LSE’s Giulia Ferrari says that Martha Akawa’s book provides a thorough account of the history of women within Namibia’s ruling party, SWAPO, and of the situation today.
Martha Akawa’s book, The Gender Politics of the Namibian Liberation Struggle, charts the history of women’s involvement in SWAPO, formerly the South-West Africa People’s Organisation and their role in a free Namibia, offering a picture of mixed success. The book is timely in the face of the contrast taking shape in the current political landscape: a 33% increase in parliamentary seats to ensure that SWAPO’s stated objective of a 50% women parliament would not cause men to lose seats, introduced by the same elite that paved the way to the swearing in of Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila as the first woman Prime Minister in Namibian history on 21 March , 2015, and women representatives effectively gaining 41% of parliamentary seats in last December’s elections.
Akawa assesses the extent to which SWAPO’s formal commitment to gender equality was reflected in the daily practices in the liberation camps, organisational structures and decision-making during the struggle. Furthermore, she lays bare the discrepancy between the manifesto’s vision on women’s political role in a liberated Namibia and the near-total absence of women in positions of political power in the immediate wake of liberation (only 6 out of 76 elected representatives in the first Namibian Parliament were women), and their continued ancillary role in the decades to follow. In the final chapters of the book she denounces the state of Namibian women as second class citizens more widely. She reports evidence on the gap between a progressive legislative framework and effective achievements for women in Namibia. She paints the picture of a country where gender equality is enshrined in the Constitution, and substantively enabled via national policies and legislative acts that include acts against domestic violence, affirmative action for employment and women’s access to land. She contrasts this sharply with facts on the effective lack of political empowerment for women, their inability to reach high-level management positions across sectors, the lack of co-operative decision making in the household, the tendency for women not to undertake Law, Economics or Science degrees, and instead prefer nursing and teaching studies, and the uncertainty of their rights to land and related resources. It is no surprise then that Akawa also reports a high incidence of gender-based violence. She attributes this not only to the absence of concrete strategies for policy implementation and general societal reticence to change gender norms, but also to women’s lack of solidarity, citing other Africanists and echoing an ongoing debate in Namibian society. “There can be no liberation of Namibia without the liberation of its women”, is one of the key statements of SWAPO’s stance on women’s empowerment. Akawa amasses evidence, both archival and legal, and based on interviews with women directly involved in the struggle, that questions whether SWAPO held true to its vision. Her reflections provide a historical background to concerns that the current move to expand access to women in power may still serve the interests of the ruling, and predominantly male, elite of historical SWAPO leaders.
The book has three key merits. With it, Akawa brings a large amount of detailed evidence from an array of historical and archival sources all in one place. The book reports a detailed description of the daily interactions in the camps through a gendered lens, and lucidly discusses how gender norms as both dictated by local customs and colonial values determined for women a role as subordinates, contrasting this with the movement’s aims and declared intentions on paper. Particularly revealing is her reflection on how life in the camps and during the struggle, despite still being discriminatory, offered women a chance to play a central role in the struggle alongside men. A change that many women fully embraced, but most found difficult to realise during the struggle and to this day.
For the gender specialist, Akawa’s clear historical account of the unequal gender dynamics during the liberation struggle as stemming from the interplay of local and colonial gender norms is perhaps the most informative aspect of her book. She reports facts that span the whole gamut of norms that limit women’s rights to self-fulfilment, self-determination and dignity, from the most obvious forms of sexual abuse and the custom among men of power in the organisation to prey on young women newly arrived at the camps to make them their sexual partners and exercise control over their lives, to the more subtle forms of differential treatment of students sent abroad based on their gender. An example of the latter are the reports of female students being repatriated upon becoming pregnant, while their male companions were allowed to continue their course of study. Her detailed account of the hiatus between a modern legislative framework and the failure to achieve effective agency for women in all spheres of life, from the political arena to the work environment via the household highlights key potential drivers for change. The book displays a complex understanding of the gendered interplay of power relations subsumed under the phenomenon of gender-based violence, and contains plenty of evidence on how this played out historically in the struggle and in contemporary Namibian society.
Writing in the direct voice of some of the women involved in the struggle is another merit of the book. It is history made by its actors, direct testimony of the events that make our history; it is history written by a woman, through the testimonies of women. This in itself is an important step in the historical process. Equally important, especially in laying bare the complexities underlying gender-based violence, is Akawa’s reporting of the choice to remain silent for which some of her interviewees opt.
However, Akawa does not put SWAPO’s gender power structures in the context of the attitudes and practices of other liberation movements contemporary to SWAPO in the region (see, for example, the African National Congress (ANC), another party of freedom fighters in power since independence in neighbouring South Africa, which Akawa mentions only peripherally). Nor does she elaborate on how the current lack of effective improvement in the condition of women in terms of education, employment, access to land and political participation, despite a legal framework that sustains their rights, fits in the wider context of women’s empowerment movements more generally. The book contains only a faint echo of the large picture, the wider historical and social forces that underpin the events Akawa describes in Namibia: while she does describe the movement’s ties with other liberation movements, and the key women involved in these exchanges, she chooses not to elaborate on how these important, and so far little known facts to the non-specialist, related to the wider historical framework, both in the region and globally. A link between what Braudel called the événementielle and the longue durée is perhaps left wanting in Akawa’s otherwise precious documentation. Could this possibly constitute material for some of her future reflections?
All in all, this is a very informative book, and a useful resource for historians, social and political scientists, and gender specialists with an interest in Namibian gender relations vis-à-vis the liberation struggle and the current social and political landscape. Further critical reflection on how the “gender politics of the Namibian liberation struggle” and women’s current status in Namibian society relate to similar regional phenomena may bring into sharper focus underlying common regional causes for the difficulties women face in becoming effective agents of change, and contribute to the intellectual and policy debate on how to bring about the concrete improvements for women that SWAPO is so far failing to fully realise.
The Gender Politics of the Namibian Liberation Struggle by Martha Akawa
Basel Namibia Studies Series 13
Giulia Ferrari is health economist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a PhD student in the Department of International Development at the LSE. Her work focuses on the socio-economic drivers of gender-based violence and on methods for the valuation of violence prevention and empowerment programmes in sub-Saharan Africa.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.