This year’s embarrassment of an insufficient Independence Day budget was evident when the annual post-speech and program food handouts went sideways in Outapi.
Who wouldn’t want something like a biblical miracle to provide more loaves and fish for the masses to eat at such a festive event? Reality check: in our secular world, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The loaves and fish—or brötchen and boerewors—for the masses have a price tag that the government can no longer afford. What happened with food chaos at underfunded Independence Day celebrations must serve as a wake-up call. Please note that the chaotic food rush scene in Outapi could have been a lot worse and, frighteningly, might foreshadow future food riots that we all hope will never happen in Namibia.
The days of Namibia being able to use taxpayer money to feed the masses to lure them into the empty seats in a stadium for national events must end. Why must there be so many of these mundane and routine national public events when the budget is busted? The government must reallocate the dwindling funds available to hold the plethora of national events and invest it in social services for the people. Investing in books or medicines is better than having under-filled stadiums around the country full of attendees just waiting for the food queues to open.
Typically, the VVIPs who usually strut their stuff in prime shaded seating during the main national day event are whisked into exclusive membership-only tents to eat a hot lunch and chit-chat. This Independence Day, however, they had to step aside so that event attendees from the cheap seats could eat. It was injudiciously announced to the crowd that the VVIP meal would be handed out to the public, sparking a hectic food dash. We respectfully remind officials that it is not necessarily an expression of benevolence and sensitivity to say the ‘haves’ will stand aside for the ‘have nots’ on a particular day, but an invitation to disorder that could cause more damage than the announcement intended to avoid. If the budget for the event is insufficient to meet the program’s goals, then the plan should be altered. It would have been far better to offer no food than to open the floodgates of disaffected crowds with ‘feed me’ demands.
Nothing is more selfish than a roving crowd of hungry men and boys offered limited food. They will run over anyone and anything to get what they have the physical edge to carry away. Such frenzied reactions are not an unknown phenomenon. Our decision-makers put the cart before the horse in offering the VVIP food to the crowd without sufficient processes to make distribution happen expeditiously and fairly. Arguably, the food offer can be seen as either the apocryphal “let them eat cake” sentiments of revolutionary France, or it was a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to make the government look as if it was sensitive to the plights of the hungry. If the goal of the independence celebration was to continue an outdated, political-rally-style throwback of using food to lure people into filling empty stadium seats, then the government must step back and re-examine its motives. If there is not enough money to meet the goal of feeding all comers with meagre food in Styrofoam containers and to pay the logistics
and administrative costs of the event, then it is an unattainable aspiration. It must be reimagined.
It is time for tough love. Stop all free food (though bottled water on hot days is a medical necessity) handouts at any public event and start training this generation of Namibians to take an additional step towards self-sufficiency. Cut the time for such events to 90 minutes, making the lunch provision unnecessary.
Why not give flat grants to the ladies selling amagwinya, vetkoek, oshikundu, or other inexpensive cultural foods to assist them sell their products at each public events venue? We must think innovatively, even if it means letting go of some of our usual national activities.
Why not have only one March 21st celebration at a rotating venue in each region and nowhere else? Let us end multiple national holiday events; have one done well and stream it on the necessary media platforms.
The President can continue to host national leaders, foreign dignitaries, war veterans, and special guests at a formal State House reception or dinner.
Why not work out a deal with registered vendors and bakeries? On Independence Day, Heroes’ Day, or any other public celebration, one ID card presented at the till would equal half the price of one loaf of bread. The government could then repay the difference to those vendors via tax breaks. Whatever changed approach is considered, the focus should be on cutting back government out-of-pocket expenditures and reducing the breadth of the celebrations to what is affordable.
There is no one to make a miracle that will feed the people by creating more loaves and fish. With that truth in hand, we can afford no less than a new, restrictive approach to far fewer but better funded public celebrations.