The recent decision by the PDM to expel their candidate for the John Pandeni constituency, Hafeni Mafita, is quite telling. The young politician posted on social media, “I hate whites.” These are ugly words. However, this is the first in a line of faux pas, gaffs, and immature moves by the plethora of younger candidates now gracing Namibia’s political scene. Let the initial response to these errors be more supportive than punitive.
Mafita’s real violation is not hating whites but posting it online. And in saying it on social media, he put his immature foot deeply in his own mouth.
He claims he was responding to the Bank Windhoek official who made the racist insult of calling black people monkeys. This is not the first time whites in Namibia have used the monkey moniker as race bait and it won’t be the last.
The emotional comment about whites by Mafita did not just happen out of nowhere. Nevertheless, leaders, even young ones, must have the maturity and cleverness to see race-bait for what it is and respond cleverly.
Skilled politicians are experienced in lying with a straight face. They have advanced degrees in prevarication with a smile. They regularly make empty promises and spout populist rhetoric. It is normal for them to mindlessly repeat party mantras, use emotion on cue and speak from a script. The young faces in politics must learn these skills. Otherwise, they won’t succeed.
The petulant response of Mafita to his ill-advised expulsion is a further show of immaturity. To throw about a threat to ‘return to SWAPO’ as if that was a retaliatory weapon of some kind, only makes him look worse. His comments make him appear confused. Is this how he would have handed conflicts and crises that would have come up within his constituency if he were elected?
Political skill lesson #1 – if you blow yourself up in public by saying or doing something indefensible, be contrite and shut your mouth. Even if you aren’t really sorry – explain your actions. Use euphemisms that indicate an apology, without actually apologizing. This is a skill that comes with practice. The goal is to not dig the hole of your embarrassment any deeper. This lesson is over.
The PDM could have handled the matter more innovatively. Rather than the heavy-handed demand for an apology, why organize a public discussion on racism in Namibia? Let Mafita hear from white Namibians about the impact of his ugly comment. At the same time, he and other black people can speak about what it feels like to be called a monkey by white people. Why not have him ‘explain’ his comment and “retract” (not apologize) it? He could replace his ugly words those that express his concerns better. There were other ways to handle the crisis without being abrupt and unimaginative and expelling someone from the party.
The younger new faces must learn the political game. They are wedded to smartphones and social media and want to use those in their political life just as in their social lives. They think that their political ‘job’ will be an 8-5, M-F gig. They are wrong. When you are on a city or town council or an MP; it is not a regular job. Jumping into the political limelight puts you in the spotlight every second of every hour of every day. Both your friends and competitors are watching you at all times.
Limitations on what is shared on social media must feature in a course that should be offered to all who are elected to public office. Never writing or speaking in a pique of anger or emotion is a critical lesson to learn. When the urge to lash out happens, those in leadership must step back, count to 100, leave the matter for the next day, or call an advisor for support. These are coping mechanisms to be learned by the new breed of aspiring leaders.
Private life is rare for those seeking the public eye. Unpleasant things are done by relatives and embarrassing secrets hidden in the past could become front-page news. Sex videos, nasty comments made on someone’s Facebook page years ago, or a physical fight at a bar, could taint a young politician’s reputation. A squabble over a woman/man and a photo where they are consuming alcohol or dressed loosely are things that can surface. Our your politicians can be exposed. They must learn this and beware.
With luck, Mafita can learn and begin again. Those in power now started when they were very young. Back then, they did and said silly things they now regret. But, someone had faith in them and helped them grow. Let us all gear up for support mode for younger politicians rather than ‘slap-down’ mode. They must cut their teeth somehow.