Namibian Law: in Progress and in Flux

By: Eleanor Dennis

Living in a country whose independence dates to the decade you were born in can be a reminder of both how quickly development can happen and how long institutionalized ways of thinking can take to change. Namibia’s democracy is still relatively young, having passed through several distinct stages of English, German and South African rule before becoming the Republic of Namibia in 1990. Now an independent republic, Namibia is in the process of reforming many of their laws enacted during apartheid and determining exactly what Namibian constitutionalism will look like well into the twenty-first century.

Day to day life in Windhoek is fast-paced, cosmopolitan and hectic. The downtown core is often jam-packed with taxis and private vehicles moving people to and from work inside the city centre and to some of the towns outside. There are huge avenues with six car laneways and street names like Independence Avenue and Sam Nujoma Drive which serve as almost frequent reminders of the hard-fought liberation struggle that is never far from people’s minds.

Work at the LRDC

Members of the Hoachannas Traditional Leadership with representatives from the Ministry of Justice

My work at the Law Reform and Development Commission (LRDC) is another reminder of how young Namibia’s constitutionalism really is. The Commission came into operation in 1992 and its core mandate is to examine all branches of Namibia’s laws and make recommendations for their review, reform and development. A typical work day involves the review of bills that are making their way through the Commission before being discussed at the Cabinet Committee on Legislation (CCL) and being passed on to the Attorney General, the National Assembly and eventually the National Council.

As an intern, I also work side by side with the Chairperson of the LRDC Ms. Yvonne Dausab and often accompany her to community meetings, town halls and workshops. What this meant for me was diving head-first into Namibia’s constitutionalism and getting a rare opportunity to see a law come to life almost from start to finish. What I’ve begun to develop in my six weeks in Namibia is a bigger picture of how a country’s laws shape both its present and its future—and some of the barriers that legislation can encounter in effectuating real change on the ground.

Town hall meeting in Hoachannas with the Minister of Justice

Racial Hate Speech in Namibia

Namibian society has come a long way from its racially-charged past. Every Namibian now enjoys the equal protection of his or her constitutional rights regardless of age, sex, colour, race, tribe, disability or any other of the enumerated grounds for discrimination under Article 10 of the Constitution. On the other hand, Namibia is at a crossroads with regards to one of its fundamental post-independence values—protection against racist hate speech.

Many violations of human dignity during apartheid in Namibia have been removed through legislation and policy, however there has still not been a total break with the racialized social order. This is evidenced by the inconsistent distribution of land and resources in Namibia and also in the social sphere where racial and tribal tensions continue to result in unequal treatment of individuals.

Racialized structures and racial language have survived apartheid in spite of a modern, liberal Constitution and a profound will to break with the past. Use of words making racial distinctions between people are still strongly embedded within people’s minds and discrimination continues to occur across both racial and tribal lines. Stereotypes based on tribe are particularly harmful, and continue to impact on an individual’s access to employment, land, shelter and equal treatment.

Freedom of Expression and Anti-Hate Speech Legislation

Other countries which have similar racial histories have enacted very strict legislation to protect individuals from racial hate speech in order to address past injustices and initiate a strong break from the past. These protections must be balanced with an individual’s right to express themselves, and countries like South Africa have restricted this balance to make the perpetuation of hate speech a serious crime where prosecutions have led to jail time. [1]

Namibia has followed suit and in 1991 enacted the Racial Discrimination Prohibition Act [2] to protect the gains of the long struggle against colonization, racism, apartheid and the right to non-discrimination. Few cases have been brought before the High Court, however, and as of 2018 there have been no successful prosecutions made under this Act.

One of the landmark cases that led to a 1998 amendment of the Act is the 1996 Smith v State and Others case [3] where an advertisement in a Windhoek newspaper congratulating a famous Nazi on his birthday was challenged under Section 11 prohibiting racist speech. The constitutionality of Section 11 was challenged for derogating from the protection of freedom of expression set out in Art. 21(1) and (2) of the Constitution. The Supreme Court of Namibia used the Oakes test and while the advertisement failed on every requirement, the Court deemed that the infringement did not justify restrictions on freedom of speech under the Act because the groups of persons concerned (Jewish people) had “never featured or suffered in the pre-independence era in Namibia”. The Act’s objective was deemed to be the prevention of apartheid-type racism and while the advertisement was harmful to Jewish people, it did not espouse apartheid values and therefore the Act could not justify infringing upon the advertiser’s freedom of speech in that situation.

