During the past few weeks, the issue of payments for war veterans has once again been a topic of debate.
This issue must be placed in the context of our liberation struggle and the kind of society we wanted to build after Independence.
We should remember that historically, Swapo has claimed to play the vanguard role in the liberation struggle of the oppressed and exploited people of Namibia.
Swapo’s political programme of 1976, for example, was characterised by socialist rhetoric, inspired by the newly-won Independence of Mozambique and Angola and by the support rendered by the Soviet Union to Namibia’s liberation struggle. It stated that one of Swapo’s key tasks was ‘to unite all Namibian people, particularly the working class, the peasantry and progressive intellectuals, into a vanguard party capable of safeguarding national independence and of building a classless, non-exploitative society based on the ideals and principles of scientific socialism’.
A lot has changed since then and when Independence was finally won in 1990, it became clear that Swapo regarded national independence (and not the proletarian revolution) as the primary goal of its struggle. This was clearly reflected in the party’s policy proposals for an independent Namibia in the late 1980s as well as the election manifesto of 1989.
When Swapo Economic Policy Position Document was released in November 1988, it no longer called for the nationalisation of key industries but instead promised ‘fair and just compensation in those instances where state acquisition of assets from private hands is considered necessary for the rebuilding and restructuring of Namibia’s national economy’.
Swapo secretary for economics at the time, Ben Amathila, confirmed this line of thought when he declared that it was not Swapo’s intention to nationalise mining companies. Instead, the party envisaged using ‘revenue from mining to diversify production in other sectors; to decrease the economic imbalance; break dependency on South Africa and give Namibia a better chance for development . . . A greater part of the mining sector’s profits should be reinvested here, for diversification, training and economic growth’. Furthermore, Amathila stated that, “We foresee a mixed economy for the simple reason that the present structure of the economy is such that we may not be able to afford any drastic rearrangement. For change from the present state to be effective, it must be gradual.” Thus, the socialist rhetoric of the 1970s was replaced by the ‘pragmatism’ of accepting a non-racial capitalist order, enshrined later on as ‘mixed economy’ in the Constitution of independent Namibia. What did this mean for issues of social justice after Independence and how does this relate to the payment for war veterans?
Political activists and observers may argue that Namibia had little choice in adopting a capitalist market economy at Independence, thus could not really effect any substantial redistribution in favour of the poor. However, ideals of justice and solidarity continued to be pronounced by our political leaders and there was no doubt that inequality and poverty required a systematic state intervention if any socio-economic progress was to be achieved. One of those interventions was the payment of war veterans, many of whom continued to struggle to make ends meet after Independence.
Cabinet was at first reluctant to consider pensions and cash payments for the veterans but under pressure, conceded to these demands. The initial idea was to secure the livelihood of those war veterans who continued to experience hardships. However, the definition of war veterans and the modalities of identifying and rewarding them were controversial and allowed certain people to claim while excluding others, for example, some of those children raised in exile but not born there.
It is a well-known fact that highly paid public officials are amongst those who claimed the war veterans’ pay-outs. This includes the majority of Cabinet members as well as highly paid managers at parastatals and municipalities. They are certainly not amongst the needy Namibians who should have been the beneficiaries. While the well-off veterans may claim to be amongst the ‘historically disadvantaged’, they must certainly be regarded to be amongst the privileged today. It is a sad indictment of the greediness amongst Namibia’s elite that they are now hiding behind the argument of legality to justifying their pay-outs. To his credit, Prime Minister, Nahas Angula was among the few who refused to apply for the veterans’ pay-out, because he regarded himself as already empowered. Most of the others did not follow his example.
In general, we seem to have almost completely forgotten the meaning of social justice and solidarity in building a new society. An elite that usurps public resources for personal benefit leaves very little for those who are in need. The question of war veterans and their plight should not be seen in isolation but must be placed in the context of widespread poverty and exclusion in Namibia today.
Redistribution in favour of the poor should be the focus of all our interventions – unless we have already abandoned the ideal of social justice.