Happy but unequal Namibia: On we go – Swapo rules and harmony prevails

Copyright The Economist

ON THE face of it, Namibia, governed for 75 years by neighbouring South Africa, is one of Africa’s political and economic successes: a middle-income developing country with rich natural resources, good infrastructure, gorgeous landscapes, a stable and democratic government, harmonious race relations, a free press and an economy that has grown on average by 4.2% a year since independence in 1990.

With a population of just 2.2m rattling around in a country one-and-a-half times the size of France, the former German colony of South West Africa is one of only nine African countries classified as free by Freedom House. In that Washington-based think-tank’s most recent “Freedom in the World” survey, it gets the second-highest mark (2 out of 7) for both political rights and civil liberties. In the latest index of good governance in Africa published in London by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, it comes sixth out of 53 countries.

Yet the UN Development Programme suggests that, by some calculations, Namibia is the world’s most unequal nation. Go to the capital, Windhoek, or Swakopmund, the main sea resort, and you could be forgiven for believing you were in a rich little European town: neat, well-paved streets lined by elegant high-rise hotels and banks, smart boutiques, outdoor cafés and pretty little homes painted in the colours of the Namib desert—ochre, pale yellow, salmon pink. But drive a bit further out and you find overcrowded black townships and beyond them the sprawling shanty towns where the dirt-poor live in leaky corrugated-iron shacks with no electricity, running water or sanitation. It is much the same elsewhere in Africa, but in Namibia the difference is more extreme.

Since independence in 1990, after a 23-year war of liberation, Namibia’s GDP per head has doubled in real terms, yet the poverty rate, according to the World Bank, is the same. Two in five Namibians live on less than $1.25 a day; 60% continue to eke out a living as subsistence farmers. The official unemployment rate stands at 51%, up from 37% at the time of the most recent labour survey, in 2004; two-thirds of those under 25 have never had a job. Matters have been made worse by HIV/AIDS. At the peak of the epidemic, in 2002, 20% of Namibians aged 15-49 were infected. The adult prevalence rate has since fallen to 15%, thanks to an education programme and antiretroviral drugs.

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