As 2014 comes to a close, so do the election cycles in southern Africa.  So far there has been little change in the region.  Despite strong challengers in South Africa, Mozambique, and Botswana, none of these three countries will see a significant change in leadership.  This is potentially troublesome, as the SADC region needs now more than ever to make critical decisions regarding how to best craft economic policy.

Hage Geingob

Hage Geingob

Similarly, Namibia’s incumbent President is term-limited and thus the country will choose a new leader at the end of November, which is widely expected to be Dr. Hage Geingob, nominee of the dominant SWAPO party.

Like his regional peers Felipe Nyusi of Mozambique and Ian Khama in Botswana, Geingob has a significant “independence” pedigree, but with more “street cred”, having actually been in the heat of the action of the struggle. While traveling in Africa in the early 1960s to promote the cause of independence, he was nearly assassinated twice by South African Military forces.  After his close brushes with death, Geingob moved to New York where he served as the official representative of the Independence Movement to the United Nations.

After many years of championing the Namibian struggle abroad, Geingob returned to Namibia in 1989 to lead the constituent assembly that drafted the Namibian constitution.  He earned the praise of both the old white minority government and the new black leadership for his level-headedness and his willingness to bring everyone to the table to draft the new constitution in a timely manner – and with excellent results: the Namibian constitution is hailed as an excellent model which has contributed greatly to Namibian political stability.

But Geingob has a bigger struggle ahead of him today, because Namibian leadership has not shown much ingenuity in economic policy since independence, and budgetary crises are on the horizon.  A significant portion of Namibian government revenue comes from SACU tariffs on imports—more than one-third.  While this revenue makes up an important base, it is unlikely to change from year to year, and thus cannot keep up with mounting deficits due to the loss of concessionary lending privileges from the World Bank when Namibia was upgraded to middle income country status.

Another large portion of government revenue comes from the mining sector.  While mining has been an important sector for growing revenue, extractive industries are susceptible to global fluctuations in commodity prices, which of course has proven to be a major struggle for many African nations.  Namibia is no exception.

A drastic example of fluctuation in economic stability due to a reliance on mining is the case of South Sudan from 2012 to 2013.  In 2012 South Sudan was ranked by the World Bank as the slowest growing country in the world with a decrease in GDP of over – 40%.  Then in 2013, South Sudan was ranked as one of the fastest growing countries in the world with an increase in GDP of over 25%.

The Namibian government’s reliance on tariffs and mining has pigeon-holed itself into being what historian Frederick Cooper calls a “gatekeeper state—a country that uses the circulating of funds and resources across borders as the main method for creating wealth.”

Given these challenges, if Geingob intends to shepherd Namibia to a safer economic shore – which his SWAPO predecessors and his regional peers have failed to do – he will have to break open the gate and look for meaningful investors abroad to build up the country from the inside.

On the positive side, his personal pedigree augurs a better approach.  Geingob has a first-class international education, having earned a BA in the United States and PhD in the United Kingdom.  He is thus naturally inclined to lean toward the West, as opposed to Namibia’s previous two presidents who were both educated during the Soviet era at the People’s Friendship University of Russia – an important distinction.

Furthermore, in the previous decade, Geingob spent some time in a leadership position at the Global Coalition for Africa where he dealt with African development issues from a continental perspective.  That, coupled with Geingob’s previous experience as Minister of Trade, should give him a unique perspective on how important it is for southern Africa to take advantage of foreign partnerships to develop potential within the continent.

The Hip Cafe in Johannesburg, South Africa (Photo courtesy of Matthew Ecker)

The Hip Cafe in Johannesburg, South Africa (Photo courtesy of Matthew Ecker)

Ultimately, as the southern African region continues to face economic challenges, leaders must seek out international partnerships to build up capital to develop their full potential and avoid economic collapse, focusing on underdeveloped sectors like tourism, agriculture, health and technology.  That will be the true test of southern African economies in the next decade, especially considering that the region’s major economic partner of the past few decades has been China.  While China played an important political role in many of the independence movements in these countries, it has failed to provide meaningful economic development.  The old saying of “you buy cheap, you buy twice,” has proved true time and again in countries like Namibia; for example: Chinese trains that didn’t work or outdated, poor quality and socialist realist styled monuments in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek.

For Namibia to turn the page, Geingob must replace the passé model of cheap infrastructural projects sold to African nations by China based on a history of political solidarity with forward-thinking projects modeled after Konza, Kenya, which has cooperated with many western investors to begin developing a tech city that has been hailed as the future Silicon Valley of Africa.  Similarly, Johannesburg has attracted artists from around the world to build vibrant, modern communities to encourage young professionals to stay in the country, combating the endemic “brain drain”.  These are projects that have been proven to work internationally, and should be the destination of the estimated $500 million in Eurobonds held by Namibia.