Southern Africa liberation movements. The political culture of the South West Africa People’s Organisation

Academic Paper, 2019

20 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents



The concept of Political Culture

SWAPO as a liberation struggle movement

SWAPO’s authoritarian tendencies and democratic deficit

One ‘partyism’ and centralization power

Weakening Civil Society and Oppositions

The domination of government by a small clique

Fusion of party and state (the myths of separation of powers)

Towards democratic consolidation

Imagining a Parliamentary democracy in Namibia

Positive outlook?




South West Africa People Organization (SWAPO) is one of the oldest political parties in Namibia. It has ruled the country since independence from South Africa’s Apartheid government in 1990. SWAPO is seen as the liberation party because of its involvement in the liberation struggle. The former liberation fighters dominate all the highest political positions, the army and the police. This article discusses SWAPO’s political culture since independence. It argues that SWAPO has inherited an authoritarian political culture from the colonial regime and continued to internalize this culture without much amendment. The article uses an observatory approach and uses empirical examples from reports and the day to day operations of the SWAPO party. It includes the elements of political culture of African independence and liberation movements. The article concludes that SWAPO, despite seeming theoretically democratic, continues to be dominated by an authoritarian political culture. Moreover the progress of adopting and following a democratic political culture is curtailed or circumscribed by the SWAPO party’s entrapment in the past, its will to maintain power and the absence of will on the part of its leaders to change its authoritarian culture. The article suggests a parliamentary democratic system to change the political culture of the ruling party and help it consolidate democracy in the country.


SWAPO is one of the oldest political parties in Namibia. It is characterized as an African liberation movement because of its exploits in ousting the South Africa Apartheid government and liberating the Namibian people. It has dominated the Namibian political scene since then, winning elections since 1990-2014 with a considerably large share of votes. Since independence, the SWAPO government has sought to lock in its political dominance and maintain power, government, public service, diplomatic missions, police, army and other public offices are dominated by SWAPO members and sympathizers, and former members of the liberation struggle. Local and regional governance alike are dominated by members of the party. This article discusses SWAPO’s political culture since independence in relation to the type it inherited, and the progress it has made in terms of moving away from the colonial political culture. The article argues like other African liberation struggle movements, the party has inherited an authoritarian political culture and continues to internalize this culture without much amendments or change. The article uses empirical examples from the actions, exercises and day to day operations of the SWAPO party. It includes the elements of political culture of African independence and liberation movements outlined by Gumede (2017) to conclude that despite seeming theoretically democratic, SWAPO government continues to be dominated by an authoritarian political culture, and therefore have a long way to go to consolidate its democracy.

The presentation of arguments in this article is organized as follows: The first theme briefly discus the concept of political culture and its meaning. The second theme discusses SWAPO in its form, that of liberation movement and a brief history of the party. The third theme discusses SWAPO’s political culture and democratic deficits since assuming power and governance. The next theme discussed the progress made by the SWAPO party (if any). The final section concludes.

The concept of Political Culture

According to Swedlow political culture answers the questions of “who gets what, when, where, and how,” So if politics is the “art of the possible,” than political culture helps define the limits of that art, for culture defines what is generally permissible in a given society (2013). At its core, political culture is the shared values and beliefs of a group or society regarding political relationships.

Political culture also answers the question of who decides, who has authority, and who has power in a group, organization, institution, or other social unit in society. In answering this latter set of questions, political culture also supplies much of the answer to the two prior questions about “who gets what.. ?” and “what is possible?”

Sedlow therefore defines political culture as the political socialization process that produces and reproduces cultural attitudes about power, legitimacy, authority, and public policy. This process, by which political values and beliefs are instilled in citizens, is controlled and shaped by such interrelated authorities as parents, teachers and boards of education, clergy, business owners and media programmers, and public officials. These agents of political socialization determine what political themes will prevail in the consciousness of citizens regarding the proper purpose of government, the role of ordinary citizens in the political process, the kinds of people who should be entrusted with decision-making authority, the political limits and possibilities of human nature, and the ways in which government should or should not be involved in economics, education, religion, and the family. In general, the prevailing political culture tends to help perpetuate the existing structure of power, but under certain circumstances, the opposite may be true. Political change, including a revolution, is invariably preceded by a weakening or challenging of the existing political culture. And political culture can itself be a source of change (2013, p625).

