Saara, groomed for bigger responsibilities

The Vice Presidential candidate for the Swapo Party has been dubbed the most experienced in public service and governance among the three running for the position. But controversies also surround her such as accusations of corruption. In this exclusive interview, she opens to the Windhoek Observer about her political career, what shaped her growth and why she thinks she’s the best and most qualified candidate for the job.

WO: Please tell us about your upbringing

SKA: I am the youngest of five children born to my parents, of which four are females and one a male.

I grew up in my parents’ home in Otamanzi, a remote part of today’s Omusati Region. Both my parents worked outside the home to supplement what we made from subsistence farming on our small plot. My father worked as a contract labourer in Oranjemund and later moved to Swakopmund. My mother was the principal at the village’s primary school.

My father’s contract work meant he was away from home much of the time, mum bore much of the responsibilities of raising us and taking care of the household.

Like other children of my time, I helped with the household chores. My parents were religious and so we were raised according to the Christian values. This later interested me to join the “Girl Guides“ at Okahao.

WO: A little known fact we know is that you were orphaned at a very young age, tell us about that?

SKA: My father died when I was nine years old. My mother died shortly after I went onto exile when I was 13 years. I thus was not only groomed politically by SWAPO, but SWAPO practically raised me. The guidance that a thirteen year old would usually get from parents, I got from SWAPO. I was thus instilled with the values of SWAPO from a young age. These values of solidarity freedom and justice guide me in my private and public life.

WO: How and when did you join Swapo and what attracted you to the Party?

SKA: I left Namibia to join SWAPO in exile in Angola in April 1980 at the age of 13. It was a profound journey that was filled with danger. But a journey I was determined to undertake. My political consciousness was awoken by a string of seemingly unrelated incidents.

I observed, during visits to Henties Bay and Windhoek, when I was about eight years old, the disparities in the living conditions between blacks and whites. I later on learnt, during history classes at school, how Europeans came to Namibia. Then there was a case where the South African colonial forces paraded the Cassinga survivors before the learners of our school at Okahao, seemingly to scare us from going into exile to join SWAPO.

Having become aware of how Europeans assumed power in Namibia and noting the brutality that the South Africans were subjecting our people to, I found it difficult to accept their authority over us, and I developed an interest in politics and liberation struggle activities. I then decided to leave the country to join SWAPO in order to contribute to the liberation struggle efforts.

WO: Where did you do your schooling?

SKA: I attended school at the village primary school at Otamanzi, where I did up to Standard Two. I had to repeat Standard Two, because there were no higher grades at our school, and my mother felt that I was too young to commute to the nearest school at Etilyasa where they had higher primary school grades. I went to continue my primary education at Okahao and Eengolo after completing standard two at the village. It was while I was attending the last grade at Primary School at Okahao in 1980 that I decided to leave the country to join SWAPO in Exile in Angola.

WO: How did your schooling influence you growing up?

SKA: As a child, I would follow my mother to work at the school, and I would sit in her classes while she teaches. That and the fact that my mother was a Principal at our school, where most of the teachers were ladies, exposed me to women leadership at an early age.So, from a young age, I aspired to complete my education and have a career and I never considered my gender to be a constraint in reaching my goals .

The history lessons at school also aroused my political consciousness as they created in me awareness about how our indigenous communities were dispossessed of our rights and our land

WO: You are a wife and mother; how do you balance these responsibilities and a hectic job like being Prime Minister?

SKA: I have a passion for my work and being a family person, and because of that I feel that it is a blessing for me to enjoy the love of a family and still have a job that I love.

WO: People say you’ve had an easy path from where you started in politics to where you are today. Do you share this sentiment?

SKA: I assumed Political office from a young age. I have always considered political office as a call to serve and not just an opportunity for career advancement. I have had to deal with serious challenges at the different positions that I held. I have always believed that while the challenges that we face as a Nation are serious, they are not impossible to overcome. I therefore confronted whatever challenges we had to deal with determination. At the National Planning Commission, we ensured that our country has a set of development policies that can propel the country’s economy to higher growth and optimize national development.

Through these policies, we have reduced poverty by more than half and the economy and per capita income has increased by more than four folds, propelling the country into an upper middle income country.

Our social safety nets enable us to reach out to the most vulnerable such as the elderly, the vulnerable children, those with disabilities and those affected my disasters be it weather related or medical emergencies such as those affected by Covid. We can now build on the foundation built to address the remaining challenges, appreciating where we need to make adjustments to achieve better progress. At the Ministry of Finance, we implemented a program of reforms that saw public revenue increase and the country recording its first surplus which ran for three consecutive years.

