Fighting the fire of discontent

Social unrest: Namibia versus SA

28 July 2021 | Economics

Frustrated citizens without a voice will always be a powder keg. History has taught us that. – Christie Keulder, Political scientist

Jo-Maré Duddy – Although Namibia shares a similar volatile cocktail of high inequality, poverty, unemployment, corruption and waning trust in political powers than South Africa, analysts are mostly optimistic that growing frustration locally will not boil over into social unrest in the foreseeable future.

This, however, doesn’t mean that government should ignore flickering red socio-economic lights.

Analysts approached by Business7 agree that the violence that erupted in South Africa following the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma was the spark which ignited a country crippled by socio-economic and political woes, exacerbated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Zuma (79) was sentenced late in June for defying a constitutional court order to give evidence at an inquiry investigating high-level corruption during his nine years in office until 2018.


Asked how Namibia and South Africa differ and whether Namibia was in a better position to contain a similar potential crisis, Namibian-born Prof Henning Melber from the Nordic Africa Institute and lecturer at various other international academic institutions, said: “We do not have the type of malicious political instigators we see in South Africa.”

However, he added: “Early action is crucial.”

Political scientist Christie Keulder, who is the national investigator for Afrobarometer in Namibia, agreed: “We do not have the same consistently high levels of violence and the dynamic with regards to the ruling party and its leadership is different. Discontent here may still be someway away from what it is present in South Africa, but that does not mean we do not have some potential.”

Melber echoed this sentiment: “Factional in-fighting in the ANC is clearly of another calibre than the one in Swapo. It is highly unlikely that parts of Swapo would plan to trigger some similar kind of unrest bordering to insurrection as it happened by the Zuma faction in South Africa.”


Although Namibia shares some similarities with South Africa - most notably high unemployment, inequality and poor economic performance – the country is also vastly different from its neighbour in many aspects, according to Eben De Klerk, who holds a master’s philosophy degree in futures studies and is the vice chairperson of the Namibian Association of Risk Management.

“We have more responsible leaders when it comes to maintaining peace, as they do not actively call for unrest. We do not suffer from the tribal tension at the levels seen in South Africa and the nature of Namibians are generally less militant and destructive. Namibians help and engage each other more, largely due to our smaller population. We have a far stronger sense of dependency on each other,” De Klerk said.

Simonis Storm (SS) economist Theo Klein remarked that “Namibians have always been known as a patient, forgiving and friendly nation”.

“Namibians at large remain passive as opposed to South Africans who have shown to be more aggressive, proactive and violent in raising their concerns. Of course, one never knows how much anguish and disappointment the nation (especially those in the lower-income and unemployed group) can continue to handle until we reach a tipping point in our long-endured social stability in Namibia,” Klein said.


The executive director of the Institute of Public Policy Research, Graham Hopwood, noted that despite a lack any recent data, it was fair to assume that the levels of poverty, inequality and unemployment in Namibia “have worsened since the economy took a nosedive in 2016” and that Covid-19 “only compounded an already bad situation”.

“These factors combined are bound to lead to a less stable situation - both politically and socially. It seems almost obvious to state we are running the risk of serious social unrest,” Hopwood said.

Although he believes government can do a lot to prevent such a scenario developing by creating better conditions for investment and job creation, improving service delivery and by introducing welfare measures that will mitigate the worst effects of poverty, Hopwood stated: “Government seems to have lost its way.”

He elaborated: “Covid may provide a convenient excuse for the failures of ruling politicians - when in fact there is so much that the government can do.”


Dr Omu Kakujaha-Matundu, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Namibia (Unam), said government was indeed sitting on a “timebomb”.

However, he too pointed out the different nature of how Namibians and South Africans tackle resistance – the latter being more prone to violence.

“The ruling classes here can for the time sleep comfortably. But for how long? A hungry man is an angry man! If those factors that breed unrest are not addressed, the so-called peace and stability our politicians are boasting will be wiped off the slate in no time,” Kakujaha-Matundu said.

Referring to the potential of social unrest, Keulder pondered: “Who will put the match to the keg in Namibia? Who has the capacity to strategise, plan and implement such a set of events? Who stands to gain by such events?”


Timely official data in Namibia remains a challenge.

