Namibia – the Politics of the Belly [column]

TWENTY-FIVE years ago Jean-Francois Bayart published a pioneering study, entitled ‘The state in Africa: the politics of the belly’.

Translated from the French, ‘the politics of the belly’ is a widely used term coined originally by Cameroonians. Similarly, in Ghana ordinary people make frequent reference these days to the ‘stomachs’. In our local terminology, this translates into the ‘fat cats’. – A common species prospering in both the political and economic spheres in post-colonial Namibia.

Wikipedia equates the politics of the belly as a multi-facetted metaphor with neo-patrimonial forms of governance. It encapsulates ‘a controlling government and the interdependence of the elite in control of the private and public spheres actors on both sides use their status to strengthen their economic and political power’.

Thanks to the reports in a hitherto still relatively free local press we can follow the coups landed by our tenderpreneurs when it comes to public works dished out generously. The beneficiaries require no competence in the sectors in which they amass taxpayers’ money. These grand schemes are purely based on their position as intermediaries, and their links to those occupying the higher ranks in government and public service.

Occasionally they indicate that they feel entitled to such private sector gains they fork in because of their talents. They do not feel guilty or embarrassed. Nor are they shy to show off their latest luxury acquisitions. That Namibia is the country with the highest income differences in the world and consequently a lot of poor people (some of them starving in the midst of plenty) seems not their problem. After all, they are not the Red Cross, as quipped by one of them posing in front of his new Bentley with piles of Namibia dollar notes displayed on the bonnet.

But in return for the rewards being able to exploit the loopholes in a corrupt system, such parasites tend to show impressive generosity towards those in the political and administrative system. After all, these provide the troughs. Fundraising banquettes by the former and current head of state for their political enterprises are a primary example illustrating when payback time has arrived. Filling the party coffin is a similar patriotic duty. After all, those who give will be given…

Ironically, the socio-economic disparities pictured by such realities are still blamed on the legacy of Apartheid. Despite an average income of a higher middle-income country we claim that our socio-economic structures have the nature of a Least Developed Country. – Now, who is to blame for that after 25 years of Independence under a sovereign government, which claimed to liberate the country and its people? One could of course indeed argue, that the predatory nature of Namibian pseudo-capitalism is a direct result of the greed and abuse of power executed under settler colonial rule.

Those who were in power then cared as little about the people as those in power today seem to care. In that sense, Apartheid might cast a long shadow.

Having ‘liberated’ Namibia our selfless cadres enjoy a good life after all the sacrifices during the struggle days. They feel entitled to such privileges. The Prime Minister mingles with heads of state at the football world cup finals in Brazil, alleging that this serves the interests of his country. But at the same time it is claimed that the outing was for pleasure and fun, sponsored by one of the fortune hunters. Their company he seems to enjoy a lot and often – also on business trips.

After all, it is argued, also policy makers must be entitled to some leisure time. But either one is on state duty or having a private ball with buddies in Rio (including the minister of fisheries) – who coincidentally all hold in different ways and roles stakes in the state administration’s resource policy.

As Bayart clarified in his book: ‘The expression “politics of the belly” must be understood in the totality of its meaning. It refers not just to the “belly” but also to “politics”.’

The Johannesburg Market Theater currently performs the play ‘The Mother of All Eating’ by Zakes Mda. It seems, a similar playwright script could easily be inspired from our local version of the politics of the belly.

*Dr Henning Melber was director of NEPRU (1992-2000), research director at the Nordic Africa Institute (2000-2006) and director of the Dag Hammarskjoumlld Foundation (2006-2012), both in UppsalaSweden, and is extraordinary professor at universities in Pretoria and in Bloemfontein. He joined Swapo in 1974. His latest book ‘Understanding Namibia’ is published in August.

Source : The Namibian