Former Dean of the University of Namibia Faculty of Law Nico Horn criticizes the Smith case precedent, [4]  arguing that the Act should not only offer protection to previously disadvantaged groups in a country where racism has many forms and minority groups continue to face discrimination today. Horn argues that a broad interpretation of the term “racial” group in the Racial Discrimination Prohibition Act is needed to cross the bridge from a racist to a non-racist society and the Smith case failed to further this. Alternatively, the former Ombudsman Clement Daniels argued [5] that laws that prohibit racism are not enough to curtail racist expression. Laws that promote national unity and anti-racism promotion campaigns are equally needed in order to change one of the roots of the problem—people’s mindsets.

Moving Forward with the Racial Discrimination Prohibition Act

The fact that only few cases have ever come to Court under the Act has led many to question its effectiveness. There are a myriad of reasons for this, ranging from victims having inadequate information concerning their legal rights, lacking the resources to enter into the complex judicial process, and fearing social censure if they come forward.

An article that Ms Dausab and I published in The Namibian on hate speech legislation

This puts Namibia in a particularly important position when it comes to determine which direction the country will take on freedom of expression and what hate speech regulation will look like. Legislation exists protecting individuals from discrimination and racist hate speech, however as long as the Act remains unarticulated by the Courts confusion will remain in terms of what legal protections exist to combat racism in a judicial context in an independent Namibia.

Moving Forward at the LRDC

Like Namibia’s constitutional law maturing case by case and bill by bill, I’m learning to take my experience here at the LRDC step by step. Namibia’s past and present is more complex and nuanced than I can manage and at times I fear I am only scratching the surface of the real-life issues a country must grapple with in the first decades after its independence. Like Namibia, I too am developing an understanding that takes two steps forward before falling one giant step back when faced with issues like racism that legislation has not be effective at combatting.

The perspective the LRDC is restricted to is a legal one, but that perspective need not be the only one. Namibian law is a work in progress and so is building a constitutional democracy. That much, at least, I understand. 😉

 

[1]   https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43567468

[2]  http://www.lac.org.na/laws/annoSTAT/Racial%20Discrimination%20Prohibition%20Act%2026%20of%201991.pdf

[3] https://namiblii.org/na/judgment/high-court/96/16

[4] http://www.kas.de/upload/auslandshomepages/namibia/Namibia_Law_Journal/09-1/horn1.pdf

[5] https://www.namibian.com.na/index.php?page=archive-read&id=147374

 

 

 

 

 

2 responses to “Namibian Law: in Progress and in Flux”

  1. menakaratnayake says:

    Hi Eleanor – Congratulations on your publication in The Namibian! A wonderful achievement, you should attach the link to the post 🙂

    You really hit the nail on the head with your post. I grew up in post-apartheid South Africa and feel that laws are just one dimension to a very large and deep-rooted issue. I feel that even now, 24 years later, racial mindsets and attitudes are still present and are sadly the biggest obstacle to overcome. It is interesting to see how Namibia is tackling racism through national unity – I wonder whether it is the way to move forward rather than punitive law and prohibitions.

    The issue is undeniably complex and delicate. In the wake of South Africa’s post-apartheid transition, I feel that there were really earnest and strong attempts at building national unity but there are still very upsetting cases of racism (you highlighted the case of Vicky Momberg). Sometimes it feels a little bit superficial, where on the surface everyone gets along, but when things go wrong (as with the case of Momberg and the robbery), the racial divides resurface and everyone starts blaming one another.

    I do wonder what it takes to reframe mindsets in countries such as SA and Namibia, where there have been decades of institutionalised and normalised racism. In any case, a very interesting internship and blog post! 🙂

    • eleanordennis says:

      Hi Mena, thank you for your comment and insight. Racism is a very deep-rooted issue as you mentioned and I am just beginning to wrap my head around these things myself. Since such little time has passed since apartheid ended in Namibia and South Africa, more time and efforts are definitely needed to address these issues.

      I mentioned only one in my post which is hate-speech legislation, but other alternatives such as restorative justice, community-building and more grass-roots civil initiatives are beginning to gain speed and I am hopeful that these will lead to meaningful change in the future. Thanks!

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