Social Commentary, Poliitics

Beyond the Born Frees

In this election season, we are making a lot of the Born Free generation. They are the first crop of voters born after independence, and have the potential over the next decades to reshape what it means to be Namibian. But, what about other generations? Is there a way to characterise them? Any society is made up of youth, adults and elders. All of us over the past 19 years have watched a country go from infant to adult, how might we now be characterised? Let me offer a few brief ideas.

Namibians who are now mid 50s and older. Adults back in 1990, approaching or in middle age. Independence was an achievement after many years of work and worry. This group now has adult children and grandchildren. They may grumble from time to time that the youth of today do not appreciate how far the country has come from the years of apartheid. Colonial Namibia is something now taught in school, not the visceral memories of upbringing.

Middle aged Namibians – those now 40 to their mid 50s. Back in 1990, the promise of a new Namibia ran in parallel with the promise of youth. Nineteen years later there are children, marriages, goals and dreams achieved, goals and dreams abandoned. Middle Age, with all its contradictions is upon them.

New adults. They were of school age in 1990. Now aged from their mid 20s to late 30s. They won't be as celebrated as the Born Frees, with whom they are likely to share many views. A lot of young Turks will emerge from this group.

What will be the dynamics of each generation on Namibia? Will they view and respond to political and social issues differently? Could be fun to think about. Something we should definitely add to political analysis.

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The coming land crisis in Nambia and some consequences

Ran into a friend a week ago. We caught up on our holidays. She had gone home to Mariental, in the South, to visit her family. It was her first time back in a few years, and she was struck, she said by the mass of immigrants setting up residence in shanty areas outside her home town. Many of these immigrants were not from the area, they came instead from other regions in the East and North. A new mix of language and culture had found its way into her sleepy home town. I replied that urbanization was common throughout history, even Karl Marx wrote about it in Das Kapital. To her credit my friend was not impressed by my attempt at intellectual snobbery. She went on to complain about the breakdown of the social rules and patterns she had known growing up in the location. These newcomers just didn't have, she said, respect for the old rules and ways of doing things that governed row upon row of those tiny Bantu Administration Matchbox houses people were forced to live in during apartheid.

My friend's perceptions are part of the Namibian experience. Drive into Swakopmund and off to the right, a slow wave of zinc houses stretches northward. A few years back that neighborhood, known as the DRC, just wasn't there. Along the orange River, where the table grape industry thrives, the settlement at Aussenkehr seems to add a few more people every time you turn around. The Sand Hotel, that cold, rocky outcrop at Luderitz, just keeps growing despite everyone's best efforts to set up settlements with better services in other parts of the town. Here in Windhoek it used to be that rural migrants always first set up residence behind the Okuyangava neighborhood along the Northern limits of city land. Some years ago, that space filled up. Now the city has set up reception areas complete with running water, toilets and marked erven, off to the West behind the Ramatex factory. Take a drive to the Daan Viljoen Game Park, four or five kilometers outside town you will see blocks of zinc houses and new roads cutting a checkerboard across land that not too long ago was a pastoral farming area.

Our people are leaving rural areas for what they perceive is a better life in the towns. In some ways they are correct. Moving to town brings you closer to basic services such as water, electricity, health care and schools. Jobs, either real or potential, are the strongest draw even if the reality is an informal sector operation way, way off the High Street. Still, they come. In the 2001 Census, 33% Namibians lived in urban areas. Ten years before it was 28%. Sometime in the next 15 years or so it will go over 50% so urban Namibians will outnumber rural Namibians.

Those migrants from the farms, many of whom are likely to leave behind rural agriculture for good, will be our next land crisis. They will want a place to stay. They will want a piece of land with some assurance of tenure as well as basic services. And, one thing we can be sure of, there will be many people on the move looking for a better life. Clearly, we need to plan where and how we can expand settlement areas and infrastructure like water, services, roads and electricity. Many towns like Windhoek and Walvis Bay have already set up areas where new arrivals can establish a dwelling. The question is will they be able to keep pace with the numbers? Can the local tax bases provide the revenue needed build and maintain new settlement areas? It is worth noting that land in new settlement areas is usually not owned by the residents. Hence, it is not possible to charge rates. This places an added burden on existing land owners who subsidize new migrants through higher rates. At what point will that burden become too heavy? What will be the social and political consequences if we ever get to that point?

Urbanization will bring about a host of changes to our society. A rural based order will be increasingly challenged. Through perhaps much of the first decade of independence, Namibia has had a rural social ethos. Extended families were the base for strong personal and social contacts between town and farm. Young people, at that time, who moved to towns maintained rural links and values. As time goes by, however, those links fray, lose their strength.

Let's look at one social arena, religion, where this has occurred. Traditionally, Namibians have had freedom of religion – as long as you chose (depending on where you lived and your family) an AME, Catholic, Lutheran or Seventh Day Adventist church to attend. If you did so, all was right within your traditional social circle. These mainstream churches were and still are woven into the social fabric of rural communities. Since 1990, there has been a rapid rise of independent, non-denominational churches, and almost all are based in a town or municipal area. While I don't have figures on their number, there are plenty of them around, and many are well attended. Where do these congregants come from if traditional Namibian society is dominated by a few mainstream churches? The answer is easy, there is a reason these new churches are largely based in urban areas. This is where people who have moved away from, and began to opt out of, the rural social ethos, have come to live. They are open to new ideas, new ways, and these new churches provide new ways and new ideas. In my own experience, the people who move over to new churches are younger adults. While most of those I know continue to pay homage to the rural social order, they haven't really bought into rural life as much as people of my age – late 40s and up. These kids – yes I maintain the right of all older folks to call them kids – are the first step in a longer process of detachment to a new social ethos. Their children, my grandchildren, will take further steps in their own time.

Pardon my return to intellectual snobbery, but this is what Marx was writing about. Many, many others have done the same over the past 150 years. Urbanization is not just a shift of people from the wide open spaces to houses aligned in tight rows. Urbanization is a fundamental shift in social cultural and political attitudes. We have to remember that religion is only one social facet which will be altered. Many things will change, the wants and needs of young Namibians who have moved into the towns will be different from those of us who are rural based. Yet, much of our outlook and planning for developmental initiatives maintains a focus on rural needs. Soon, perhaps sooner than we think, a course correction will be needed to cater to a growing and increasingly important block of voters.

Let me end this with a little bit of heresy. Among many of us intellectuals it is almost given that any political challenge to SWAPO will come from an internal split within the party. There have been two such splits since 1990, and neither seems to have much potential. Still, you can mention this analytical saw at a cocktail party, and see a nodding of heads. I am not so convinced anymore. I would not be surprised if a real challenge to our present political order finds its birthplace in the growing cities and towns. A place where increasing numbers of people will be moving into new and different outlooks on life. We need only to look over to Zimbabwe, where the main challenge to ZANU-PF came from a party, the MDC, which had its base among the emerging middle classes in the new settlements and suburbs of Harare and other towns. For us here in Namibia it might be more fruitful to wonder if the present political order can keep up with the changes to come.

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