Last profiled in 1991, Namibia’s now younger electorate is calling for jobs and land justice amid a Covid-19-induced recession.
Namibia derives its name from the Namib desert (loosely translated, the word means ‘vast place’), which has claims to be the oldest desert in the world, stretching back more than 55 million years. Much of the desert comprises gravel plain and rocky outcrops but in the southwest corner vast rolling dunes ripple towards the Atlantic Ocean – a spectacular and colourful Sand Sea that draws tourists to what is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, though a unique attribute of this desert is that it is often wreathed in thick fog.
Among the earliest inhabitants of the country were the hunter-gatherer San, who remain an identifiable ethnic minority now, though other groups such as the pastoralist Nama and Herero migrated there later. The country was colonized by Germany from 1884, which perpetrated one of the first genocides of the 20th century when it responded to a rebellion by wiping out the majority of the Nama and Herero populations.
After the First World War South Africa was given trusteeship of what was then known as Southwest Africa and during the apartheid era it announced its intention to annex the territory. Opposition to South Africa’s racist policies led to the formation of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which eventually launched an armed struggle in 1966.
At independence on 21 March 1990, the country’s founding President, Sam Nujoma, celebrated the end of white minority rule and led SWAPO into government. He is still held in high regard today for having set the country on a firm path to democratic rule before passing the baton to his preferred successor, Hifikepunye Pohamba, in 2009.
More recently, though, there is evidence that the dominance of SWAPO is being slowly eroded, particularly since the election of the current president, Hage Geingob, in 2015. According to Neil Thompson, a Namibia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, this is partly because ‘younger generations make up an increasingly large percentage of the electorate’, though there are also growing concerns about the party’s economic track record – youth unemployment is a major issue.
In particular, the ruling party was badly damaged in 2019 by the ‘Fishrot’ scandal in which government officials and the former justice minister were charged with money laundering and accepting bribes to grant fishing rights to an Icelandic company.
Geingob, who is generally viewed as following a moderately pro-business development strategy, was nevertheless returned to power in November 2019, albeit with a reduced majority over Panduleni Itula, the former SWAPO member standing against him.
Namibia, like South Africa, has yet to pass the test of a transfer of power from the party associated with liberation to an opposition party. But, to its credit, the SWAPO government has thus far shunned manipulation of the electoral system such as has occurred in Zimbabwe and other countries in the region.
But there is growing disgruntlement over human rights abuses by state-linked agencies. In August, for example, police arrested filmmaker Vickson Hangula for filming the eviction of landless citizens from the Okahandja settlement. This further stoked up national tensions around the land-reform question – around 70 per cent of Namibia’s farmland is still owned by white people.
Economic growth has been modest since a recession in 2016 and is likely to be hit by the Covid-19 pandemic – earnings from tourism have inevitably been hammered. As of mid-August the country had suffered 4,344 cases and 36 deaths but travel restrictions and curfews are in place in multiple cities, including the capital, Windhoek.
AT A GLANCE
LEADER: President Hage Geingob
ECONOMY: GNI per capita $5,060 (South Africa $6,040, Germany $48,520).
Monetary unit: Namibian Dollar, South African Rand. The two units trade on a 1:1 basis.
Main exports: Copper, fish, zinc, animals, precious metals such as diamonds. Namibia is also a major producer of uranium; its Chinese-owned Husab mine began production in 2017. The country has to import around 50 per cent of its cereal needs.
PEOPLE: 2.5 million. Population annual growth rate 1.9%. People per sq km 3 (UK 275) – Namibia is the world’s second-most sparsely populated country after Australia.
HEALTH: Infant mortality rate 29 per 1,000 live births (South Africa 29, Germany 3). HIV prevalence rate 11.8% – one of the world’s highest rates. However, Namibia was the first country in Africa to have more than three-quarters of its HIV-affected population virally suppressed (which means they cannot pass on the virus), a major success story. In 2016, the UN said that 37% of the country’s population was malnourished while 24% of children were stunted.
ENVIRONMENT: Carbon emissions 1.7 tons per capita (South Africa 8.3, Germany 9.1). Droughts and desertification are major problems. Namibia was the first country in the world to write environmental protection into its constitution – around 14% of the land is protected, including almost all the Namib Desert coastal strip.
RELIGION: About 90% of Namibians identify themselves as Christian, with Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans being dominant. In recent years, Pentecostalism has had a growing following. There are small minorities of Muslims, Jews and Buddhists.
LANGUAGES: English is the official language but most people on the street speak local languages such as Damara, Kavango and Herero. Afrikaans and German also linger from colonial times, contributing to the linguistic potpourri.
HUMAN DEVELOPMENT INDEX: 0.645, 130th of 189 countries (South Africa 0.705, Germany 0.939).