A Walk Down Memory Lane: The Hage I Remember

Henning Melber

My first personal encounter with Hage happened in the early 1980s. At the time I was a member of the Namibia Project at Bremen University.

My task was – with Nangolo Mbumba, then Deputy Secretary for Education and Culture, as my local counterpart – to conceptualise and draft a textbook for schools in the Swapo refugee camps (published later as Our Namibia – A Social Studies Textbook also by Zed Press and at Independence in a Japanese translation). The preparations included a visit to Nyango and stays at the UN Institute for Namibia in Lusaka.

Hage as the Institute’s one and only Director for close to 15 years came across more as a scholar – in the same league as Mose Tjitendero and Peter Katjavivi – than as a high-ranking UN official and a member of the liberation movement’s first generation. Already then, he did not articulate any stereotype “struggle slang”, as far as I can judge. To some extent, his career in exile had been one of an outlier. He seemed more connected to and concerned about education and academia than political campaigning and mobilisation.

There is an episode during our initial encounter, which remains vividly in my memory. It happened during a lunch break on a winter day at the Institute. Hage stood in the yard to pick up some sun. He was in his usual jovial mood engaged in lighter conversation, surrounded by a few students and myself. It was a bit of an atmosphere of holding court. He then suddenly turned to me and asked, what I plan to do after Independence. Caught by surprise, I mumbled something like hoping to be of some use as academic. – Bad answer. As he retorted: You think you can make a choice and select what you like? The party will tell you what to do! I felt embarrassed and also a bit like deliberately led on thin ice.

While this was the first (and for me the only) time to experience exposure by Hage in such a way, it was not the last time to observe this streak in his personality. Not because he was in any way vicious or mean. It was just the way he tried to make a point, most likely not even aware how humiliating this might come across at least for the one targeted as the object for such lesson. But that was the Hage I remember, and I am convinced he did not mean it with any bad intentions. I rather tend to believe he used this exchange as a message to the students observing and listening to us.

As it turned out, the party had at Independence not much interest in my services. Funny enough, I returned to Namibia as successor to Peter Katjavivi, heading the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU). It was established at Independence as a local think tank to offer policy advice to the government. As Prime Minister, Hage was keen to interact, and even visited the offices to meet the staff. He maintained his scholarly interest – not only by adding to his BA and MA in Political Sciences (obtained at US-American universities while representing Swapo at the UN) a PhD from the University of Leeds in 2004. As Prime Minister, he was also keen to solicit input from academia and treasured an academically informed debate. The Prime Minister’s Conferences arranged in the late 1990s (among others on academic freedom and on establishing an institutionalised anti-corruption policy) always included local and at times international scholars too.

Towards the turn of the century, it became obvious that my increasingly critical public statements on the limits to liberation would soon bring my time at NEPRU to an end. I therefore with a heavy heart accepted the offer by the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala to become its first Research Director. My departure coincided with the tenth anniversary of NEPRU. It was Hage who had the generosity to congratulate the institution and using the opportunity to give me recognition on that occasion. He did so in a way, which more than compensated the initial encounter I recalled at the beginning of this walk down memory lane in the yard of UNIN more than forty years ago.

When I asked for farewell meetings before departing to Sweden, Hage Geingob and Nangolo Mbumba (then Finance Minister), as well as Nahas Angula, were the only ones who found the time to see me. Both Hage and Nangolo used the opportunity to remind me that I am part of the family and should remain so. When in 2002 Hage left Namibia for Washington, I met him at a short stop-over in Stockholm. I then a bit flippantly welcomed him to the club of those having fallen into disgrace. It then did not dawn on us, that he would return to become in 2015 the third Head of State, and that Nangolo Mbumba will be tasked to carry the torch after his tragic demise. Hamba kahle, Omes!

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