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Last Updated:22 May 2014
Email story Print story Namibia
The RDP to Challenge Swapo?
Twenty years ago, South Africa's occupation of Namibia came to an end. Less than five years later, the apartheid regime was voted out of power in South Africa itself. This year, elections both in South Africa during April and in Namibia at the end of November invite an analytical overview. This serves mainly the purpose of stimulating discussion on forms of political hegemony in the two countries in a comparative perspective.


The majority of votes in general elections (since 1989 in Namibia and since 1994 in South Africa) have been cast in favour of the most prominent liberation movements, the South West Africa People's Organization (Swapo) of Namibia and the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. Both anti-colonial organisations have transformed into parties in government and have consolidated their hegemonic status in terms of political rule by obtaining a clear majority of votes in subsequent elections.

Both Swapo and the ANC had a movement character with trade union alliances when obtaining legitimate political power under majority rule. Both also were divided into an exile wing and activists who were committed on the home front. These plural and diverse movements operated on the basis of the smallest common denominator to obtain national sovereignty and secure political majority rule under their leadership. Their transformation into political parties tended to cover the fact that internal differences were considerable and that the movement was home to a diversity of ideological orientations, which would potentially merit re-organisation into different political parties. Inner-organisational conflicts and rivalries, often also with personal components dating back to the 'struggle days', were fuelling competition also related to seeking access to material privileges and hence not only confined to differing political views. The frustrations over lost power struggles and subsequent processes of marginalisation were a strong motivating factor in triggering the establishment of new political parties.

In both cases internal differences led to the breakaway of former higher-ranking party members, who created their own opposition parties challenging the erstwhile liberation movements, of which they had been an integral part earlier on. In Namibia, this happened for the first time in 1999 with the creation of the Congress of Democrats (CoD) and in 2007 for a second time with the Rally for Democracy and Progress (RDP), while in South Africa it was the Congress of the People (COPE) in 2008. So far, none of these new parties were able to emerge as a serious alternative, although in South Africa the ANC lost its two-thirds majority in the elections 2009 arguably because a number of votes moved from the ANC to COPE, while in Namibia the CoD became the official opposition as a result of the election in 2004.

Both Swapo and the ANC claimed to be and were considered as the decisive liberators of the people from the yoke of colonialism and apartheid. The accomplishment of this historic mission was also perceived as a kind of 'end of history'. Once having achieved legitimate formal political power on the basis of the results of relatively free and fair general elections, their common understanding is based on the shared history of liberation movements in Southern Africa (including the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), FRELIMO (Liberation Front of Mozambique) and ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front)). These parties view themselves as entitled to continued political rule and support each other as allies against all efforts of 'regime change', considered as externally induced imperialist conspiracy.

Both the ANC and Swapo have youth leagues (and other active wings such as for women) who play a prominent role in the political mobilisation and discourse by promoting radical, militant rhetoric. This often is in favour of a hard-line politics guided by dogmatism and intolerance and devoid of any democratic notion. Members among the established leadership seem to use the party wings as outlets to voice views they as political office-bearers can or should not articulate.


Swapo was the declared sole representative of the formally acknowledged anti-colonial aspirations among the Namibian people and recognised by the United Nations General Assembly as 'the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people'. This provided the organisation with a genuine exclusivity perceived among the movement's officeholders and the wider population as confirmation that it has the sole mandate to represent the people of Namibia and to execute the power of definition over what is considered to be truly Namibian. In contrast, the ANC was always seen as one among several political forces representing opposition to the apartheid regime and never had a similar exclusive status.

The complexity of South African society (in terms of demographic features, the socio-economic aspects of an industrialised country with a large and often organised population and the long educational and intellectual history also among the formerly colonised majority) differs markedly from Namibia's society of a small and predominantly rural-based population (Namibia's two million inhabitants are exceeded in numbers by the urban conglomerate around Johannesburg alone).

The public as well as inner-party discourse in South Africa shows far more nuances and diversity than in Namibia. Likewise, the role of NGOs and other civil society actors and their forms of mobilising participation in public affairs through civic interest groups and social movements seem to suggest that there is considerably more strength and space for dissenting voices to operate and articulate alternatives without immediate fundamental consequences for the daily survival of the individuals involved. Individual risks in material security for dissenting political views expressed seem to be higher in Namibia than in South Africa, so a 'culture of fear' as a consequence of the far-reaching control of the former liberation movement over most of the affairs in society seems greater. There is a strict social control over people's activities and 'subversive behaviour'.

