The Time Traveler: Dear white people…

Hugh Ellis

The latest racist outrage in Namibia was two white men killing a black man over allegedly stolen glue.

This incident happened at Otjiwarongo last week. The Police have arrested two suspects, Jonathan Patrick Myburgh and Jannie Jansen van Vuuren, and charged them with murder.

Meanwhile, the Henties Bay municipal council has agreed to consider taking down the macabre hangman’s noose monument at the town.

This strange monument was set up in the 1970s to warn people not to litter on the beach. But it would obviously remind most black people, and many whites, about how Hereros and Namas were lynched during the Genocide, and how the death sentence was employed disproportionately to prop up apartheid. This may not have been its originators’ intent, but that hardly seems to matter.

Perhaps the only gratifying thing about these two incidents is that State authorities appear to be ‘on the side’ of the most discriminated-against and abused people, as they should be. But we should all hold the Namibian police and the Henties Bay Council accountable, so they follow through.

However, these two unusually serious incidents are only the tip of the iceberg.

Black people are still harassed by some neighborhood watch groups and private security. Relatively few black people get to be managers, much less owners, of businesses that were built up with their – and their parents’ – labor. It’s a scandal that the issue of what to do about stolen agricultural and industrial land has still not been resolved, 30 years after Independence.

Even in the public sector, where I work, and where black people can be said to dominate the numbers in management, we often do things in a way that would make the old white colonial masters proud. There are professors in higher education, for example, who would rather quote Churchill or Rhodes to their students than Biko or Mandela. I could go on.

I suppose fighting 400-plus-year-old ill was always going to be difficult and slow-going, and at least we are not in a situation like the United States, where even doing something as simple as street-vending or jogging can get an unarmed black person killed by the Police who are sworn to protect them.

Obviously, some solutions are the preserve only of the State. At times I myself have stepped over this boundary, for example by slapping a racist white man in the face, when I should merely have called the police on him.

Nevertheless, I think we white Namibians must do much more, as beneficiaries of a racist society, to erase its impact.

We must start by admitting this benefit is the case, no matter how much we may have tried to divest ourselves of it.

I, for example, am a Namibian who grew up in exile, our family absolutely poor for much of the time, and prior to that my parents were victims of South African Defense Force and Special Branch harassment. Yet, despite ALL THAT for Chrissakes, I have still benefitted from racism.

If I can say that, after all I’ve been through, what is your excuse?

I was able to do all my education up to PhD level in my first language, English, while I’ve yet to read a thesis in Oshikwanyama, much less in Ju/’Hoansi.

As a young white man, I was able to get drunk during youthful experimentation as a freshman at Rhodes University and not find myself locked up or beat up or raped the next morning.

While I do have a few poor relatives, only a handful of people at most are dependent on my salary – definitely not the case for most black professionals.

I would love there to be a movement of white people that go out onto the streets to protest racism, like ‘Standing Up For Racial Justice’ in the States.

In the absence of this currently, at the very least, we need to stand up as individuals in our daily lives and not let a racial slur or a coarse remark about black folk pass in our company. We need to have the difficult conversations with aunts, uncles, children, grandfathers. We need to make it clear all other white people to know that NO racism of any sort is acceptable around us.

At the very least, we should donate to movements like AR Namibia, and ensure that we support a black business wherever one is available for our custom. We should read history books by black people, and not accept the sanitized version of history it appears many of us were fed at school.

Without breaking protocol or being rude, as voters we should hold politicians accountable for delivering on their promises to improve the lives of black Namibians.

Let’s do better. I hope we still have time.

Hugh Ellis is a lecturer at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views he expresses here are personal views. Follow his blog at

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