- Transitions in Namibia: Which Changes for Whom?
Henning Melber’s edited volume Transitions in Namibia is the last outputfrom the “Liberation and Democracy in Southern Africa” project hostedby the Nordic Africa Institute; this excellent work is a continuation ofMelber’s edited volume from the same series, Re-examining Liberation in Namibia: Political Culture since Independence (2003). This book addressesthe rhetoric of transformation heard from the current administration,reflecting the powerful presence of the former president Sam Nujoma.In essence Melber argues that ruling party liberation mythology functionsmore as a smokescreen than as a story of meaningful change for Namibians.The evidence presented in these fourteen chapters provides convincingweight to Melber’s conclusions about the faltering state of democracyin Namibia.
For that argument alone Transitions in Namibia is a useful book, especially for those interested in the fate of the semi-democracies of the post– Third Wave era. The uncertain, halting progress of many newly democratic states is neatly illustrated by the stories examined in Transitions: tales of multiparty power-sharing turning to de facto one-party states; the marginalization of the opposition through both political and economic tools; the use of legislative power to entrench a new elite; growing disillusionment on the part of those omitted from the process of positive change. In this sense, Transitions in Namibia serves as a valuable addition to the field of comparative democratization. More narrowly, Melber’s book is a timely update on the state of Namibian affairs, welcome to those interested in the fascinating political experiments taking place in southern Africa.
Each chapter in Transitions connects past struggles with current realities. “History and the Armed Struggle” by Christopher Saunders examines the literature from the liberation struggle and subsequent accounts of [End Page 183] that era. Considering recent works such as Nujoma’s autobiography, Saunders concludes that the preindependence propagandist project—linking SWAPO with the notion of Namibia as a free nation—has continued into the present day. Saunders’s main concern is the lack of critical perspectives in the bulk of the literature being produced, a trend also visible in other states where polemics justify continued domination of ruling parties and personalities.
Herbert Jauch’s chapter, “Between Politics and the Shop Floor,” looks at the disempowerment in Namibia of labor unions, whose influence has waned since independence. Jauch draws parallels between labor in Namibia and South Africa, where adherence to neoclassical economics has created a chasm between the mass of the working poor and politically powerful business interests. Jauch concludes that the embattled Namibian labor movement can renew itself as an engine for change only if it reorganizes and pursues the interests of its members. The promise behind this possibility is reflected in the success of the worker-organized strike for better conditions at the Malaysian-owned Ramatex textile factory in 2006, a subject examined in more detail in Volker Winterfeldt’s chapter “Liberated Economy?”
Other chapters in Transitions in Namibia cover the hyper-politicized issue of land redistribution (Phanuel Kaapama, “Commercial Land Reforms in Postcolonial Namibia”); the impact of foreign direct investment on Namibia (Winterfeldt’s “Liberated Economy?”and Gregor Dobler’s “Old Ties or New Shackles”); the development of an isolated, autonomous new black elite (Melber, “Poverty, Politics, Power and Privilege“); and myriad other subjects ranging from disaffected and unemployed youth to the reintegration of ex-combatants, decentralization at the regional level, and the crisis of HIV/AIDS.
In each chapter the challenge for those interested in progressive change appears to be as much the state as it is material conditions. From politics to the economy to society—roadblocks to transformation in Namibia are outlined clearly, reflecting similar struggles throughout the world. Weak institutions and a divided, poorly organized, and impoverished electorate create perfect conditions for continued centralization of power. In addition, each author provides suggestions for how to break this deadlock— with the recurring key being the rekindling of purpose in the population to redirect the national path.
Melber’s edited volume acts very usefully as an exposure of the depth of...