This enabled the country to reduce debt and scale up funding to important programs such as infrastructure development, private enterprises development, education, including funding to tertiary education students, health, water, housing, land reform and social safety nets programs.

The government was able to support the economy in a situation of a then prevailing global economic crisis and achieve the highest economic growth rate.

At the Party where I served as Secretary for Economic Affairs, I coordinated efforts to turn around Party companies, some of which were facing very serious financial challenges into profitability.

At the Office of the Prime Minister, we coordinate emergency management programs, including providing relief to communities affected by emergencies such as drought, floods and recently Covid.

We also manage the public service, and while there is still challenges that we must overcome, we have realized notable achievements. We are now producing our own doctors and can conduct heart operations at public health facilities. We can offer important public services online enabling the public to access these services in their homes. We have increased access to social amenities such as water. The government internship program gives opportunities to youth graduates to gain experience for the job market. We spend an average of N$200 million annually in government on benefits for interns

It has therefore never been smooth sailing for me in leadership positions. But having to deal with these challenges has enabled me to gain valuable experience that will enrich my future performance in dealing with higher responsibilities.

WO: You were easily the youngest member of Cabinet when you were appointed DG. What were the highs and lows in that position?

SKA: I was the youngest person to serve at a level of a Cabinet Minister when I was appointed into the position of DG and there were many who felt that it was unwise for the leadership to have appointed such a young person in that position. Obviously, such a public reaction did not help to inspire me.

I am, however, grateful that I enjoyed the support of the leadership and many others, including Cabinet members and my peers in the youth. I also received the necessary mentorship by the leadership without which I would have been unable to get this far in public leadership.

SWAPO always has strategies when it comes to mentoring its youth to prepare them to assume leadership positions. This is important in any establishment. Even when one looks at how it has prepared, while still a liberation movement, to take over government at independence, it is very clear that SWAPO is always purposeful in the way that it plans its affairs.

That I had to coordinate important national initiatives such as Vision 2030, NDPs and the poverty eradication strategy, amongst others, gave me a broad overview of the development situation in the country and to be part of efforts to bring the change that we want to see.

That understanding was useful at the Ministry of Finance enabling us to align fiscal policy to development objectives of achieving human centered development with macro-economic stability.

WO: You were then appointed the Minister of Finance which subsequently made you the longest serving Finance Minister. Can you tell us about your highs and lows in this portfolio?

SKA: When I was appointed as Finance Minister there was a downturn in the global commodity markets which resulted in a decline in public revenue. So, my first budget was a supplementary budget bill to reduce budget allocations instead of allocating additional funds.

Faced with a declining public revenue, we had to launch efforts to improve revenue collection which resulted in a budget surplus which was recorded for three consecutive years.

This enabled government to scale up funding to programs that supported recovery and reach the highest growth level of over 6 percent.
We also were able to reform the tax policy resulting in lower tax rates to incentivize businesses to invest more to support the economy and reducing the tax burden on the poor and increasing disposable income.

We also implemented reforms that turned around Agribank that was facing financial challenges and operationalized DBN and propelled it to become a premier public funding institution that compliments the budget in financing strategic National initiatives.

The DBN initiatives include a bridging facility to finance the support to local enterprises to participate in public tenders, and a special development fund that, amongst others, supported youth and women owned enterprises.

We also introduced tender reservations for local companies under the public procurement for local companies, SMEs and youth and women enterprises.

In the financial sector, we increased the requirements for local retention of savings by financial institutions to redirect our national savings to local investments and set a requirement for investment in greenfield projects in order to support local investments.

Further, the Pension Funds Act was amended to allow for lending for home acquisition in unproclaimed areas and a financial sector charter was launched to promote local ownership and participation in management of financial institutions, promote transparency in the pricing structures of these institutions and increase access to financial services and reduce costs for services for the low income.

WO: How did these appointments help you in your political growth?

SKA: They gave me an appreciation of the development challenges facing the country. But those appointments also gave me an opportunity and fortitude to be part of addressing them. This has provided me with experience that will be useful for dealing with higher and more challenging responsibilities and challenges facing our country.

WO: You are Namibia’s first and only female Prime Minister. What would you consider as your biggest achievements to date?

SKA: The Prime Minister, as the Head of Government Administration, coordinates the work of the Ministries and the work of government in Parliament.

In this regard, the Prime Minister chairs the deliberative Cabinet meetings where the matters to be considered by Cabinet are discussed before they are considered by Cabinet.