The CoD was established in 1999 as a new alternative to Swapo, mainly by younger party cadres frustrated with Swapo politics. Its leadership did not pose a risk to Swapo's two-thirds majority. In contrast, Swapo was able to expand its dominance even further, while the opposition was increasingly split into a variety of small, often locally rooted parties with an ethnic support base.

The ANC was always engaged in alliance politics, implying the negotiation of a political programme with other influential forces organised into separate entities (SACP (South African Communist Party) and COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions)). Swapo in contrast had no separate organisational negotiating partners to acknowledge within a political alliance. The trade union movement was already affiliated prior to independence and its political negotiating power proved to be rather insignificant. Its more articulate and politically influential leaders were mostly co-opted into the political leadership of Swapo without any increase in the strength of the trade unions; rather, it resulted in their weakening.


The orderly and democratic conduct of the Namibian parliamentary and presidential elections during the end of November 2009 should at this stage not be taken for granted. Opposition parties (in particular the RDP) are not fully free to organise the political rallies and mobilise the political support that they are constitutionally entitled to. Indications suggest that Swapo activists take initiatives to prevent other parties (again, in particular the RDP) to make use of the freedom to organise and campaign in public without interference. To what extent this is a response to provocations from these opposition party activists remains a contested issue, but regardless it does not reduce the damage brought in terms of international reputation.

It remains to be seen to what extent the moderate elements in the party leadership of Swapo will be able to execute influence and keep the more militant forces at bay. This would support the democratic image of Namibia, which has for a number of disturbing symptoms and features come increasingly into question.

It is uncertain if the newly established RDP will draw enough votes from the former support base of Swapo to establish itself as a meaningful political alternative. It is a matter of speculation if the RDP will be able to reduce Swapo's two-thirds majority to an absolute majority. It also remains to be seen if the election results are accepted by all parties and reflect beyond any doubt the will of the people.

Voters in Namibia have based their preferences for Swapo as the political organisation of the formerly colonised people on the undisputed basis that this has been the liberator from settler colonialism, but less so on the political programmes or the delivery of services since independence. It will be interesting to see if voter behaviour starts to change and to what extent the generation of the 'born free' will make a difference.

Differences and rivalries in Swapo have not ceased with the establishment of the RDP. The nomination and ranking of candidates on the party list as compiled at the end of August at the electoral college offered no clear indication concerning the degree of political influence by the competing camps inside Swapo and their influence to appoint political office-bearers in government for the term 2010-15.

So far, Namibian politics, and in particular Swapo politics, remain dominated by the first generation of political office-bearers since independence, composed mainly of activists who had been representing Swapo in exile. A generational shift seems due and evidence is emerging. It will be of interest to what extent this is becoming visible in the new cabinet.

Swapo's and Namibia's first president (officially titled the 'Founding Father of the Republic of Namibia') has remained politically active ever since leaving office as head of state in 2005 and as party president in 2007. The list of party candidates for the election did not however provide any clear evidence of his continued influence. The composition of cabinet members will provide a better indicator to what extent he remains influential and/or how much the cabinet bears the handwriting of the (re-)elected head of state.

The print media, as well as a number of radio broadcasting stations in Namibia, have been relatively autonomous and resemble aspects of the South African media in their critical reporting. It remains to be seen to what extent these media are granted to play such a role in the future with a new communications law which does allow also for media-control measures.

For the first time after two decades into Namibian independence an alliance of civil society organisations has been formed to execute a meaningful role in local election observations. It will be interesting to see to what extent Namibian civil society actors are able to fulfil this role and to what extent they are accepted if not supported to execute such a legitimising function.

Dr Henning Melber is the executive director of the Dag Hammarskold Foundation in Uppsala, Sweden, and a member of Swapo since 1974. This is a slightly updated and revised version of a paper presented to a panel at the seminar 'Promoting democracy: the state of public opinion and political behaviour in South Africa' at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, 16 July 2009.


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