision-making became increasingly hierarchical.  The typical western form of representative Government became rooted and replaced more direct and participatory forms of democracy.  The large community meetings that had taken place in Katutura in the late 1980s are now only a historical memory and even the consultative community meetings that some Government Ministers undertook shortly after independence have become rarities.  Instead, decisions are taken in the higher echelons of power and then communicated to the base.
Accompanying this increasingly hierarchical political culture was mistrust towards critical ideas and debate.  Instead of seeing them as the lifeblood of democratic organisations, critical views were seen with suspicion and the first question that was usually asked was: “What is their agenda?”
Loyalty to an organisation was increasingly equated with blindly following the decisions taken by the leadership and in the end. Nobody was willing to raise critical questions for fear of being labelled a “trouble-maker” or “hibernator” etc.   
This political culture of suspicion against open debate has taken hold of most organisations in Namibia.  Ironically, even those organisations that criticise hierarchical and autocratic practices of others often fall into the same pattern when dealing with critical voices in their own ranks.
As a result, public debates in Namibia have become very guarded.  Only a few people are still willing to raise challenges openly for fear of offending the powers that be.  Instead, many express their views only privately and are even scared of sending readers’ letters in their own name.  
This trend is very worrying and needs to be countered before it becomes an all-embracing norm.  History provides many examples how dictatorships and social standstill emerge when debates are dying.  It was thus refreshing to see how Minister Kazenambo at a recent public debate of the Unam Sociology Students Association pointed out that it was important for the youth to raise their voices when they see things go wrong.  How else can we improve if we are not willing to debate with a view of finding new solutions?  
Raising critical issues, exploring new ways of doing things and alluding to shortcomings and failures is a lifeline for any living democracy.  Instead of just defending past decisions and actions, we must learn to appreciate criticism as it is the only way to avoid the death of ideas and socio-economic stagnation.  Defending past policies and practices simply to please the powers that be will not contribute towards finding solutions for the many challenges we face today.  Let us speak from the heart, let us share our ideas and let us have robust debates as part of our everyday lives.  Fear and silence must be broken as they undermine the very democracy we fought for.  After all, we are supposed to be the land of the brave!

Herbert Jauch is a labour researcher and educator in Windhoek.

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