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«Institute for Public Policy Research Political Party Life in Namibia: Dominant Party with Democratic Consolidation* Briefing Paper No. 44, February ...»

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Institute for Public Policy Research

Political Party Life in Namibia: Dominant

Party with Democratic Consolidation*

Briefing Paper No. 44, February 2009

By André du Pisani and William A. Lindeke


This paper assesses the established dominant-party system in Namibia since independence.

Despite the proliferation of parties and changes in personalities at the top, three features have

structured this system: 1) the extended independence honeymoon that benefits and is sustained by the ruling SWAPO Party of Namibia, 2) the relatively effective governance of Namibia by the ruling party, and 3) the policy choices and political behaviours of both the ruling and opposition politicians. The paper was funded in part by the Danish government through Wits University in an as yet unpublished form. This version will soon be published by Praeger Publishers in the USA under Series Editor Kay Lawson.

“...an emergent literature on African party systems points to low levels of party institutionalization, high levels of electoral volatility, and the revival of dominant parties.” Introduction Political reform, democracy, and governance are centre stage in Africa at present. African analysts frequently point to the foreign nature of modern party systems compared to the pre-colonial political cultures that partially survive in the traditional arenas especially of rural politics. However, over the past two decades multi-party elections became the clarion call by civil society (not to mention international forces) for the reintroduction of democratic political systems. This reinvigoration of reform peaked just as Namibia gained its independence under provisions of the UN Security Council Resolution 435 (1978) and the supervision of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG). Since achieving independence in March 1990, Namibia has become one of Africa’s better performing democracies Namibia, along with Botswana and South Africa, presents a paradox in terms of political party systems in southern Africa. These countries with around forty competitive elections among them have both the most robust, open democracies in Africa and a sustained one-party dominance. SWAPO Party of * This paper borrows heavily from our previous paper, “Stuck in the Sand: Opposition Political Parties in Namibia” funded by DANIDA published by SAIIA at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in Tim Hughes, ed.

Opposition Politics in SADC, 2008.

Michael Bratton, Robert Mattes E. Gyimah-Boadi, Public Opinion, Democracy, and Market Reform in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, 256.

See Cedric Thornberry, A Nation is Born: The Inside Story of Namibia’s Independence. Windhoek:

Gamsberg Macmillan, 2005 and Hage Geingob, www.hg.web.na, for recent treatments.

Each country embraces and experiences multiparty competition, free and fair elections, and a vibrant civil society and media through repeated elections including presidential succession. Early violence in parts of South Africa gave way to isolated and infrequent incidents among the forty million inhabitants.

Namibia, as it has been called since independence (still shortened to SWAPO), the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa thoroughly dominate the political landscape of their respective countries. These dominant parties in each case have constitution-changing super majorities ranging from two-thirds to three-fourths of the electorate and of the seats in their parliaments. Opposition parties seem marginal, albeit important players in national politics even if not really in the “government in waiting” role. Alternative roles and functions have been adopted or imposed due to these prevailing circumstances.

This paper examines the genesis, nature and performance of political democracy in post-colonial Namibia, through an exploration of recent political history, constitutional provisions, electoral systems, party performance, support bases and party funding. It addresses the Namibian case in order to explain the seeming contradiction of consolidating democracy combined with insignificant opposition. In doing so, the paper will advance both structural and informal explanations that account for the present noncompetitive dominant party system and the attendant weakness of political opposition, despite the open and democratic environment that Namibia provides.

Namibia’s 1990 Constitution has been widely praised as being among the most liberal in Africa. It is widely respected in the country and has not been subjected to endless tinkering that might reduce its symbolic importance. Among the many admirable elements in the Constitution is the embedding of individual rights in Chapter Three. Included in these rights, that cannot be reduced or diminished by government action, are freedoms of speech, opinion, organisation (political party), and media. These values are essential to the effective functioning and consolidation of democracy in Namibia. The courts have been active in defending these and other principles to make sure that they are not just words on a page.

Over time the public has come to embrace the Constitution and democracy as its own. In the most recent Afrobarometer public opinion survey findings from Namibia, 69% of the respondents said that the constitution “expresses the values and hopes of the Namibian people”. Additionally, 69% of respondents indicated that they were “fairly to very satisfied” with democracy as practised in Namibia, making that country effectively tied for the highest result among African democracies surveyed.

Namibia has now experienced thirteen elections at three different levels of government that include different electoral features: majority-elected executive president, proportional representation (with lowest remainder), party-list at the National Assembly and local levels, and a constituency-based regional government election system, whose thirteen councils then each select two of their members to the National Council. With one exception at the regional and local level in 1998, all of Namibia’s election turnouts have been impressive ranging from 34-82% at the local level, 40-81% at the regional (state) level, and 61-85% at the national level. The Constituent Assembly election for independence lasted for seven days and captured 97% of voters!

As with South Africa, the majority received by the successor presidential candidate (Hifikepunye Pohamba, Thabo Mbeki) exceeded that of the founding president (Sam Nujoma, Nelson Mandela). As was the case in Botswana, succession elections (choosing a new leader) require or create the conditions for a higher turnout for making the selection seem right or legitimate and for symbolic purposes compared to continuity elections that re-elect incumbents. The 2004 succession election saw an 85% turnout compared to just 61% in 1999 for Nujoma’s third term. However, opposition parties in Namibia have been held to less than thirty percent of the vote in the elections following the United Nations’ supervised independence election in 1989. Despite the revival of older parties and the appearance of new ones, the fate of Namibia’s opposition parties has not improved and shows uncertain prospects of doing so in the near term (Table 2).

