Prime Minister Hage Geingob discusses the government's liberalisation efforts
What do you see as your key achievements since independence from South Africa five years ago?
Achievements of a government are measured in its success in achieving an improved quality of life for its people. In that respect, we have made significant strides. First and foremost, we have consolidated peace through our policy of reconciliation and inclusivity. In the last six years, we have kept no political prisoners, our press has become one of the freest in the world, we have no capital punishment and multiparty democracy is flourishing. We have doubled school places, reduced child mortality rates and increased life expectancy by some 3 per cent. More and more families have been provided with shelter, drinking water and electricity.
But we also have problems - not necessarily failures, but problems. The long and continuous drought has put enormous strain on the resources of the government, but the good thing is that the government's actions have ensured that not one person has died of starvation. Unemployment is stuck at 21 per cent of the economically active population. However, we are working to address this problem by investing heavily in education and training, and promoting agro-industries, manufacturing and self-employment.
What are your policy priorities in coming years, particularly in the light of political changes in South Africa and the virtual end of fighting in Angola?
We remain hopeful that Angola will embrace peace this year. Once that happens, Namibia will benefit greatly. As you know, with the re-integration of Walvis Bay and near-completion of the TransKalahari and TransCaprivi highways, we are in a very favourable position. With peace all around us, we can seriously expand our trade with the various countries in the region. With the expansion of trade, economies of scale would be achieved in manufacturing, thus allowing us not only to compete but also to create many jobs. Our policy priorities will therefore remain essentially unaltered, with the exception that there will be a greater emphasis on promoting manufacturing and regional trade.
Tourism is the country's fastest growing industry. What steps have you taken to promote the tourist sector, and what are your hopes for the future?
The number of tourists visiting Namibia has certainly grown significantly. Keeping in mind that Namibia has a very fragile ecology, our emphasis has, over the past five years, been to attract eco-tourists. We have achieved considerable success. To promote the tourism sector, we have opened a number of tourist information offices overseas, and expanded and upgraded tourist facilities to make them more attractive. A number of private investors have also invested heavily in tourist lodges and other facilities. Our national carrier, Air Namibia, is also flying to an increasing number of European destinations with excellent transatlantic connections. As a result, last year saw a 10 per cent increase in the number of tourists visiting Namibia - and they spent 15 per cent more than in the previous year.
Are you wary of the effect that the influx of tourists may have on Namibia's culture and on the environment?
We remain committed to protecting the environment. In fact, our constitution is perhaps unique in committing us to environmental protection. Regardless of the tourist traffic, we have succeeded in restricting traffic in ecologically fragile areas. Our emphasis on eco-tourism has also helped us to formulate strategies to protect the environment.
As regards the threat of tourism to culture, I think those who worry about this are those who want to perpetuate underdevelopment of the people. They see culture as nothing more than communities living in utter poverty, dressing peculiarly and farming primitively. Culture is more deep-rooted than that. The value systems of societies are not destroyed by tourists; in fact, they are enriched. Culture is not something fossilised, and we should not be afraid of its evolution and progression.
Namibia has suffered a series of droughts in recent years. How badly has the agricultural sector suffered?
Of course, drought damages the agricultural sector, which accounts for 7.8 per cent of the country's GDP. As a result of drought and unfavourable conditions in the Atlantic along Namibia's coast, our GDP growth rate this year is not expected to be much more than 2 per cent, as against 5 per cent the previous year. Continued drought also discourages farmers from planning ahead, breeding stocks suffer and, as a result, their ability to recover from the effects of drought is reduced. However, we recognise that Namibia is a drought-prone country; in any one year, we are more likely to have drought than not. We have therefore developed policies to address these problems. The Emergency Management Unit in my office is responsible for providing drought relief: at the last count, this relief was being provided to 163,233 people identified as the most vulnerable and I am very happy to say that not one life has been lost as a result of drought.
In your last interview with World Statesman, you stressed your commitment to a mixed, market economy. Has your attitude changed since?
No. Or commitment to a mixed, market economy has served us well. This is not to suggest that the government wants to enter business. The government prefers to do so only if the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide services or where services to the weaker sections of society have to be ensured. Thus, we will continue to be involved in the provision of health services and education, with the private sector supplementing these services. We have already commercialised other areas, such as telephone and postal services, as a prelude to privatising them. Similarly, work is in progress to privatise the transport sector. Our mixed, market economy is thus no different from that in most European and North American countries.
How optimistic are you for Namibia's future?
I am not just optimistic about Namibia's future - I am sure of a very bright future for my country. By any measure, we have continued to progress. Our policies have laid firm foundations for continued peace in the country and we are at peace with our neighbours. Within the country, we continue to work to improve the quality of life for our people, and our economy, despite the drought and uncertain prices for Namibia's primary products, has shown tremendous resilience. With the government's efforts to diversify the economy to enlarge the national cake, I know that this country's future is secure.
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