The Time Traveler: Why I support ‘economic empowerment’

Hugh Ellis

The National Equitable Economic Empowerment bill (Neeeb) will soon be tabled in Parliament.

Exactly what the latest version of the bill says – word-for-word – is not yet clear. While there were shortcomings in the previous drafts, it is hard not to agree with the principles of empowerment that they represent.

I don’t agree with the apparent demand of the ‘private sector’ (here seeming to mean long-established businesses) to approve almost every last word before the bill goes before the National Assembly.

It’s noble to consult the ‘haves’ of society, but eventually, if those who have already eaten and are still eating object to the way in which the hungry come to the table, the hungry have a right to say, ‘so what?’

My fellow white men, in particular: we need to cut the bullshit. The past dispensation gave us all the advantages, and even now, we get a lion’s share of the benefits.

I was 12, going on 13, when Namibia became independent, but even I get a whole host of advantages from my race and my gender.

I know that when I earn my salary, it’s mostly for me and my immediate dependents. I don’t have a host of extended family members who need looking after.

My aunts and uncles – with a few exceptions – don’t need my support because they have pensions from apartheid-era industries and live on land they bought for a song during apartheid times.

Bear in mind, some of the land we live on was being forcibly taken from black people without compensation up to and through the 1950s, within living memory.

Then there’s other stuff: how often have you been stopped by cops or security for no reason in a nice part of town? Me, a few times in my entire life. Some black Namibians I know, it happens at least once every several months, despite them being better-dressed than me, and speaking better English, Afrikaans and German than I do.

I got my entire education, from grade one to PhD, in my first language, English. While this privilege is not always available to Afrikaans and German speakers, you certainly have far more options to be educated in your mother tongue than speakers of Oshiwambo or the Ju/’hoansi language do.

Can you even speak a Namibian indigenous language, my white friend? If you don’t, I don’t’ actually blame you. I speak two of them, but I’ve never been to a place in this entire country, where one can’t fall back on English or Afrikaans if needed.

As for being a man, the advantages that gives us are obvious. Starting with being able to go on a date, or take a walk, without the legitimate fear that we will end up raped or murdered.

Not to mention management teams and boards where women are looked upon with suspicion, or the scandal that out of every 100 news sources in Namibian the media, only about 20 are female.

I don’t feel personally guilty about any of this – why would I? I didn’t take the decisions that made it happen. But as someone who has been advantaged by those decisions, I have a moral responsibility to help put things right.

Often, it’s not even a case of ‘handing back’, but more sharing, partnerships. It’s about, as they used to say in the US Civil Rights movement, Lift Others As We Rise.

The best way a white businessman can avert negative consequences from empowerment laws is to set up an employee share ownership scheme. I can’t think why this is not done more.

Neeeb is far from perfect. It seems to benefit more the black entrepreneur or accountant than the black bricklayer or kapana seller, and I wish it took its underlying worldview more from what, for me, are the three key socially empowering philosophies of socialism, black consciousness and feminism.

But in a sense, as a historically advantaged person, that’s not my call to make.

I’ve no doubt that black Namibians will ‘come for their own’ if the Government does not deliver empowerment for all. But my role is more to offer up as much as I can to the process, knowing where it comes from, and hope for the best.

Dr Hugh Ellis is a Namibian citizen 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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