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SWAPO: The (Dangerous and Deteriorating) Face of Namibian Nationalism

Following World War I, South West Africa, now referred to as Namibia, was placed under British mandate, falling under the administration of the government of South Africa. By 1960, most African countries had gained their independence, but South West Africa was held onto by the South African government, mainly due to its rich mineral resources. In its fight to gain independence, South West Africa birthed the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which remains a prominent face of nationalism in Namibian politics.

Created in April of 1960, SWAPO was originally founded to unite Namibians under the idea that the struggle for independence was necessary in bringing change to the country, and fight both physically and politically for the country’s freedom. Today, the party maintains this sense of unity and nationalism, and has remained Namibia’s governing party since 1990. SWAPO’s popularity among the people has been so strong that in the 2014 elections, the party gained 80% of the country’s votes. Behind this success is a combination of funding and campaigning prosperity, which is often more difficult to obtain among smaller parties due to Namibia’s sparse population.

However, after 30 years under SWAPO rule, Namibia is beginning to see what is referred to as the “Limits to Liberation”, in which movements built on liberation and increased nationalism lead to un-democratic and increasingly corrupt leaders. SWAPO, which now maintains control over much of Namibia’s politics, has recently faced allegations of corruption, abuse of power, and failures in administration that not only threaten their standing in government, but also speak to the dangers of placing nationalistic liberation groups in power.

One of the most significant pieces of evidence pointing to corruption in the SWAPO party was a scandal in Namibia’s fishing industry labelled “fishrot”, which came to light in late 2019. Allegations stated that the Icelandic seafood company, Samherji, had bribed government officials in Namibia into granting them access to fruitful fishing grounds, allowing them to utilize international loopholes and avoid taxation. As details of the scandal continue to emerge, implication has fallen on two ministers and several officials of state-owned enterprises, shining a spotlight on SWAPO and their possible involvement in what has been labelled Namibia’s “biggest bribery scandal”.

This scandal, in combination with other evidence of corruption and abuse of power, preceded widespread dissatisfaction with the SWAPO party, which was made clear in Namibia’s 2020 elections. Regional council votes for SWAPO dropped from 83% in 2015 to 57% in 2020, local authority votes dropped from 73% to 40%, and seats held in the municipality dropped from 12 out of 15 to only 5. Even more shocking than these sharp decreases in SWAPO popularity is the party’s public response to the country’s obvious disapproval. After Namibians began to shift their gaze from the SWAPO party earlier this year, defence minister Peter Hafeni Vilho attempted to utilize SWAPO’s signature sense of nationalism to shift the blame. He accused the country’s white population of an anti-government agenda, labelling them unpatriotic and blaming them for failures of the government. SWAPO’s spokesperson, Hilma Nicanor, shared Vilho’s rhetoric, as she blamed “outside forces” for the recent rejection of the party. Following SWAPO’s drop in popularity, members of the party have reiterated their dominance over the Namibian economy, even threatening to withhold funding from starving areas of the country governed by opposing parties, though the president publicly rejected these suggestions.

The recent shift in Namibia’s political narrative suggests that citizens are becoming fed up with SWAPO; a party built on nationalism and liberation, which now uses those very ideals to maintain a non-democratic government and shift the blame of corruption. In the coming years and the leadup to the next election, we will surely see Namibia’s political climate continue to change, and perhaps see the end of SWAPO’s years in power.