The Time Traveler: Air Namibia, and building things that last

Hugh Ellis

Everyone who came back from exile has different memories of the trip home. One that stands out for me is my first sight of the Air Namibia (then still Namib Air) airplane, with its distinctive logo, through the window of Frankfurt Airport. I was only 12 years old then, but it was the first time I remember feeling a sense of national pride.

Air Namibia’s forthcoming liquidation hurts. It hurts hard.

For 600 employees who will now lose their jobs, this hurt is doubtless far, far worse.

I am truly sad that Air Namibia, at least for a time, is no more. Yet, after years of mismanagement, and a ridiculous amount of taxpayers’ money thrown into keeping it afloat, Air Namibia’s liquidation seems inevitable.

In the medium term, we should be prepared to suffer the indignity of a private sector-run ‘national’ airline, and we shouldn’t assume private sector necessarily means white or foreign.

I’m no aviation expert, but even I can see Air Namibia didn’t have to end like this.

Had Air Namibia decided years ago to cut its coat according to its cloth, only service those routes and timetables that could break even (or at least, break even with a pre-agreed, limited subsidy), run as lean a staff as possible, maybe we would not be in this position now.

If that meant only Windhoek to Katima Mulilo, Ondangwa and Jo-burg twice a week, I think many Namibians would have been okay with it.

Instead, it seems management teams had delusions of grandeur, let their imagination run away with them, imagined how things could be in 20 years with extremely favorable economic conditions, and persuaded cabinet that they just had to back this grand vision, that this would be the bailout to end all bailouts, if only you sign here…

In that respect, I can’t help but wonder if Air Namibia is not too different than many Namibian state-owned enterprises, or private companies for that matter.

It can be hard to admit that we are a country of limited economic means, through no fault of our own. It can be hard to admit to our markets, publics and constituents that a limited service – meeting basic needs but meeting them well – is all we can offer right now.

I can’t help but think of all those tourist lodges who, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, were suddenly forced to realize their business model of charging rich foreigners thousands of US dollars a night was no longer sustainable. Suddenly, the long-neglected domestic market would have to be cultivated instead.

Meanwhile, some in my own state-owned enterprise like to poke fun at all these private colleges that are springing up like mushrooms – I hope they realize that a couple of wrong moves on our part, or an arrogant attitude towards our clients/ students, would see us defeated and our competitors triumphant.

While we are here, is anyone asking what’s going on in all the Green Schemes, and whether their ambitious vision of irrigation agriculture is actually, um, bearing fruit?

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be ambitious. I too want Namibia to be a great and powerful country one day; it’s the only country I have.

But our ambition needs to be tempered with realism, with a hard-nosed appreciation of what will work in the real world. An appreciation of the need to build something that lasts, even once generous bailouts, favorable market conditions and plain old good luck are things of the past.

That would be something that would leave me with a true, enduring sense of pride.

Hugh Ellis is a former frequent flyer and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views. Follow Hugh’s blog at

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