Stories from the African road: A Namibian presidential welcome
- Richard Poplak
- 24 Jan 2011 01:28 (South Africa)
Two Daily Maverick contributors are currently on the first leg of a cross-Africa road trip, comparing and contrasting the remnants of white colonialism with the rise of the Chinese. Their first week finds them in Namibia, a young country confronting an epochal change. And in this, Namibia may speak for all of Africa. By KEVIN BLOOM and RICHARD POPLAK.
A blue Toyota Hilux travels west on the A2 in southern Botswana. Two motorcycles, kitted to the hilt with camping gear and extra gas, pass in the opposite direction. “Hey look,” says the driver of the Hilux. “It’s Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor.” The passenger laughs. “Yeah, the back-up team wanted to see how tough they were. Told them to ride a hundred kilometres on their own.”
And thus ends the romantic idea of two white boys on an African road trip. Going it alone on this continent is not what it once was; Lonely Planet guides and cookie-cutter documentary television have seen to that. Still, Africa is Africa, and things tend to get interesting on the empty plains.
For instance, on a Saturday night in the mining boomtown of Jwaneng, around 150 kilometres from the South African border, the patrons at the bar can’t tear themselves away from the screen. The show is Botswana’s version of Jika Majika, except it takes place in a large, packed stadium in Gaborone. The dance that’s being performed by the volunteers on stage, we are told, is the “donkey dance”, a movement that involves a rapid twitching of the hips and feet, with the waist and torso still. We’re now riveted too. When the professionals demonstrate the appropriate moves, the stadium erupts. The next day it’s the donkey dance instead of leg stretches every time we stop to change drivers.
The border posts out here are sleepy, cloaked in cicadas and vicious heat, and for the most part efficiently run. (Try any border crossing from Lebanon into Syria for sheer chaos; the Torkhum crossing from Afghanistan into Pakistan via the Khyber Pass for abject terror; the San Antonio US/Mexico border for hysterical security.) There is some bad luck crossing from Botswana into Namibia – arguably one of the least visited border posts in the world, given the scant population densities of both countries – when a full bus arrives just ahead of us. Otherwise, it’s the blue bakkie alone on the infrastructure – the N4, the A2, the B6; superb, often die-straight roads that link three countries with long, complicated historical bonds.
Namibia has an expansiveness that amounts to generosity. It’s raining as the Hilux cuts through the 360 kilometres from the border into Windhoek; the air is sharp and particulate with a haze that allows a painterly wash to the clouds along the horizon. Both of us have visited the country before – on assignment for this website’s late, much-lamented ancestor, Maverick magazine. Then, we drove south to north in a similarly blue VW Polo, up from Keetmanshoop, into Sossusvlei, a bizarre weekend in Swakopmund, six days in Rundu and the Caprivi strip, and south again. That was a travel piece. This time, we are necessarily more sensitive to the geopolitical realities governing Namibia and Botswana – mostly, the relationship with China, which certainly existed in 2006, but is patently coming to a head in 2011.
Take, for example, the first night in Windhoek. The Namibian capital, now 300,000 people strong, is dotted with new government construction projects, none of them more visible and ostentatious than the Presidential Palace, erected to house Hifikepunye Pohamba and his court. The structure sprawls across a series of rolling koppies along Robert Mugabe Avenue, corner (on the southeast) of Laurent Desiree Kabila Street. While apartheid-era concrete Brutalism, still much in evidence in Windhoek and elsewhere in Namibia, has developed an architectural cachet over the years, it’s hard to imagine this monstrosity ever finding appreciation. Built by the North Koreans, finished by the Chinese, the wrought-iron fencing (complete with gilded motif), tiled guard turrets with one-way mirrored glass, and half-dome over the main building, are all somehow reminiscent of Muammar Gaddafi’s main compound in Tripoli, bombed by the Americans during Operation El Dorado in 1986.
The palace, which should have been open-tendered like any government project in the country, went unopposed to the North Koreans, who were unable to finish it to grade. The Chinese then stepped in to help, but there remains a distinct Kim Il Jong vibe to the place – a paranoia baked into the very foundations. (It comes replete with underground tunnels, as if the Swapo upper echelons will need to flee Namibia secretly at some point, for a reason only their North Korean pals have iterated to them.)
Photo: Windhoek's Presidential Palace, circa 2006. (Photo by AJ82)
So impressively awful is the structure that we stop on Monday night to take pictures of it under the near-full Windhoek moon. Suddenly, a minivan slams to a stop beside us, discharging a motley threesome, Glocks hanging at their waists. They are big men, and angry, and they begin demanding passports and travel documents; while their vehicle has police markings, they do not, a possible sign that they are the personal security representatives of the head-of-state up the hill. If so, there are some gaps in their method. Our names and identity numbers are written down on the back of an envelope, and while we half expect a knock on the door of our room when they detect from Google that we’re journalists (not, as was explained, tourists), nothing happens.
Still, the memory from the 2006 visit to Namibia has been shattered. There appears to be a new atmosphere of menace to the country, confirmed by the series of interviews conducted during the week. In talks with journalists, self-styled crusaders, trade union leaders, and construction company bosses, the same narrative emerges – the Chinese that have recently arrived en masse in Nambia do not have to play by the rules that the rest of the country is held to. The legislation that covers employment equity, minimum wages, annual leave, and safety levels on construction sites have, apparently, been blatantly ignored, and while there’s nothing particularly Sino-phobic in the stories that we hear, there is a growing sense of frustration at the government. “These laws were put in place to protect the citizens of this country,” is the repeated refrain. “They are good laws. All we ask is that foreigners are made to respect them.”
We are currently writing a book about the Chinese in Africa – this piece will be one of a series we file for The Daily Maverick from the road – and it is way too early in our research to cast stone-cold judgment on Chinese business practices in southern Africa. Indeed, many of the people we spoke to put the blame squarely at the feet of rotten government officials, who are only too happy to engage in the Chinese cultural practice of gift-taking and receiving. (With emphasis here on the receiving.) But one thing is certain – Namibia is a country in flux, confronted with a flood of foreign money that is Janus-faced in its ambiguity: it represents both unprecedented opportunity, and carries with it the threat of end-times.
There is one other thing, a further frisson that fires up young trade union organisers and the other crusaders we’ve met so far: the agency in this epochal moment belongs to Namibians. The Chinese, as they’ve proved time and again, will behave according to the rules on the ground. It’s up to Namibians to make – and enforce – those rules appropriately.
Perhaps this is what we feel on the streets of Windhoek. This sense of change, of a 20-year-old country being forced to make real, grown-up decisions key to its future and its soul. Every country, every people, every person is confronted with such game-changing choices at some point or other. This is Namibia’s turning point. No one writes the ending for them.
Tomorrow, we head north, all the way up to the Angolan border. The game is different up there; it’s where the Chinese first started their Namibian adventures. The winds of change are blowing there as well. Indeed, they’re blowing across the continent, and we hope to be there to parse what they mean. DM
Main photo by JTHETZEL.