The Time Traveler: Hugh Ellis

The President’s Special Adviser on Health Matters, Dr Bernard Haufiku, was given his marching orders by Hage Geingob recently.

This was reportedly after Minister of Health Dr Kalumbi Shangula complained to Geingob that Haufiku was ‘causing discord among team members’ in the fight against Covid-19, and ‘disclosing sensitive information’ without prior clearance.

Personally, I’ve no idea if Dr Haufiku was indeed being a difficult git – or whether, as many of the public suspect, he had a knack for telling the unvarnished truth, which rubbed career bureaucrats obsessed with protocol the wrong way.

Having worked in the public sector for 10 years, though, I can’t help but suspect the latter.

Dr Shangula, like many of his rank, came of political age when SWAPO was a group of freedom fighters – and a soldier dare not call out his commander. Not in public. Not even if things are spiraling out of control. Old attitudes die hard.

The situation is complicated by the fact that both men are medical doctors, and qualified at a time when doctors were gods among men.

I can’t imagine either of them have had an easy time adjusting to this new age, when a person is as likely to get health advice from their yoga teacher. And where the average Joe’s opinion on matters epidemiological may count as much as theirs.

I suppose we will never know exactly what went on between the two men. But the whole affair did get me thinking about protocol and free speech, about complaint, and about the right way to express dissent.

As a youngster, I would have said that total freedom of speech is the key. But I’m older now, and I’m no longer quite so sure.

I was in the Courageous Restaurant not too long ago (the one some unfairly call the Wimpy), when a woman came bustling past my table. ‘I want to speak to the Manager! Are you the Manager? You? Oh, good. We’ve not been served for ages! It’s disgraceful! This young man was served before us…’ She went on like that for some time. Needless to say, most customers watching this exhibition were on the staff’s side by the end of it, I can just imagine what the talk was behind closed doors in the kitchen, and I sincerely doubt the whole episode helped anyone get served faster.

Again, I am reminded of the way some undergraduate students will not hesitate to call lecturers incompetent, corrupt and even stupid, from behind the anonymity of a course evaluation form, or on occasion even directly when disputing a poor mark. ‘Mr Hugh is an incompetent lecturer.’ Just like that.

I keep a stiff upper lip at such, but I would like to sit said student down and say: firstly, that’s ‘Dr Ellis’ to you, young man, even if I’m only a Doctor of Media Studies, and second, how is trading insults going to help me be a better teacher? How is it going to take our professional relationship forward?

Dr Brené Brown, Professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, states in her book Daring Greatly that one of the biggest barriers to innovation and creativity throughout modern society is a pervasive culture of shame.

Rather than allowing people to fail with dignity and use the experience to learn to do better, workers in industries as diverse as education, local government, and information technology face frequent public humiliation, if not the sack, when they mess up, Brown’s data reveals.

On the flipside, she says, a business culture of vulnerability – which necessitates having difficult conversations in an atmosphere of mutual respect – could be the cornerstone of an economy that values both human dignity and blue-sky thinking.

I’ve got to believe Dr Brown – after all, she’s a doctor, a professor – and she’s got the data to back her up, but cultivating a culture of vulnerability at places like a Ministry HQ or Cabinet boardroom, is going to be no easy task.

It’s certainly something to bear in mind in our day-to-day routines, however – whether it’s in politely noting that it’s your best friend Karen’s birthday and the Wimpy still hasn’t served you, or deciding not to fire your graphic designer for creating a bad poster, or sending a letter to the newspaper about a social ill while avoiding using the word makakunya, we can all do our bit to create our own culture of vulnerability.

Hugh Ellis is a Namibian citizen and lecturer in the Department of Communication of the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses here are personal views. Follow Hugh’s blog on http://ellishugh.wordpress.com