Defining Equality: Namibia’s Supreme Court and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities

By Kevin Lee Pinkoski

Equality in Namibia and the Rights of Persons with Disabilities:

A young country – with a new constitution – needs an active judiciary that takes every opportunity to develop a more nuanced understanding of its constitutional principles. This is the context of Namibia, a country that, in 1990, won independence from South Africa after years of racial division implemented by apartheid, and, in the same year, adopted a new constitution. But many terms in this new constitution have yet to be comprehensively nuanced and defined through jurisprudence. As the case Alfred Mew Visser v Minister of Finance & 3 Others shows, Namibia’s judiciary continues to miss opportunities to describe both the nuances of equality as the term is present in the constitution and its relationship to the rights of persons with disability.

The nuance that is lacking from Namibian jurisprudence on equality is if the term is only limited to formal equality, where the law treats all individuals equally, or if it includes substantive equality, where the law recognizes individual differences in order to make everyone equal. Namibia’s constitution prioritizes equality, yet Namibia’s Supreme Court has failed to provide an accurate explanation of what is meant by the term in the constitution — if it is limited to just formal equality, or if it can be expanded to substantive equality. The judiciary must play an active role in addressing these ambiguities. Consequently, disabled individuals in Namibia are left without true equality.

Alfred Mew Visser v Minister of Finance & 3 Others:

The Alfred Mew Visser case is about the rights of persons with disabilities. Alfred Visser was in a severe car accident and, as a result of his injuries, he was blinded in both his eyes. Because of Namibia’s no fault insurance scheme, he was awarded damages according to The Motor Vehicles Accident FundThe Fund sets caps for damages, and Alfred Visser challenged these caps under the claim that they do not adequately provide the financial support necessary for him to live with a permanent disability. The Supreme Court did not find the case in his favour because of the financial implications of going beyond the caps established in The Fund.

Alfred Mew Visser characterizes a clear problem in the Namibian judiciary; the term equality in the Namibian constitution has not been accurately defined by Namibian jurisprudence. Yet the Supreme Court’s response inAlfred Mew Visser, ignorant of this problem, focuses only on the financial limitations of The Motor Vehicles Accident Fund. My criticism is that, regardless of the outcome of the case, the Supreme Court needs to actively seek out opportunities to elaborate and clarify Namibia’s constitutional principles. Because of this, the Supreme Court’s judgment in Alfred Mew Visser is a missed opportunity to provide a nuanced understanding of what is meant by equality – this is detrimental to Namibia’s most vulnerable populations.

Equality in the Namibian Constitution:

Strong memories of the heroes of the liberation struggle, such as Toivo ya Toivo, continue to inspire Namibians like Fazilla to fight for equality.

Reflective of years of apartheid – when inequality between race was implemented by law – Namibia’s new constitution prioritizes equality for all its citizens. The preamble to the constitution sets this mandate, affirming that “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is indispensable for freedom, justice and peace.” Namibia, as a new country, founded itself on the principle of equality.

Namibia’s standard of equal rights for all is expanded upon in Art. 8: Human Dignity and Art. 10: Equality and Freedom from Discrimination of the Constitution. Art.8(1) states: “The dignity of all persons shall be inviolable”, and Art. 8(2)(a) elaborates: “In any judicial proceedings… before any organ of the State… respect for human dignity shall be guaranteed.” Art.10(1) reads: “All persons shall be equal before the law,” and Art.10(2) continues: “No persons may be discriminated against on grounds of sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or social status.”

The constitution and current government policy indicate an ambiguity between formal and substantive equality in Namibia. While Art. 10(1) establishes the terms of formal equality before the law, Art. 10(2) creates the potential to use the law to make all individuals equal through substantive equality.  Art 10(2) indicates the potential for substantive equality as it would be discrimination not to make individuals equal who suffer under the prohibited grounds for discrimination in Art 10(2). The emphasis on equality in both the preamble of the constitution and in Art. 8 show Namibia’s prioritization of equality for anyone within Namibia’s borders. Furthermore, Namibia has embarked on clear projects to create substantive equality for marginalized populations, such as economic empowerment initiatives and gender equality programs. There is a clear ambiguity in what is meant by equality that must be addressed by Namibia’s Supreme Court.

