HAGE GEINGOB is in a bind. After years of perkiness, Namibia’s economic growth rate shrank from more than 5% in 2015 to a dismal 0.2% last year—and may now have stalled. But though President Geingob is an avowed friend of the market and seeks foreign investors, populists within his ruling South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) are calling for measures that would hobble the economy still more, by implementing a draft bill known as the National Equitable Economic Empowerment Framework (NEEEF). It would knee the business class in the groin, especially the white part of it, which still drives the economy.
Under NEEEF, all businesses, however small, would have to be at least 25%-owned by “previously disadvantaged persons”, broadly meaning black Namibians. No company would be allowed to “allot, issue, or register the transfer of any portion of its ownership…to a person that is not previously disadvantaged or to a domestic or foreign enterprise owned by a person that is not previously disadvantaged”. At least half of all company boards and management would have to be black, too.
If NEEEF were enacted, it would likely be abused by ruling-party bigwigs to grab stakes in other people’s businesses in the name of uplifting the previously disadvantaged, as has happened in Zimbabwe and South Africa. Many white-owned businesses would close, and foreign investors would shy away. So Mr. Geingob, hitherto more pragmatic and business-minded than his two presidential predecessors, seems loth to go ahead with the bill, first put forward in 2015. But a souring political mood has revived talk of NEEEF. He has also spoken recently of expropriating white-owned land, albeit with fair compensation, another recipe for clobbering productivity. His prime minister, egged on by the country’s first president, Sam Nujoma, who still hankers after the socialism espoused during SWAPO’s long years in exile, is said to be a NEEEFer.
Calls for black empowerment resonate because, though Namibia is deemed a middle-income country with bountiful reserves of minerals (especially diamonds and uranium), a tiny population (2.3m) and a prosperous if small black middle class, it is also one of the world’s most unequal. Poverty is rife. Some 40% of the population still live in shacks. Unemployment, some reckon, is at least 40%.
Mr. Geingob was elected in 2014 with a whopping 87% of the vote. Yet he is sounding unusually twitchy in the run-up to a party congress later in the year, at which he is likely to be re-elected as party leader but may find a new vice-president breathing down his neck.
Aged 75, he hails from a minority group, the Damara, numbering barely 7% of the population, whereas power in SWAPO has in the past been held mainly by the Ovambo, who account for half of Namibians, and many of whom still look to the wily, ruthless 87-year-old Mr. Nujoma, who ran the party as a fief for 45 years until his official retirement in 2005.
One reason for the economy’s sudden sickness is the collapse of the building industry, which relied on a string of big government-funded projects that can no longer be afforded. A class of rich black businessmen, known as “tenderpreneurs”, invariably well-connected to SWAPO, has benefited hugely from NEEEF-like contracts. This is causing resentment in the densely populated slums of Windhoek, the capital.
While a chunk of the SWAPO old guard regards Mr. Geingob with suspicion and jealousy, another wing backs a self-styled revolutionary faction calling for “affirmative repositioning”. One of its leaders, Job Amupanda, a bearded 29-year-old university lecturer, espouses “Fanonian Marxism with Namibian characteristics”, admires Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and calls for the expropriation of land. “We want urban land for our youth and if we don’t get it we’ll take it,” he says.
Mr. Geingob will probably, for the moment, fend off his rivals. But it is unclear whether, in doing so, he will feel obliged to make populist concessions along the lines of NEEEF. Most reckon he won’t. If he did, he might buy himself time yet send Namibia’s economy further down the drain.