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On The Namibian National Question And Racial Capitalism

D 21 août 2013     H 05:59     A Shaun Whittaker     C 0 messages

Paper presented as part of a panel discussion on ‘The National Question Reconsidered’, held at an International Conference on ‘The Life and Times of Neville Alexander’, Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth, 5-8 July 2013.


Throughout Neville Alexander’s political life, that organic intellectual demonstrated a consistent engagement with the Namibian anti-colonial struggle.

The National Question

However, it is especially Alexander’s essay on ‘The Namibian war of anti-colonial resistance’ that has the greatest relevance to the current debates on the national question in Namibia. Alexander insisted that the 1904-1907 war was the watershed moment for Namibian national consciousness : ‘For the first time in the history of the country, virtually all the people of central and southern Namibia and many of the people of northern Namibia found themselves co-operating directly and indirectly against one common enemy… Though it is true that no common national ideology was born out of this, there is no doubt that the idea of a single Namibian nation based on conquest and common oppression emerged from this unprecedented struggle’. [1]

Namibian anti-colonial fighters like Jakob Marengo, Maharero, Witbooi, Nehale and others fought together in the 1904-1907 war. And raising this ideological theme remains imperative in forging national unity in Namibia. The intense and on-going discussions about the national question in Namibia today revolves around the situation that not only a particular political organization or, even worse, a specific ethnic or tribal group liberated the country. Although tribalism is an invention of colonialism, this phenomenon regrettably remains prominent in the country. So, many people do not identify themselves as Namibians, but imagine them first and foremost in terms of a tribal label.

At the same time, the risk of the sole and authentic political status conferred on the ruling party, the South-West African People’s Organization (Swapo), is that Namibian political independence is connected with only that organization in a sectarian and undemocratic way. In this regard, the slogan of ‘One Namibia One Nation’ – though indeed appropriate as a political strategy - is erroneously associated with Swapo, instead of the Namibian people as a whole.

When the skulls of prisoners from the 1904-1907 war was returned from Germany in October 2011, this represented a pivotal turning-point in post-colonial Namibia as it radicalized the political mood in the country. Since that time, Namibia has been engaged in an intense dialogue about the national question. A Namibian left-wing organization, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP), for instance, declared ‘that Namibia was never constituted as one nation in its true sense… Namibia was constituted by peoples, each with their own land, political structures and mutually exclusive jurisdictions’. [2] In addition, referring to the slogan of ‘One Namibia One Nation’, the same leftist organization stated that ‘(T)his slogan is frozen, a given tenet to which the people shall subscribe just as they were forced to subscribe to Stalinist precepts…’ [3]

Other left-wing groups also demonstrated such disturbing interventions. The president of the Communist Party of Namibia rebuked the participants in the debate on the national question and proposed that ethnic or tribal minorities should secede [4], while the South West African National Union (SWANU) leadership engaged in a tribe-counting exercise [5]. What was so deplorable about this whole affair was that, in the milieu of an already fragile left-wing, these three left-leaning political forces in Namibia appeared to lack a thorough comprehension of the Leninist approach to the national question.

Indeed, it is especially in the context of this nation-wide dialogue about nation building in contemporary Namibia and the concomitant dangers of civil war and tribalism, that Alexander’s role as a credible left-wing leader in Namibia is remarkable. It became apparent from the discussions on nation-building in the Namibian mass media that Alexander’s paradigm had a significant following. In the book An Ordinary Country, on the subject of the national question, for example, Alexander averred that : “…in the post-war African context, the word ‘nation’ is, and should continue to be used in order to denote the population that resides within a given independent state”. [6] This view was constantly defended in the Namibian media.