Lucian Pye describes ‘political culture’ as a ‘set of attitudes, beliefs and sentiments which give order and meaning to a political process and which provide the underlying assumptions and rules that govern behavior in a political system’ (1968, 218). According to Sidney Verba, it is a ‘system of empirical beliefs, expressive symbols, and values which define the situation in which political action takes place’ (Pye and Verba 1965, 513). Political culture is about the way the state is organized – ‘ideological, policy and institutional’ (Jowitt 1974, 1171) in a given society. Stephen White defines political culture as both expressing and influencing ‘the patterns of political belief and behavior within a given political system’ (1979, 16). He holds that ‘it informs the actions of political actors; comprehends political symbols, foci of identification and fundamental beliefs and values; and generally both reflects and influences popular orientations towards the institutions and practices of government’ (16).

Political culture is not solely applicable to the whole political system of a country. It could also be determined by the ‘masses’, referring to the political culture of the general population; the ‘elites’, referring to the political culture of policymakers; regime or movement political culture, referring to those of the ruling regime in power; the political culture of opposition movements; independence and liberation movements’ political culture and perhaps in the African context, particularly salient, the political culture of African leaders (White 1979, 16).

Peter Dahlgren, in his exposition of ‘democratic political culture’, argues that the values of democracy must underpin behavior in everyday life and democracy must be ‘enacted in concrete, recurring practices – individual, group, and collective – relevant for diverse situations’ (2005, 148). Over time, democratic practices can become ‘traditions and experience become collective memory’ (148). At country and continental levels, African political leaders, movements, elites and citizens themselves – although many professed support for democracy, have largely been unable to internalize a set of values, norms, beliefs, attitudes, patterns of behavior and way of doing things, which are democratic. The values of democracy have not underpinned behavior in everyday life (Dahlgren 2005, 148) or what de Tocqueville referred to as the ‘habits of the (democratic) heart’ (De Tocqueville 1981, 352). ‘Democratic political culture’ is not fully embedded in the SWAPO party’s operations just yet, the behaviors and actions of the SWAPO party are authoritarian. These authoritarian tendencies are internalized and embedded in the everyday operations and behaviors of the party.

SWAPO as a liberation struggle movement

What are commonly referred to as ‘independence’ or ‘liberation movements’ are movements that waged a liberation struggle against the colonial regimes (Salih, 2007). The example of these organizations include Africa National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, Zimbabwean Africa National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in Zimbabwe, South West Africa People Organisation (SWAPO) in Namibia, Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) in Mozambique, Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) in Botswana, Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola-Party of Labour (MPLA) in Angola and others. These parties continue to rule in their respective countries to this day.

SWAPO waged a war again the white minority and apartheid colonizers through to independence in 1990. SWAPO evolved in 1960 out of the Ovamboland People’s Organization (OPO), founded in 1957. SWAPO’s military wing led the liberation struggle that saw Namibia through to dependence in 1990. Multiparty democracy was then established, with SWAPO as a dominant party, under the leadership of Sam Nujoma. After long and, at times, acrimonious political debates about whether Sam Nujoma should be allowed to defy the constitution and seek a third term as president, a democratic succession took place when, in November 2004, Hifikepunye Pohamba was elected president (Bauer, 1999), other sources have it that Hifikepunye was handpicked by his predecessor and Founding Father of the Nation as he is so often dubbed Sam Nuuyoma (Melber 2003; The Economist 2004).

