The Time Traveler: Hugh Ellis

Do you ever wonder how it would have been if you’d lived another life?

Like, if you had pursued another childhood ambition perhaps? For me, as a kid, I was interested in all things environmental. As it happened, my math marks weren’t good enough to get into environmental science, and I did also have interests in photography and writing, so I went to journalism school.

Maybe by now I would be one of those ‘Save the Rhinos’ guys, or a Greta Thunberg-type, imploring the world’s people to listen to science more, and their wallets less.

In the same vein, Hugh Ellis the journalist was very nearly Hugh Ellis the computer programmer. Considering how artificial intelligence is involved in so many news industries these days, though (starting with the ‘bots’ that determine your Twitter feed), the professions may yet become one and the same.

Then again, maybe if I were better at fighting, I would have said, ‘to hell with this’ at age 21 and embraced a life of crime. Come on, we’ve all had the thought at one time or another. If this corrupt society can’t be saved, can’t I at least hustle some money? After all, my ancestors came from cultures where outlaws and rebels – like Robin Hood and Wat Tyler and William Tell – are more celebrated than kings and sheriffs.

I think many people around the world these days are thinking, ‘what if I were born white or male, or to a rich instead of a poor family? And therefore, just a little bit safer from the casual violence that society enacts upon the less privileged?’ It’s disgusting that conditions exist where people would have these thoughts, in a world that produces enough to feed, house and clothe everyone several times over.

I wonder if people in the upper chambers of government, those who have been there a while – the Sam Nujomas and Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhilas and Nangolo Mbumbas and Hifikepunye Pohambas and Hage Geingobs – think, ‘what if we had done things differently?’

What if we had kept the informal markets going, with due precautions, during the Covid-19 lockdown, and closed Shoprite-Checkers instead?

Would we be so afraid of imported infectious diseases if Namibia had one National Health Service, rather than our current hodgepodge of sometimes-profit-scrounging private doctoring and under-resourced state hospitals?

How would Namibia look now if we had redistributed land and shares in businesses on a massive scale at Independence?

How would racial dynamics be different if we had placed a significant inheritance tax on all property acquired before March 21, 1990?

How would gender dynamics be different if we had legalized abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, when this was first proposed in Namibia in the 1990s?

Look, I know there are no right answers. Not in one person’s life, much less in these bigger questions. We humans have to make split-second decisions more often than we like to acknowledge, and these decisions have longer-term consequences than we usually admit.

Still, it might be instructive to ponder the ‘what if’ imponderables because of the truths they hold for what can be done, right now.

Land and inheritance taxes could still be used to transfer ill-gotten apartheid-era wealth without having to rewrite the Constitution.

If we could still introduce comprehensive, non-shaming sexuality education, easy access to contraception, and yes, free choice of abortion as a last resort, large-scale so-called ‘baby dumping’ would become a thing of the past.

The Covid-19 crisis gives us a chance to look again, right now, at whether we want to be a nation defined by the ‘prosperity’ of a few, or by justice for the many. Now may be a good time for Namibian society to think through the ‘what ifs’.

As for me as an individual, the options grow fewer. At 41 years old, the possibility of becoming either Greta Thunberg or Robin Hood is not very high.

But maybe I can – maybe we all can, this whole generation can – still make an impact, however slight, on the big themes of this time in history: the fight against climate change and struggle against the injustices of racialized capitalism. Maybe.

Hugh Ellis is a Namibian bandit chieftain… oh, sorry, no, I was getting carried away. Hugh Ellis is a lecturer in journalism and media studies at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses here are personal views. Follow his blog at ellishugh.wordpress.com