Namibia – what can we learn?

By Axel Falk

In one of the driest corners of the world, “the left foot of Africa”, an anomaly has risen, much
to the hopefuls of a world in peace. Namibia has done right where so many have done wrong
and now stand on the top of a hill, looking down on all their slow, or backbound competitors.
Are they proud? I don’t know, but they should be- for they have succeeded where many have
failed. Namibia and neighbouring Botswana are two of only four states in sub-saharan Africa
to reach a state of consolidated democracy (Freedom House Global Freedom Index, 2021).
While Botswana is often hailed as the success story of southern Africa, Namibia has done a
similar journey from colonial terror to democratic bloom. But how has this happened and
what separates Namibia from the rest?

Namibian colonial history can be divided into two chapters. The first one begins under
German rule, is bloody and full of terror. Germany’s early 20th century was not to be trifled
with in any way and Namibians felt the raw dread of it. After a genocide in Namibia and the
First World War, the Germans had to let go of their oversees provinces. This is where the
second chapter begins. Namibia was occupied by South African forces during the First World
War and remained occupied after the conflict, becoming a consolidated part of South Africa
swiftly afterwards. One would assume, knowing South Africa’s 20th century history, that this
would be nearly as bloody as the German occupation. However, this was really not the case.
Whilst remaining under South African rule, Namibia, now known as South-West Africa, had
to endure the same hardships as the South African people had to. In the 1960s and 1970s,
separatists began gathering in Namibia, demanding liberation. Their argument was that South
Africa had no legal right to their occupation of Namibia. This was soon made into a
proxy-conflict for quasi-belligerent states during the Cold War and made the headlines soon
after. After a bloody civil war, Namibia was declared independent and held their first free
election in 1989, aided by the UN.

It is here the final chapter of Namibian 20th century history begins. In 1990, just four years
before Nelson Mandela was to be released from prison to ascend the proverbial throne of
excellence in Pretoria, Namibia was freed from their colonial shackles and were left to their
own devices. In most cases in sub-Saharan Africa, this has swiftly led to carnage as different
groups in the areas made into one state soon began tilting towards independence. Namibia,
however, were different. But why and how? Well, one narrative is that some of the bigger
ethnic groups in Namibia were actually more or less wiped out by the Germans in the
beginning of the 20th century. This might, somehow, have facilitated Namibia’s stake for a
stable democracy, due to a lack of belligerent ethnic separatist groups. Almost half of all
Namibians belong to the Ovambo ethnic group. This status quo might have aided Namibia’s
quest for electoral democracy.

Another key point separating Namibia from many neighbouring countries is that it is sparsely
populated. As a matter of fact, Namibia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the
world, reaching 2.5 million inhabitants over an area of 825 418 square kilometers. Scholars
have shown, a correlation between population pressure and societal democratic instability,
mainly due to the expectations of a vast array of young people to have a better tomorrow,
something that can not be guaranteed anything, not even democratic election.

The Namibian example exhibits a way of life now rendered unusual in sub-Saharan Africa, as
many nations continue their struggle against (neo-)colonialism. But it also sends a message.
A message of hope and prosperity to those continuing to doubt that the future can be brighter.
For too long have we been blindfolded by the dark and dire reports from sub-Saharan Africa.
Here we have a country that hasn’t just made it through the dark corridors of post-colonial
corruption and misconduct, but that has made it out with a growing economy and a
well-functioning civic life.

Cover photo: David Mark

Axel Falk is a multilingual freelance journalist and student in political science at Uppsala University . Currently the editor-in-chief of Polmagasinet, he tries to use his plattform to share his fascination for democratization and African history.

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