And, it should be highlighted that Alexander’s approach to the national question arises from the Communist Manifesto itself, which was then further expounded and implemented by Lenin. That political stream postulates that any political strategy includes a series of slogans aimed at fundamental change. [7] In this regard, the slogan of ‘One Namibia One Nation’ is a crucial dimension of such a political strategy. The issue is simply : how will the Left take power in a country ? The conquest of power takes place at the level of nation ; it begins in an individual country. But in a situation of globalization, it is even more closely linked with another dimension of this strategic question, i.e. the regional, continental and international dimension. In Namibia, the continuing dominance of the Anglo-American Corporation makes this quite clear. However, the relationship of class forces is still expressed or organized on the basis of a particular history. For, nation building remains a pivotal political strategy, although a logical and inevitable question that flows from this is to ask : if we all belong to one nation, then surely we should all be socially equal ?

The Racial Question

With regards to the scourge of racism that could derail the nation building project, the Namibian elite pretended for the longest time that racism does not exist. Of course, Alexander reaffirmed the woeful ubiquity of racism and racial prejudice in southern Africa : ‘This is in many respects a global rather than merely a regional phenomenon, but in the southern African context it has reached its zenith’. [6]

Alexander had earlier referred to the dangerous myth of ‘race’ and lamented that : ‘No nation knows this better than Namibia !’ [1] Although this statement refers to the Namibian genocide – when racism was taken to its horrific conclusion – it should be pondered if this also means that racial capitalism is even more applicable to Namibia than to Azania (South Africa) ? Certainly, within the historical situation of the uneven (and combined) character of capitalism, this highest point that racism reached in southern Africa will burden us for as long as the hegemony of capital exists. Although apartheid is gone, racial capitalism is alive and well in southern Africa. The prevailing deep capitalist crisis – and in this sub-region the crisis of racial capitalism – is not only manifested in the huge increases in social inequality, but also as an upswing in racism (including ethnocentrism and tribalism). The primacy of social class is irrefutable, but the nexus of class and racism will remain ever present on this subcontinent. In other words, the political struggle was hardly, to use Alexander’s idiom, against the scaffolding of apartheid only, but it is a permanent struggle against the firmly-constructed house of racism and class inequality.

The Language Question

Alexander’s Leninist conception of the language question is central to nation building. Delivering a keynote address at a Namibian conference on Language and Development in Southern Africa in Okahandja in 1991, Alexander highlighted the issue of English as medium of instruction and concluded that : ‘The result is a social catastrophe, the magnitude of which is only now being appreciated in Southern Africa’. [8]

Within a multilingual framework, the harmonization or clustering of indigenous Namibian languages should be initiated to counter concerns not only about the education crisis, but also about tribalism and the multitude of dialects. Presently, a convenient rationale by the conservatives is that there are too many indigenous ‘languages’ so that it is not certain which ones to teach in schools. The harmonization of dialects such as Oshiwambo and Otjiherero, or Khoekhoegowab and other San dialects would make it possible to only teach a few languages and also promote national unity.

Finally, in the context of Alexander’s belief in transitional reforms, his last journey to Namibia in September 2011 was to meet with Namibian decision-makers about the implementation of a multi-lingual framework in the country. It would seem like this is going to materialize now and could only further enhance nation building in contemporary Namibia.

By Shaun Whittaker

[1] Alexander, N. 1983. The Namibian war of anti-colonial resistance 1904-1907. Namibian Review Publications 1 : 24-34.

[2] Sasman, C. 2011. Namibian skulls return. The Namibian, 5 October.

[3] Beukes, H. 2012. Personal communication. 17 August.

[4] Sasman, C. 2012. Communist Party proposes succession of minority ethnic groups. The Namibian, 29 March.

[5] Sasman, C. 2012. Maamberua stirs tribal pot. The Namibian, 22 February.

[6] Alexander, N. 2002. An ordinary country – Issues in the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa. Pietermaritzburg : University of Natal Press.

[7] Bensaid, D. 2011. Strategy and Party. International Viewpoint. Published online on 5 July.

[8] Alexander, N. 2000. Key issues in language policy for Southern Africa. Paper presented at the conference on Language and Development in Southern Africa held at the National Institute for Educational Development, Okahandja.


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