Dr Sizo Nkala
Hage Gottfried Geingob, Namibia’s third president since the demise of apartheid in 1990, died on February 4 in the Namibian capital of Windhoek where he was receiving cancer treatment.
He was born on August 3, 1941 in the small town of Otjiwarongo, north of Namibia and inhabited by the ethnic minority group of the Damara people. His birth coincided with the era when Namibia was an administered territory under the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, and just seven years before the effective colonisation of Namibia by South Africa’s apartheid government.
Geingob’s life would be significantly defined by his participation in the struggle against apartheid rule in his country of birth and the fight for the rights of the indigenous people of Namibia. He was politically conscious at an early age and joined the ranks of the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo), Namibia’s liberation movement, in 1960 when it was formed.
Geingob studied a teaching course at the Augustineum college which he completed in 1961. However, he was expelled during the course of his studies for protesting the inferior quality of the education offered to black people by the apartheid government. He was later readmitted.
He taught briefly at a primary school in Central Namibia. However, disillusioned by the injustices of the apartheid regime, Geingob joined the Swapo transit refugee camp in Botswana in 1962 where he served as the movement’s assistant representative.
A story is told that Geingob escaped death by a whisker when an plane he was supposed to travel in was blown up before he boarded at the Francistown airport on August 29, 1963.
He left Botswana for the US in 1964 where he studied at the Temple University from 1964 to 1965. He successfully completed his first degree at Fordham University before obtaining a Master’s degree in political science at the New School of Social Research in New York. From 1972 to 1975, he joined the UN Council for Namibia where he was one of the fiercest critiques of South Africa’s continued occupation of Namibia.
He is also credited for getting the UN General Assembly to recognise Swapo as the genuine and legitimate representative of the Namibian people in 1976, thus expanding its diplomatic reach.
He assumed a role as a director of the UN Institute for Namibia in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1975. He used the role to highlight Namibia’s plight in the international community which kept its struggles firmly on the global agenda.
Geingob would return to Namibia from exile in 1989 to lead the Swapo election campaign under the UN-supervised elections that ushered in the democratic dispensation in Namibia. He was elected chair of the Constituent Assembly that wrote the newly independent country’s constitution and elected Sam Nujoma as the founding president of Namibia.
Geingob himself was subsequently appointed as the country’s first prime minister in 1990 working under Nujoma – a post he would hold until 2002. As prime minister, he played a pivotal role in modernising the government and building a functional civil service able to deliver essential public services to the people of Namibia.
He left the government in 2002 to lead the World Bank’s Global Coalition for Africa after his fallout with Nujoma. He re-emerged in Namibian politics when he secured a parliamentary seat in 2004. This paved his way for his election as the vice president of Swapo at the party congress in 2007.
He was elected alongside his predecessor, Hifikepunye Pohamba, as president. Pohamba was elected Swapo president and appointed Geingob minister of trade and Industry in 2008 before he returned him to the post of prime minister in 2012. This after he was successfully nominated Swapo’s presidential candidate at a party congress in 2012 for the country’s 2014 elections.
Geingob won a landslide victory in the 2014 elections, securing more than 86% of the vote which was more than the 76% Sam Nujoma had secured in the first popular vote in 1994. Geingob was also the first non-Ovambo-speaking president which made his presidency a representation of Namibia’s multicultural tolerance and unity. A testament to his solid democratic credentials, Geingob’s ascendancy to the top post has been described as free from elements of repression such as the elimination of opponents, arresting of journalists, and political violence that have characteristic of other liberation movements in southern Africa.
Among his achievements as president, Geingob is credited for promoting women leadership through a progressive gender policy, promoting media freedom, and resisting the pressure to sign homophobic bills from parliament into law.
Although Geingob was widely regarded as part of the “old guard” who fought for Namibia’s liberation, he made an effort to infuse his government with youthful faces of the younger generation. However, the challenges he faced in fulfilling his election promises saw his party’s share of vote decline from 86% in 2014 to just 56% in 2019. His death came just before the country’s seventh national elections.
Should Swapo experience another decline comparable to that of 2019, then Namibia will find itself in an uncharted territory as Swapo may have to share power with the opposition for the first time since 1990. Geingob’s experience and statesmanship would be sorely needed to stir through this unusual situation should it come to pass. However, his legacy of democracy would be enough to provide guidance in navigating such a situation and keeping Namibia’s democracy alive.
*Dr Nkala is a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies
**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL