White privilege and racism is blocking Namibia's progress

Progress Namibia - White privilege and racism is blocking Namibia's progress
14 May 2018

Image Source: Facebook user Emanu - Satir & Illustration

If you have not noticed that anger is bubbling in this country, then you have not been paying attention. There are two issues, inextricably interlinked in some cases, that are coming up in public discourse reflecting mounting frustration and anger: white privilege and land distribution. Because we write about progress and wellbeing, we believe these are important topics to cover. I want to cover both, but think that they need to be handled in two separate but interlinked stories. This is the first. The next Progress Namibia Weekly I will speak about the land issue and wealth redistribution. I think that we need to separate the two because one cannot fix the issue of white privilege through land redistribution (alone), and vice versa.

For those of you who do not know, I am a white Namibian who considers herself as someone responsible of being part of the positive change. This needs to be said as it gives context and background to my perspective. I also believe that for too long most of us have not openly and loudly acknowledged white privilege in this country.

It is widely published that the poverty trap is a complex systems problem, including in a country like Namibia. But, given our history in Namibia, it is something we, as white people, need to acknowledge some form of responsibility for. We were, and continue to be, born (unfairly) into privilege - while others - were, and continually are, not.

Some of us may have been small children when independence came to the country (like in my case), and some may have only been born after independence ("born frees"). Regardless, even those little white Namibian babies born today, 28 years after independence, are born into privilege. A few decades of government intervention is not going to change a historical context so systemic and ingrained in society. As the Rambler from the Namibian puts it, 300 years of minority white oppressive rule is not going to be wiped out in 28 years.

Those white people who purport that we do not have white privilege, and even go as far as to say our government policies, such as Affirmative Action, are "reverse racism", have truly not opened their eyes to how our economic system works. Go and visit the large business and shopping centres in Windhoek and see who are the managers, and who are the workers. White men still own much of this country's business. And those black CEOs or other positions of power are forced to prove themselves first because of some unjust prejudice.

You cannot complain about how stressful or difficult your life is, or how affirmative action is taking away opportunities from your white boychild, to the middle aged black woman who works to clean your house and other houses, all day for six days a week, and still only earns NAD 1,300 for her and her family. Both of you born and raised pre-independence, she was not born into the same opportunity you were, and that opportunity will never come to her, even now, because of this. She will never have the opportunity to reach her potential, study what she wants, follow a career path of her dreams, take her kids on holiday, or send them to a good school. She is trapped in this system. Despite her already working so hard she hardly sees her kids, her biggest worry is still how she will make ends meet at the end of the month. (Imagine you earned NAD 1,300 per month...that is more than what many Namibians earn, even in this day and age). She lives in a shack in Havana. Her next door neighbour died when his shack was taken in the recent heavy flood. She wakes up at 03:30 in the morning to be able to catch public transport in time to get to your house before you head out to work. What will you say to her about the difference in privilege from when she was born, and when you were born? And now, decades later, your boychild and her boychild are still not equal. They will not have the same opportunities. That may be argued by many that this is a class issue, but if you thread out what worlds the two parents came from, it boils down to white privilege.

You as a white person are not hawk-eyed with mistrust when you enter a shop. You are welcome in almost any venue. You do not get beaten up by the white neighbourhood watch just for walking in the street at night in a hoodie (which is literally what happened to a young black man a few years ago). I heard a story recently of a white guy who was house sitting a house, set off the alarm, and the security company came. He could not find the keys, was not wearing a shirt, and did not have the password when they arrived. In fact he spoke to them over the high wall, because he could not let them in without keys. The owners had never let the company know that someone else is staying there. In any circumstance this would look dubious. They took one look at him, and let him get on with his business. If that person were a young black man of the same age in the same context, the situation would have played out very differently. And there are many examples just like this.

And then, shockingly, beyond even the lack of acknowledgement of white privilege, is the continued disease of racism in this country. In some cases subtle, where comments and jokes are forced onto our black Namibians in a friendship group of white and black individuals, like teasing a black girl about her hair, where offence is viewed by the white joker as being 'overly sensitive' - as if the (previous) oppressor has a right to dictate what should hurt or offend the (previously) oppressed. And then there is the obvious, sickening and blatant racism that is still part of day to day life in this country. Where some (albeit a minority) of white people are, through their own familial brainwashing, led to believe that their race is superior. I literally overheard once a white woman with a small child argue and talk down to a black security guard at a big clothing store (about something trivial), and right after she berated him "this has nothing to do with race", she walked away and called him the k-word under her breath. She is the type of person I am talking about. And there are even worse.