I also chaired the special Cabinet Committee on Covid which Coordinated government’s response to Covid. Through that, government dealt with both the medical aspects of the pandemic, as well as the socio economic aspects to deal with the pandemic’s impact on the social conditions of our communities and on the economy. This program was coordinated under the emergency management program under the OPM which covers response to all disasters.

Other major interventions that the Prime Minister coordinates include the government internship program, the performance management system, the business process re-engineering and automation of services, the formulation of the food security and nutrition policy and formulation of the innovation policy. These will enhance performance of government and promote food security and curb malnutrition.

WO: Have you ever held a position in the SWAPO PARTY?

SKA: I have been a member of the Central Committee and Executive Committee of SWAPO Party Youth League, a member of the Central Committee and Political Bureau of the Central Committee of SWAPO Party and, for ten years, Secretary of Economic Affairs of SWAPO Party, responsible for Party Companies .

WO: Why did you enter the race for VP?

SKA: We are facing several challenges as a country. I believe that I can help to ensure that our Party positions itself to remain agile and capable to adopt to the changes and continue to deliver on its commitments , so as to remain the Party of Choice for the Namibian people .

WO: What makes you qualify for this position of SWAPO VP?

SKA: I have the appropriate skills, and I have gained experience over the years from the different leadership positions that I have served in.

So I have been well groomed for this position, and with the youthful energy and passion that I have, I believe I am the suitable candidate for the position.

WO: What is it that the SWAPO PARTY can gain from your vice presidency?

SKA: The Party will benefit from the extensive experience that I bring from my previous assignments as well as from my skills and energy.

WO. People are talking of a renewal of the party. What is your understanding of this and how will your leadership achieve this?

SKA: My experience as a member who was raised and groomed by the Party for leadership is an example of Party renewal that has been a tradition of the Party.

I fully understand that the Party has to ensure that it inculcates in its members it’s values, that it harnesses the energies and creativities of its members , that it grooms its youth to sustain the Party and take it forward and that it adapts to be able to meet the expectations of its members in an environment of constant change.

I shall be the leader that positions the Party to achieve that.

WO: In your campaign videos you are talking of inclusive futuristic leadership. What do you mean by that?

SKA: I mean taking the diverse membership of the party along, through broad participation in the activities, decision making and leadership of the Party. It also means adapting to change and being responsive the expectations of the membership.

WO: We see that corruption does not feature prominently in your campaign messages. Any comment on this?

SKA: I have been an active advocate for transparency and accountability in all the positions that I have served.

During my tenure at Finance, reforms were implemented to strengthen public finance management and the audit capacity of government, including the introduction of performance audits. We also introduced the anti-money laundering framework, and the government accountability reports to parliament.

At the Prime Minister, I tabled the anti-corruption strategy and its action plan to Parliament, and I remain a strong advocate for the implementation of the second anti-corruption strategy and action plan that I had the honor to launch.

I believe that corruption is a threat to development and peace and stability, and it is critical, therefore, that preventing and fighting corruption continues to be given due priority, both at the Party and Government. I have been consistent and unambiguous in this view.

The fight against corruption requires that there are laws, systems, and capable and functional institutions to prevent and fight corruption.

Those systems and institutions will ensure that cases of suspected corruption are reported and investigated and those found guilty are held to account.

The freedom of expression that is guaranteed under our Constitution allows for people to express their opinions.

In that regard, there has been accusations of corruption leveled against me in regard to the sale of a farm that I co-own and the DBN loans advanced to businesses co- owned by my husband.

In both cases, there was no evidence provided to substantiate the allegations which I deny and have also been dismissed by both by the Ministry responsible for land and DBN .

In a democratic country such as ours, where governance is by the rule of law, guilt is determined by the Courts of law on the basis of evidence and not in the court of public opinion.

It will be a travesty of justice if an accused person is assumed guilty and required to prove themselves innocent, as that will, firstly be contrary to our law, secondly, it will incentivize people with malicious intent to falsely accuse others, and thirdly, it will undermine law and order, as the innocent can be condemned based on false allegations.

WO: Are there any policies of the party that you would want specific focus on and why?

SKA: It is a priority to strengthen the unity of the Party and the administration of the Party including Human Resources management and the management of the Party enterprises.

We also need to strengthen the Party’s inner Party life, and the implementation of its manifesto, amongst others.

The Party has very youthful members, so it shall be a priority to harness their energies, knowledge, and creativity to mobilize and to ensure the party is able to adopt to new realities and deliver better to meet the expectations of the members and to set the tone for government.

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