Sufian Hemed Bukurura, Essays on Constitutionalism and the Administration of Justice in Namibia 1990Windhoek: Out of Africa Publishers, 2002; and Peter van Doepp, “Politics and Judicial Decision Making in Namibia: Separate or Connected Realms.” Windhoek: IPPR, 2007.

Christiaan Keulder, Afrobarometer Survey Findings: Summary of Results in Namibia. Cape Town:

IDASA, 2006, 22.

Michael Bratton, and Wobin Cho, compilers, Where is Africa Going? Views from Below. A Compendium of Trends in Public Opinion in 12 African Countries, 1999-2006. Working Paper # 60. Cape Town: IDASA. 2006, 19.

www.afrobarometer.org Debbie LeBeau, and Edith Dima, Multi-party Democracy and Elections in Namibia. EISA Research Report, No. 13. Johannesburg: Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, 2005: 48. Many SWAPO strongholds in the North Central regions have no opposition candidates running, hence they experience lower voter turnouts in local and regional elections.

To a large extent the explanation for the weakness of the opposition parties is to be found in the history of Namibia’s independence struggle, which elevated SWAPO in 1976 to the “sole and authentic” representative of the Namibian people status at the UN and official support from the Organisation of African Unity, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Frontline States of southern Africa. Such external validation and material support significantly increased the legitimacy of SWAPO’s cause both inside and outside the country.

The ethnic structure of Namibian society with multiple language groups dominated by 50% Oshiwambo speakers, the “nationalist” leadership of the independence movement, and the evolving cross border access coincided with these external influences to make SWAPO the leading force in the struggle.

The 1989 Constituent Assembly Election confirmed that SWAPO was the dominant political force inside Namibia, although at that time it did not have sufficient majority to unilaterally engage in constitutional reform.

–  –  –

A discussion of the political system created by the founding Constitution, written by the Constituent Assembly after the 1989 election, and the unfolding Namibian political process, in both formal structural and informal procedural developments since independence, helps us understand both SWAPO dominance and opposition party weakness. To some degree the party system is a captive of the structural features of Namibian politics: the independence experience, state and executive dominance, ethnic balances and traditional values, the electoral system, and a changed global environment. Other factors that influence the relative power distribution among parties include features that are to a degree more open to choice and control by the participants such as electoral strategies, ideology, policy choices, personalities, organisation and leadership. We shall explore these issues in depth below.

The formative role of colonial history

Historically, the German and South African colonial states created the conditions for the emergence of nationalism and political parties of various shapes and ideological persuasions by their radical reconfiguration of political space. This was achieved both by the creation of spatial discontinuities (borders), where none had previously existed, and by the incorporation of formerly discrete communities within a single sovereign state. This restructuring of political space created contradictions between the After 1975 easy cross-border access for the majority Oshiwambo speaking population (estimated to be 50% of the total) facilitated escape from apartheid repression into exile in the newly independent Angola. This exodus solidified the dominance of Oshiwambo forces within SWAPO, and the dominance of SWAPO in the then-called Ovamboland for the past thirty years.

Tony Emmett, Popular Resistance and the Roots of Nationalism in Namibia, 1915-1966. Basel: P.

Schlettwein Publishing, 1999, 32.

existing socio-cultural and political identifications and new political boundaries, and gave rise to the redefinition of political and cultural communities. The reorganization of space had direct implications for the development of nationalism and political parties in Namibia. For example, the late emergence of formal nationalist parties may be linked to the creation of reserves (homelands), the rigid enforcement of the division between the Police Zone (PZ) and northern parts of the country, and the strict control over labour and personal mobility.

Thus, the contemporary nationalist parties, such as SWAPO Party of Namibia and the South West African National Union (SWANU) were shaped by specific spatial conditions within the colonial state, and these profoundly influenced their respective political planks.

The contradictions and inconsistencies that manifested themselves in the colonial state, for example in the system of labour control and land settlement policy, spawned the earlier forms of political opposition (resistance). One of the clearest manifestations of the deep tensions underlying the relationship between White settler farmers and the indigenous people was the Bondelswarts rebellion of 1922. The Bondelswarts, a Nama-speaking pastoral community in the South of the country, rebelled against stateimposed grazing, hut and (hunting) dog taxes and their desperate poverty induced by drought and depression.

At this phase of Namibian history, the southern port of Luderitz was the major industrial centre in the country. Besides being a centre of the diamond industry, it had a small but flourishing fishing industry and a harbour. It was in Luderitz that the first branches of the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) and the Garveyite Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) were launched. Both of these organizations reflected the distinctive composition and interests of the urban work force. In the case of the ICU, a branch was established in Luderitz in December 1920. The ICU had close connections to the Cape Town-based mother body and chiefly concerned itself with the wages and living conditions of workers in the local fishing industry.

Contract labour, bringing workers from the populous North, and the colonial agricultural and mining economy, too, played a key role in the formation of opposition politics. The system of contract labour was fertile ground for resistance. The South West African Labour Association (SWANLA) and the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association (WENELA) that opened a recruiting station in 1939 near the present Kavango Region, became targets of deep resentment. While genocide, drought, and famine helped to lay the foundations of the migrant labour system in Namibia, colonial policies reshaped these ecological responses into a comprehensive system of labour control and exploitation. Under South African rule, the whole basis of power in Ovamboland (north central Namibia) was changed through a system of indirect rule, which linked the kings and the headmen with the colonial state. The occasional use of military force, too, undermined the power and prestige of traditional Ovambo authority structures.

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