The Namibia Statistics Agency’s (NSA) last Labour Force Survey was in 2018. Its last Household Income and Expenditure Survey (NHIES) was in 2015/16. The last Population and Housing Census dates back to 2011. The NSA recently announced that the census, which was scheduled for August 2021, was postponed by a year, “due to mainly due to competing priorities such as the current Covid-19 budget prioritisation”.

“We don't have any updated accurate information of the impact [of the Covid-19 pandemic] on the labour market, employment/unemployment and neither on poverty and inequality levels,” said Klaus Schade, director of the Economic Association of Namibia (EAN), referring not only on the census, but the other surveys too.

“This information is likewise crucial for much needed policy interventions,” Schade added.

The NSA last month said Namibia’s Gini coefficient of 0.560 reported in its NHIES 2015/16 was wrong and that it should be 0.576 – meaning that Namibia is the second most unequal country in the work, outranked only by South Africa. Broadly speaking, the Gini coefficient measures income distribution or the gap between the rich and the poor.


The frequency at which citizens have to go without the very basics - food, clean water, medical services, cooking fuel and cash – also known as lived poverty, currently are at of slightly below 2003 levels, Afrobarometer data shows.

“This is telling,” Keulder said, adding: “It shows our government has not been able to address poverty in an effective manner that improves the quality of life of the poor.”

Consensus among local economist and analysts is that around 40% of Namibia’s workforce, especially the youth, is currently unemployed.

“We could easily see the number of unemployed in the region of 430 000 people, given the [official] unemployment rate was around 33.4% in 2018, the [subsequent] increase in unemployment and the increase in the working-age population,” IJG Securities recently told Business7.

This is nearly 70 000 more than in 2018. The average household in Namibia has about four people, implying that about 1.7 million people could be affected by an unemployment rate of 40%.

Afrobarometer lived poverty data shows that close to 80% of those who lost their jobs during the pandemic had to go without enough food to eat at least once.

Commented Keulder: “More revolutions have started because of the price of bread than anything else.”


Klein pointed out that Namibia’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita has been on a declining trend since 2014.

According to the NSA’s preliminary national accounts for 2020, compensation received by employees totalled N$80.35 billion, some N$661 million or 0.8% less than in 2019.

Gross national income (GNI), the total amount of money earned by a nation's people and businesses, came in at about N$173.3 billion – around N$3.8 billion or 2.1% down from 2019.

Real GNI per capita for 2020 was N$56 284, down N$4 847 or 7.9% from 2019. This is the lowest real GNI per capita in the NSA’s rebased records going back to 2013 and a drop of nearly 12% from its peak of N$63 921 in 2015.

Gross national disposable income fell by about N$400 million or 0.2% year-on-year (y/y) to about N$195.5 billion in 2020.

“The economic downturn over the last five years has affected the most financially vulnerable the most and rising unemployment has hurt mostly the low to lower-middle income households,” Klein said.

He added: “These are the same problems that South Africa is facing and is a foreboding of what is to come if Namibia does not address it with the seriousness it deserves.”


The nature of trust in Namibia’s political institutions is changing, Keulder said. Corruption and perceived corruption, poor service delivery and concerns regarding fiscal waste and macro-economic stability are drivers of this shift, analysts agree.

“Today more Namibians are sceptical about government institutions than ever before. Absolute trust has been replaced with conditional trust and government performance is now a key element of trust. This means that failure to perform will erode trust,” Keulder elaborated.

Irrespective of who is leading, Namibia’s “poverty levels are way too high and frustration is imminent”, he said.

“At the same time, the political system has not served citizens, and especially the youth very well, we see that from the disengagement from electoral politics. Frustrated citizens without a voice will always be a powder keg. History has taught us that.”

According to Melber, the task of government - and Swapo - is not really to maintain the trust of the people, but rather to regain trust and restore confidence in governance.

“As we could witness in the last two elections of November 2019 and more dramatically November 2020, Swapo has not only lost the moral high ground and heroic status it could claim at Independence, but also the overwhelming support of the electorate in previous elections. This is a warning signal flickering,” Melber said.

He continued: “Government has squandered the many ‘fat years’ and now has to face the music. This is of little comfort when it comes to the political stability and social contract required to secure peace and development.” – [email protected]