Independence and liberation movements can be contextualized as organizations that played a major role in the independence of their respective countries. These organizations fought tooth and nail to get their countries to freedom. Although they did not usually do this alone, they were usually at the forefront of the movements to get their countries independence. Some, like SWAPO took the arms’ liberation struggle, and others took softer ways such as negotiation, marches and protests. Many organizations involved in the liberation struggles are usually accused of using excessive and violent measures, such as human rights violation to achieve their quest of political independence. The ANC for example had notorious camps, including its Quatro camp in Angola, where it tortured, jailed and executed members accused of being informers for the apartheid regime (Gumede 2005, 15). SWAPO is grounded on liberation struggle roots, on the popular notion of ‘I fought for this country’ as articulated by (Angula, 2019).

According to Salih the striking similarity of independence and liberation movements with the earlier colonization or apartheid movements is that once they took over the reins of power, the liberation governments replaced high-ranking government officials with their own cadres and loyalists. Liberation leaders considered the containment of institutions such as judiciary, army, police, government agencies and institutions as one of the most important signifiers of political power. And while such changes were justifiable in any case after the blatant exclusion, apartheid and semi-apartheid arrangements made by the colonialists, they often turned into vendettas, leading also to the use of arbitrary measures beyond the rule of law to settle old grievances or simply turned into enrichment hubs for those closest to the liberation movements and its elites. In the process, the liberation leaders managed to enhance their control of the apparatus of government by demoting their opponents and promoting only their supporters and diehard cadres to the echelons of power (2007).

SWAPO’s authoritarian tendencies and democratic deficit

Since independence, Namibia donned the system of a presidential democracy. But despite a well formulated constitution, occurrence of regular free elections, the SWAPO party has not practically been democratic in its operations. Namibia is still classified as a flawed democracy; the Democracy Index of 2018. Smit (2019) reported that Namibia is still far from being a full or even consolidated democracy. The country under the SWAPO government only ever scored an overall high score of 6.54 in 2006, since then it has been steadily decreasing. Namibia scored lowest on electoral process and pluralism (5.67), political culture (5.63) and a functioning government (5.36).

Despite all the ingredients of democracy and democratisation to the outside world and on the black and whitepapers, the party continues to be trapped in the past, the party continues to use the tactics previously used by the colonial apartheid government, to divide, rule and maintain its grip on power through patronage and authoritarianism.

While other political parties such as the formerly known Democratic Turnhalle Alliance embarked on name changing and rebranding to move on from the colonial times and change their formerly apartheid name, the SWAPO party maintains its historic name SWAPO, which ironically contain the former name of Namibia during colonial times as it was famously know (South West Africa) when it was considered the sixth province of South Africa. Perhaps it also serves as a symbol of authority and a reminder of its role in the liberation struggle. In actual fact, the government of SWAPO and its agencies continues to use apartheid laws when it’s convenient, such as the Protection of Information act 84 of 1982.

The next section discuss some of the core elements of the political culture of African independence and liberation movements that undermines their ability to sustain their democratic credentials and cause democratic deficits in their operation which in turn contributes to flaws creeping in their democratic nature and/or practices.

One ‘partyism’ and centralization power

Before its evolution in 1960, SWAPO was popularly known as the Ovambo People’s Movement, specifically showing from the name itself that it was for the Ovambo people. This is because the Ovambo tribe makes up half of the population of Namibia and therefore offers a major boost in terms of support for the party. After, it evolved into SWAPO and later became the governing party. Since then, the party has sought to include members from all tribes in Namibia to encourage unity, and discourage ethnic and tribal division. The colonial and apartheid regimes used tribal division to rule. Apart from its claims of support from all tribes, fairly because of its role in the liberation, it has also invited and provided leadership positions to people from all tribes in the country, male and female with the 50/50 representation policy. While this does not cause any division, it brings votes from all tribes and from all corners of the country, which allows for the party to dominate both national assembly and local government election and maintain its one party dominance status.