Neither Art. 8 nor Art. 10 provide a nuanced understanding of what is meant by equality. Because of this, Namibia’s lower courts have been limited to an understanding of equality that only evaluates the formal equality of all individuals before the law, not the substantive equality necessary to make all individuals equal. Furthermore, as Alfred Mew Visser shows, the Supreme Court has failed to take any opportunity to define any nuances to what is meant by equality as it is presented in the Namibian constitution. Because of this, Namibia has yet to create an environment of true equality for persons with disabilities.

Disability in Namibia and Alfred Mew Visser:

Although empty on the weekend, the Katatura Disability Plaza houses numerous organizations that promote equality for people with disabilities.

Namibian law defines disability as “a physical, mental or sensory impairment that alone, or in combination with social or environmental barriers, affects the ability of the person concerned to take part in education, vocational, or recreational activities.” This definition is elaborated upon to include the “loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on equal level with others due to physical or social barriers.”

The Namibian constitution does not list disability as a prohibited ground for discrimination in Art. 10(2). Thus, for disability to be adequately recognized or discussed in terms of equality, the Namibian judiciary must establish that disability is included under the prohibited grounds for discrimination in Art. 10(2).

Disability has a clear consequence on an individual’s ability to participate in society, it has a detrimental effect on the following grounds prohibited by Art. 10(2) of the constitution: social status, economic opportunity, and personal prosperity. The statistics are clear: 17.7% of urban disable persons do not attend school, 82.3% of rural disabled persons do not attend school, 42.5% of disabled persons work in agriculture and fishers, with 14.6% in elementary occupations. 70% of disabled persons live in homes without a mortgage. The reality is explicit – being disabled in Namibia is a limit on the potential of an individual to achieve success and prosperity.

In the example of Alfred Mew Visser, Alfred Visser has suffered a permanent disability because of the accident: he is blind in both eyes; he has a physical impairment that will impede his potential to participate in everyday activities and in work opportunities; he will need to learn a new system of reading. He is likely to be to be limited, as Art 10(2) of the constitution explains, to a “social status” because of his disability.

Art. 8 and Art. 10 of the Namibian constitution ensure a conducive environment to the full and equal participation for all in society, including those with disabilities. But, as was previously alluded to, because neither Art. 8 nor Art. 10 provide a comprehensive definition of what is implied by equality, the Supreme Court is required to give such an interpretation. The Alfred Mew Visser case is a clear example of a missed opportunity to give a more nuanced explanation of what is meant by equality, a missed opportunity that will be detrimental to disabled people – one of Namibia’s most vulnerable populations.

Formal Equality – Equality as applied by the Supreme Court:

Namibia’s clear wealth disparity, apparent in the village of Hoachana, is continually being addressed in the pursuit of equality.

Namibian jurisprudence has yet to provide a nuanced understanding of what is meant by equality in the Namibian constitution. The problem is that, because of the limited wording of the Namibian constitution, there is no need for courts to expand beyond an understanding of equality that is restricted to formal equality. Formal equality is established only by equality before the law. It applies blind rules to every situation, no matter what social differences may be involved. If the Namibian constitution ensures only formal equality, the Namibian Supreme Court should define that distinction. While it is possible to develop the language of formal equality in Alfred Mew Visser, it is important to recognize that the case turns on the financial limitations of The Motor Vehicle Accidents Fund, and not the issue of equality.

In Alfred Mew Visser, the court employs a view of formal equality before the law, as all claimants are held to the same limits of compensation, regardless of either their individual characteristics or the consequences of an accident. Alfred Visser’s disability can only be taken into account provided it falls under the limits of the caps established in The Motor Vehicle Accidents Fund, and it cannot be adjusted to take into account the particular needs of certain claims. The caps employ the same legal equality to all — the same formal equality before the law — and thus the court can resolve that “No distinction is made between claimants at all” since “all claimants are in the same position when it comes to the capping of their claims and are thus equal before the law.” No differentiation is made between individuals and their needs. If this is what is meant by equality in the Namibian constitution, the Supreme Court should define equality in this way in its decision.

