Sunday, 27 May 2012

Public opinion in Namibia

It has taken me a few months to get the confidence to draft press releases on current affairs in Namibia, but recently the LAC's AIDS Law Unit has been busier than usual and events forced my hand.

There was the case of the Namibian Ministry of Education advertising for foreign scholarships for students testing HIV negative.  The test is discriminatory and unconstitutional, and in flagrant disregard of a number of international treaties Namibia has signed up to. I came up with something that, to my mind, combined vehemence with legal argument and it seemed to work.  Soon we had a flurry of phone calls and emails and the AIDS Law Unit's director was once again in the spotlight with TV and radio slots and a series of newspaper articles.  One of my favourite media responses to the campaign came from Pancho Mulongeni writing in The Namibian, who challenged the assumption underlying refusal of scholarships to HIV positive young people - that it is not worth investing in an HIV positive child. "Educate yourselves" Pancho urged Namibians, "Listen to the HIV clinicians in Namibia speak about the life prolonging antiretroviral therapies, listen to the scientists who showed that this treatment can also work as HIV prevention and finally listen to HIV orphans who will tell you, through song and dance, about their aspirations."

Anyway, the reality is that the practice of official stigmatisation of HIV positive students persists with, it would appear, the full endorsement of the government. The sad fact is that the LAC has campaigned on the issue for a number of years with the backing of the national media and yet still nothing has changed. There hasn't even been a public statement on the matter from the Ministry of Education.  This makes me worry a little for the state of Namibia's democracy: freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed here, and exercised with moderate self-censorship by the media. But without politicians showing any accountability to the public, advocacy and campaigning is rather hamstrung.  I think it could work if the media were to learn to bare their teeth e.g. if any journalist actually felt driven to try and get a statement off a politician by attempting to pose a question directly outside the parliament building, or even by making persistent telephone calls to their offices.  But this is not a part of the culture here: direct confrontation is un-Namibian, criticism of the government is unpatriotic and also seen as reactionary, and criticizing politicians who are in the position of elders is basically un-African.

Another case concerns sex workers.  A Namibian politican with a reputation for being the local firebrand, Kazenambo Kazenambo (or KK as he is called) made a speech in the National Assembly calling again for the legalization of sex work.  The Namibian newapaper reported that the speech was met with guffaws and
hoots of derision.  Anyway, the leading argument on the matter from the point of view of the Legal Assistnace Centre focusses on the protection of sex workers. If their trade is decriminalized they have the freedom to report violence against them and to stand up to the police who, according to reports made to us by the African Sex Workers' Alliance, frequently take advantage of their legal vulnerability and abuse them with impunity. I drafted another press release but this time met with a cooler response for the media.  I think the country is a long way off being at the right place in terms of sensibility before this sort of legislation could find public favour.  Perhaps more urgent is the need to decriminalise sodomy which, again, will be the work of many years.  I can do my bit to help my colleagues at the AIDS Law Unit with these campaigns, but at the end of the day this should not be an agenda pushed by foreigners like me.

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