Decision making is also fairly centralized. SWAPO has a top down approach when it comes to decision making. This is further entrenched because the president of the SWAPO party is also the president of the country. The president has unlimited powers granted by the constitution of the country and also that of his party in addition to state resources, so every member of the SWAPO party whether in cabinet, parliament or public service, have to obey the orders of the president, Venaani (2011) described this leaders as ‘magister’ (the master).

In Namibia, the president appoints almost everyone. The constitution allows for the president to appoint the Prime Minister; Ministers and Deputy-Ministers; the Attorney-General; the Director-General of Planning; any other person or persons who are required by any other provision of the Constitution or any other law. on the recommendation of the Judicial Service Commission: the Chief Justice, the Judge-President of the High Court and other Judges of the Supreme Court and the High Court; the Ombudsman; the Prosecutor-General; And on the recommendation of the Public Service Commission (although this does not usually or practically happens) the Auditor-General; the Governor and the Deputy-Governor of the Central Bank; and finally on the recommendation of the Security Commission, (although this does not usually or practically happens) the Chief of the Defense Force; the Inspector-General of Police; the Commissioner of Prisons.

The power of SWAPO is centered on the leader as a master with unlimited power, in some instances a small group of leaders, but still centered on the leader. What the leadership decides, the members are expected to obey, according to the principle of ‘democratic centralism’ (Mohan 1966, 227). Given the blurred boundaries between party, government and state under an actual one-party system that dominates the state (see McGregor 2002 for Zimbabwe) and the growing equation of the party with the government and of the government with the state, any opposition or dissent is considered to be hostile and branded as antagonistic to the people and the national interest. There are no deliberations or arguments on critical policies adopted by the party, because anyone with a differing idea to that of the leader is seen as an enemy and not part of the team.

Weakening Civil Society and Oppositions

Civil society played a huge role in the Namibian liberation struggle, but since then they have effectively gone into hiding. Organizations such as Namibia National Student Organization, trade unions, Namibia Non-Government Organization Forum and others have gone quite, closed down or stopped engaging the state. Civil society in Namibia has mostly been used as stepping stone for political appointment, with the SWAPO party absorbing most of the prominent members of civil society into its ranks. Jason (2018) reported that Namibian civil society organisations have mostly been dormant since 2016. In the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) reported on Civil Society Sustainability in Namibia in 2017 that civil society declined because of lack of funding. Government was also blamed for the legal environment of Civil Society Organisations’ (CSOs) deterioration in 2017, as it failed to withdraw or amend Namibia’s “draconian” research law, increased restrictions on work visas for foreign experts supposed to work in CSOs, and failure to repeal the apartheid era Protection of Information Act which has been used by government officials and agencies to curtail media freedom in the country.

Despite SWAPO’s President Hage Geingob's pronouncements on media freedom in the country, the World Press Freedom Index (2017) indicated that Namibia has dropped from 17th in the world to 24th out of 180 countries. Namibia has consistently ranked amongst the top 20 countries on press freedom, and this fact has been widely used by government to market the country as a human rights and media friendly jurisdiction (Hartman, 2017).

Another issue which render the SWAPO government authoritarian is the political playing field of the country, of which it dominates. The political paying field of Namibia as a country is skewed in favour of the SWAPO party; opposition parties and civil societies’ alike do not have room or resources to manoeuvre. The current Official opposition party occupies only five (5) parliamentary seats out of more than a 100 seats. This means that they effectively have limited resources and personnel to challenge the ruling party or perform their duties of maintaining checks and balances or holding the ruling party in government accountable. Party funding from government is also determined by the number of seats a party has in the national assembly and national council respectively. There is no fair competition between the opposition parties and the ruling party. Many opposition parties’, despite being in parliament are mostly there to keep up appearances and get funds for their parliamentary seats without making tangible contributions or challenging the ruling party.


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Southern Africa liberation movements. The political culture of the South West Africa People’s Organisation
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Joseph Nangombe Tobias (Author), 2019, Southern Africa liberation movements. The political culture of the South West Africa People’s Organisation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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