Formal equality could, however, provide the means to address the necessary compensation required to ensure equality for disabled individuals. Since, to establish formal equality, the court adheres to “equality before the law,” it is the actual law itself that would have to change. The Motor Vehicle Accidents Fund would have to be amended to provide for a recalculation of damages for disability, for injuries that cannot be recovered from and that requires an individual to live their life in a different way. In this way, the court could still employ formal equality before the law, but the law itself would have to be expanded to provide for the necessary compensation to an individual who has been affected to a new “social status” (as Art. 10(2) of the constitution establishes) as a result of an accident. The Namibian constitution could imply formal equality in this way, but the distinction would have to be made by the Supreme Court.

The Potential for Substantive Equality in Namibia:

The Katatura Hospital is one of many public hospitals that provides medical services to Namibians.

In Alfred Mew Visser, substantive equality would imply that, because Visser has been placed in a different social status as a result of the disability incurred in the accident, the court could employ a definition of equality that allows for increased compensation. While the court establishes that The Motor Vehicle Fund ensures that “equally positioned persons are treated equally”, it fails to consider that some individuals will require more support in order to be treated equally. The reality is, as substantive equality reminds us, that the results of an accident do not leave all individuals “equal”, and that some, especially those with long term disabilities, will require more compensation. If the court had chosen to establish substantive equality as a part of the Constitution’s definition of equality, the court would allow for the law to be adapted to Alfred Visser’s specific case.

Furthermore, the court would establish the necessary precedent to employ substantive equality when necessary to ensure that the law can be adapted to provide what is needed for any individual to achieve equality. This is the missed opportunity of the Supreme Court, they failed to recognize the reality that equality before the law does not ensure that the law has equal effects on all individuals. Consequently, in order for the law to allow that all individuals can achieve equality as a result of the law, a substantive understanding of equality should be employed. Here, the Supreme Court has failed to provide for a more nuanced, and more just, understanding of equality that takes into account an individual’s unique needs. Alfred Mew Visser is thus a missed opportunity to define equality.


Namibians, especially Namibia’s most vulnerable population, must again wait for the Supreme Court to develop a nuanced understanding of equality. Namibians are left with ambiguity as to if equality goes beyond formal equality to address substantive equality, thus allowing for the prohibitions on discrimination in Art. 10(2) to be extended to unlisted ground. It is, as Art. 10(1) reminds us, that “all persons shall be equal before the law” – so why stop short of protecting Namibia’s vulnerable populations?

The Supreme Court should be capable of providing the necessary jurisprudence to clarify and develop the constitution. The Supreme Court cannot be limited by state resources or policy in its decisions, it must be capable of balancing these limitations with the necessity of equality. The nuances in the term equality have yet to be defined by Namibia’s Supreme Court, and the Court continues to miss opportunities to add the necessary nuances. Defining these nuances is, after all, the role of the judiciary.


Asile A et B

2014-Navarrete-InakiIñaki Navarrete

Je pris une profonde inspiration avant d’entrer dans l’arrière-cour de l’asile B. C’était le second établissement que nous visitions ce jour-là. Des patients assommés par la chaleur et les psychotropes gisaient à moitié nus dans leurs excréments au centre d’un cercle formé par d’autres patients. Un garçon de mon âge touchait son membre d’un air absent.

L’asile B était pire que l’asile A.

L’asile A, visité en matinée, en était un réservé aux femmes de tout âge. S’il prêtait largement flanc à la critique, il avait au moins le mérite d’être relativement propre : les murs n’étaient pas couverts de zut, le sol n’était pas couvert de fluides, et on pouvait y marcher sans avoir à se boucher le nez. L’affaire était tout autre ici.

Disability Rights International, l’organisme avec lequel je travaille cet été, effectue régulièrement des visites dans les hôpitaux psychiatriques locaux afin de documenter les conditions inhumaines et dégradantes dans lesquelles vivent les personnes handicapées. Lors de ces visites – toujours guidées –, la stratégie est simple. Certains suivent le guide tandis que d’autres trainent le pas à l’arrière pour voir ce qu’on ne veut manifestement pas qu’on voit.

Après un moment à l’arrière, je m’éclipsais donc dans une chambre isolée. Un jeune homme, appelons-le Victor, s’y trouvait, complètement nu et emmitouflé dans un nuage de draps sales d’où dépassaient des bras convulsifs. Notre guide, le directeur-neurologue, me rattrapa rapidement. C’est à grand renfort de termes techniques qu’il m’expliqua que Victor était un “cas perdu”. Plusieurs psychotropes étaient “nécessaires” pour apaiser son ”trouble”. Bref, Victor était une machine qu’il n’arriverait jamais à réparer.