Namibians, especially white, are too passive in this space. It is so normalised in our society that too few people call it out. Most white people, whether unknowingly or knowingly racist, do not make an effort to address their racism. Black people have worked so hard and have shown so much restraint in the name of progress and reconciliation. Continued sacrifices made in the name of bringing the country together for all. You would think that ALL white people would have by now, at the individual and even collective level - voluntarily, and actively - helped with reconciliation and social development in this country. But I am ashamed to say that there have been too few of us.

How many white people attend independence celebrations or at least openly celebrate independence by doing something that helps another Namibian? Too many white people will have opinions at the dinner table or at a friend's braai (among predominantly white friends) about the politics of the country, but then not attend one public debate about the very policies they moan about. I attended a public event/debate a couple years ago on how NEEEF (New Equitable Economic Empowerment Framework) will contribute to youth development. Among the maybe 300 people at this event, I was one of not more than three white people who came to listen and engage.

I ask myself, how many white people living in Windhoek have been to the various suburbs of Katutura to eat in a restaurant, visit a friend, or buy things from a market, have a beer in a bar? Every time I have gone anywhere on that side of town, I have been welcomed graciously (with a small number of exceptions). I cannot say the same for some of my black friends who have visited bars in places like Klein Windhoek, or Avis, or parts of Swakopmund.

Speaking of Swakopmund, I have heard stories from black people - Namibian or expat - who have felt unwelcome walking into restaurants and shops in what many call 'little germany". DRC is sprawling while the Beach road is lined with elegant rich houses. The Marine Statue is still up, glorifying the massacre and rape of a Namibian tribe, where a frustrated group has taken the matter up with the International Criminal Court of Justice. I am sick and tired of hearing the arguments from white people about how it is part of history and "why are they making such a big deal out of it?". There is a big difference between remembering history i.e. having such a statue in a museum, and glorifying history, like having such a statue celebrated on the streets of a town in a country where people died trying to fight against the type of oppression that statue represents.

For many white people, it is easy to be blinded from how embedded racism is in our society because it is so normalised. It is systemic - a friend of mine from Zimbabwe, who has had an amazing career helping to rebuild failed nations, said that when he was a little boy his mom would say to him "eat your veggies so can become smart like a white man". He visited Namibia on a few occasions post-independence to support government structuring, and I am reminded of one occasion he told me about from his visit in the mid-1990s where he went to a restaurant with a Swedish friend and he ordered pasta while his friend ordered something else. The (black) waitress came back a few moments later and addressed his Swedish friend by saying "We do not have any pasta left. What else should we get for him?", pointing to my friend. This is how ingrained racism was, and still is, in every facet of society.

I am sure everyone who reads this has probably had a recent experience of some sort of exposure to racism - no matter how seemingly insignificant or veiled it was. Which brings me on to another point: most sickening to me are those people who think because I am white they think it is appropriate to make a racist remark as if the similarity in the colour of our skin assumes we are kindred spirits. And too often many of us, including me, do not stand up and make a stand against this type of behaviour by calling them out. Right there and then. You are what is wrong with this country. You are the reason I am embarrassed to be a white person.

This will all only change with a concerted effort from those of us who believe in solidarity. Who believe in unity amongst all Namibians. Those of us who are willing to acknowledge and ask - how can we help to change this?

We, white Namibians, are the haves. We are the haves because of a disgusting system of oppression that went on for years. Now is the time to acknowledge our privilege. Now is the time to have conversations with the other. Now is the time, for many seemingly the first time, to have empathy. It is unacceptable that so many people live in poverty while a minority live in a fake empire.

Now is the time to ask - where can I contribute my skills, resources, and time towards bringing equality to our country? What can I do to bring this country, our country, together? I acknowledge you. You acknowledge me. We are Namibians.

Some of us are already doing this and have been doing this for years. Please, those of you frustrated with the system, who are blanketing all white people as bad. Please know that there are many of us out there who are willing to help, who are helping. Who are trying our best to support and contribute to a better Namibia. Please let us stand with you in solidarity. Our country, our responsibility, together.

For those of you who want to continue calling yourselves Namibian and in the same vein continue believing that you are a cut above and apart from the rest, I recommend you take a course on Namibian history on human rights, have some conversations with fellow Namibians, and get some perspective. If you do not change, then you do not deserve to be here.