28.07.2016 | Namibia bucks Africa’s economic downturn

Arriving in Namibia’s capital Windhoek, one almost feels like stepping out of a time machine into 19th century Germany – albeit with a more welcoming climate. Bismarck Street in the wealthy seaside town of Swakopmund boasts shops selling German sausages of a quality that is hard to come by in Germany nowadays, and the fishing town of Lüderitz would not look out of place in Bavaria. Given the abundance of European architecture, traditional German cuisine and what locals proudly call the best beer in all of Africa, visitors might be surprised to learn that Namibia was only a German colony for a mere 30 years.

Between 1884 and 1915 the German Empire ruled over present-day Namibia, a land almost four times the size of Britain with a population of just 2 million.  After Germany’s defeat in the Great War, the territory was governed by South Africa and only gained independence in 1990.  Since then, the country has proved to be a rare good news story in Sub-Saharan Africa, although the fruits of its economic success have not been distributed evenly.

In the decade from 2002, the Namibian economy grew fourfold, an astonishing rate that has slowed down in recent years partially due to the financial problems facing the country’s largest trading partner, South Africa.  However, the investment climate remains positive as international companies appreciate Namibia’s stable political system, relatively low levels of corruption, and generally safe environment.  The ruling SWAPO party, which played a pivotal role in Namibia’s independence struggle, has been in power since 1990 and remains popular.  Unlike most of the other political parties, SWAPO promotes leaders from all tribes and seeks to appeal to voters throughout the country.

Nevertheless, the lack of a strong political opposition has led to complacency amongst government officials, and locals often complain about mismanagement. The loss of tax money to scammers from neighbouring countries has drawn particular criticism.  In one case last year, lax checks on VAT refund claims allowed a group of Angolans to defraud the Namibian Ministry of Finance of over $8 million.  Another example of government naiveté has been its longstanding ties with North Korea. Officials only announced an end to military cooperation with Pyongyang this month, out of long overdue concern that they could be breaking international sanctions.  The Namibian Foreign Minister reportedly flew to Pyongyang to explain the move, prompting local newspapers to jest that until then the government had been unaware of the sanctions regime.

Notwithstanding these apparent errors of judgement, the authorities have made a decent fist of running the country thanks in no small part to its impressive natural resources.  The high demand for Namibia’s diamond and uranium deposits has meant that its mining industry has been less exposed to the fluctuations in global commodity prices that have come to haunt other resource-rich countries.  Namibia’s breathtaking landscapes and wildlife draw over one million tourists each year, mostly from South Africa and Germany.  While many of its neighbours also boast stunning national parks, Namibia’s big appeal for visitors is that much of it is as safe as Europe.  In some parts, locals are even known to leave their cars and houses unlocked.

Although mining and tourism are the largest contributors to Namibia’s economy, half the workforce is involved in the agricultural sector.  The government has attempted to increase productivity by promoting greater agricultural mechanisation, but this has not extended to the inhabitants of remote areas who continue to farm in ways that have not changed for generations.  Today many in these communities suffer from HIV/AIDS, with high mortality rates among adults leaving thousands of orphans and forcing other children to care for sick relatives, depriving them of an education. 

The contrast between rural communities and city-dwellers explains why the World Bank ranks Namibia as one of the most unequal societies in the world.  Addressing the needs of these marginalised citizens and making them more economically productive could greatly improve Namibia’s prospects.  While so many of its neighbours struggle, the country is thriving, but it needs to make sure that all its citizens can reap the benefits.