(Photo de Victor, prise avant l’arrivée du directeur)

En regardant Victor planer dans une sorte d’apathie, sans ressort et aisément influençable, et en pensant à la facilité avec laquelle il avait été laissé à son sort dans cette chambre, je n’aurais su dire si ces psychotropes  étaient “nécessaires” ou s’ils s’inscrivaient plutôt dans un schéma de contrôle visant à faciliter la prise en charge de patients trop nombreux par un personnel trop réduit. Il s’agit d’une pratique courante.

J’insistais pour en savoir plus. Victor est un abandonado. Il fait partie de ce groupe de personnes dont les familles, souvent par manque de moyens, parfois par manque de soutien dans leur communauté, se sont résignées à les abandonner dans un hôpital psychiatrique. Parfois aussi, l’abandon découle de la honte et du stigma attaché au handicap. Victor ne reçoit jamais de visites.

En droit, la conséquence immédiate de cet abandon est la mise en place d’un régime de prise de décisions substitutive. Le directeur devient le tuteur et représentant légal des abandonados, ce qui lui donne un chèque blanc gros comme la lune sur leurs vies. Victor, objet de protection et non sujet de droit. Mais c’est compréhensible:

“Voyez-vous, il est comme un enfant qui ne sait pas ce qui est bon pour lui”.

Ce genre de discours du “meilleur intérêt”, on l’accepte d’autant mieux qu’il peut se justifier d’un côté, par des fonctions de protection et de sécurité, de l’autre, par un statut technique et scientifique.  Mais il ne faut pas se méprendre. Le meilleur intérêt dérape souvent. C’est pourquoi le paradigme social du handicap, présent dans la nouvelle Convention relative aux droits des personnes handicapées, demande que l’on congédie ce discours médical dépassé, ces régimes de prise de décisions substitutive ainsi que toute forme d’internement. Il faut plutôt laisser place à l’autonomie des personnes handicapées. Victor, comme sujet de droit.

Dans cette optique, l’asile A et l’asile B sont tous deux condamnables pour leur seule existence. Cela dit, comprendre ce changement de paradigme n’est pas toujours simple et on peut se demander : qu’est-ce que cela signifie concrètement pour ce jeune homme complètement nu et emmitouflé dans un nuage de draps sales? Une comparaison entre l’asile A et l’asile B rendra la chose plus claire.

Avec la question du travail.

Les femmes de l’asile A sont invitées à suivre plusieurs modèles de carrière. Elles peuvent fabriquer des vêtements, des jouets ou cuisiner des plats. Ce qu’elles font avec leur argent ne regarde qu’elles. En m’offrant des biscuits, l’une d’elles m’expliqua dans un Anglais impeccable qu’avec son salaire elle aimait aller au restaurant chaque vendredi. Je souriais. Les biscuits étaient bons. Sur l’emballage, l’inscription “Le travail rend digne”.


(À l’heure du dîner, cette femme est restée étendue sans recevoir aucune aide)

Et les patients de l’asile B? Regardez cette dame dans la photo. Au mieux, certains participent aux corvées quotidiennes en échange de “cadeaux”, comme des petits gâteaux. Mais l’autonomie et la dignité ne se nourissent pas de petits gâteaux.

Au pire, les patients de l’asile B se trouvent dans un isolement sensoriel dégradant.  La télé, une thérapie musicale une fois par mois ainsi que des sorties sporadiques dans le jardin (plutôt une cage avec des barbelés) résument l’essentiel des activités disponibles. Alors, ils déambulent. D’autres sont attachés à leurs fauteuils roulants toute la journée. Depuis combien de temps? 60 ans. J’imagine que c’est aussi dans leur “meilleur intérêt”.

Faut-il insister plus encore sur la différence entre A et B?

Je voulais visiter ces établissements pour savoir pourquoi je travaille avec DRI. Aujourd’hui, la raison est on ne peut plus claire. Avec ses yeux bleus sévères et son sourire bienveillant de Big Brother, le directeur aux tempes grisonnantes de l’asile B restera pour moi le visage de l’institution totale.

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