Yuri’s Night

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 12 April, 2018.

Tonight, 12 April, is Yuri’s Night. It’s a night celebrated across the globe to celebrate humanity’s first achievement in spaceflight – the first human mission to orbit the earth. It celebrates Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, and his Vostok 1 mission on 12 April 1961, when humanity took its first tentative steps towards the stars. 

Yuri Gagarin was born on 9 March 1934, on a collective farm in the village of Klushino in Russia. His father, Alexey Ivanovich Gagarin was a carpenter and bricklayer, and his mother, Anna Timofeyevna Gagarina was a milkmaid. Yuri had an elder sister and brother, and one younger brother, and the family, like so many millions during that time, suffered during the Nazi occupation in World War II. The village was occupied during November 1941, and a Nazi officer took over their house. They were allowed to build a mud hut of 9 square meters next to their house to live in, and his elder two siblings were sent to Poland for slave labour until the end of the war. 

After the war, the family moved to Gzhatsk (now named Gagarin) where Yuri got his education. Initially apprenticing as a foundryman, he graduated from vocational training and was selected for further training at the Saratov Industrial Technical School, studying tractors. It was there that he volunteered for training as a Soviet air cadet during weekends. After graduation in 1955, he was drafted into the Soviet Army, where his flight experience was recognized, and he was sent to the First Chkalov Air Force Pilot’s School in Orenburg.

With his first solo flight in a MiG-15 in 1957, he graduated and was assigned to the Luostari airbase close to the Norwegian border. The terrible weather there made flying risky, and by 6 November 1959 he was promoted to Senior Lieutenant. This meant that in 1960, Yuri was selected with 19 other pilots to become part of the Soviet space program. He was then further selected to be part of the so-called ‘Sochi Six’, from which the first cosmonauts were to be selected, and subjected to experiments to test mental and physical endurance. When the 20 candidates were asked to vote for which candidate they’d want to go first, 17 voted for Gagarin.

The final choice was between Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov. The Head of Cosmonaut Training, Nikolai Kamanin, finally made his choice on 9 April, 1961. Yuri was examined by a team of doctors before the flight, with one remarking, “Gagarin looked more pale than usual. He was unsociable and quiet, which was not like him at all. He would answer by nodding or a short 'yes' to all questions. Sometimes he would start humming some tunes. This was a different Gagarin. We geared him up, and hugged. And I said, 'Yuri, everything will be fine.' And he nodded back.”

At 5h30 on the Morning of April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin and his backup Titov were woken up, had breakfast and were then fitted in their suits. Yuri entered the Vostok 1 spacecraft at 07h10, two hours before launch. Since the entire mission would be controlled by either automatic systems or ground control (because they were unsure of how weightlessness might affect humans) the pilot’s manuals controls were locked by code. An envelope with the code was placed onboard in case Gagarin needed it, but prior to getting in, Kamanin told him the code anyway.

While waiting for the launch, Yuri requested some music. Chief Designer of the Vostok capsule, Sergei Korolov had not slept the night before due to anxiety, and was having chest pains and on his way to a nervous breakdown. He was given a pill to calm him down, but Yuri was calm – his heartrate recorded at only 64 beats per minute before launch. 

At 09h07, the Vostok 1 launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome Site 1. Korolev radioed, "We wish you a good flight. Everything is all right." Gagarin replied, "Let's go! (Poyekhali!)." His informal “Polyekhali!” became a historical phrase, used to indicate the beginning of the Space Age. Gagarin continued to monitor the flight over the next ten minutes, reporting all is well and that he’s continuing the flight until ten minutes after lift-off, when the rocket stage shut down, and separated from the Vostok 1. It had reached orbit, and Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the earth. 

From orbit, Yuri radioed, "The craft is operating normally. I can see Earth in the view port of the Vzor. Everything is proceeding as planned." Of weightlessness, he noted, “The feeling of weightlessness was somewhat unfamiliar compared with Earth conditions. Here, you feel as if you were hanging in a horizontal position in straps. You feel as if you are suspended.”

5 minutes later, Vostok 1 had crossed Soviet Russia and was beginning to diagonally cross the Pacific Ocean. By 11h00, it had crossed the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America. At 11h25, over the West Coast of Africa, near Angola, the Vostok 1’s retroboosters fired, and its descent began. By 11h35, Vostok 1 was already over Egypt, and Gagarin began to feel the 8 gravities of deceleration, but he maintained consciousness. At 11h55, with the Vostok 1 still seven kilometres from the ground, Yuri was ejected, and his parachute opened. The Vostok 1’s parachute opened 2.5km from the ground, and the two schoolgirls who witnessed it said, "It was a huge ball, about two or three meters high. It fell, then it bounced and then it fell again. There was a huge hole where it hit the first time."

Yuri landed about ten minutes later, at 12h05, about 26km south-west of Engels in the Saratov region of Russia. A farmer and her daughter observed this strange sight – a figure in a bright orange suit with a large white helmet landing near them. He later recalled, "When they saw me in my space suit and the parachute dragging alongside as I walked, they started to back away in fear. I told them, don't be afraid, I am a Soviet citizen like you, who has descended from space and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!"

Yuri was not so fortunate 7 years later, when on a training flight he and his co-pilot died in a MiG-15 crash near Kirzhach. They bodies were cremated and buried in the walls of the Kremlin on Red Square. But Yuri will always be remembered on this day, on this night, for his achievement. Since 2011, the UN has designated 12 April as International Day of Human Space Flight. 

So tonight, look up at the sky, and remember Yuri’s words as he entered the Vostok 1, “Dear friends, you who are close to me, and you whom I do not know, fellow Russians, and people of all countries and all continents: in a few minutes a powerful space vehicle will carry me into the distant realm of space. What can I tell you in these last minutes before the launch? My whole life appears to me as one beautiful moment. All that I previously lived through and did, was lived through and done for the sake of this moment.”

Accounting Our Nation

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 5 April, 2018.

Last week, we took the data presented to us by Statistician-General Alex Shimuafeni and the Namibia Statistics Agency and examined our neighbours and our trade partners. Now the time has come to hold ourselves accountable. During the last week, the NSA has also released the Preliminary National Accounts, and the picture does not look rosy. With the data from trade and balance of payments collated, and the data from private and government sources added up, the results were clear. Namibia had experienced an economic contraction of 0.8% during 2017. 

I’m sure this news surprised no-one. It merely confirmed what we already knew having informally surveyed the economy over the past year – but the National Accounts serve a different purpose. It allows us, though the data, to see exactly where we suffered most, and gives us insight into possible avenues of turning our economy around. So, to start off, let’s examine inflation first.

Inflation peaked during 2016 at 6.7%, and remained elevated during most of 2017 until it started tapering down during the latter part of the year. As a result, inflation for 2017 only averaged 6.1%, with the main contributors to lower inflation being food and alcohol (5.6%), tobacco (4.6%), clothing and footwear (-0.4%), furnishing and other household expenses (4.6%), health costs (5.7%) and recreation and culture (4.1%).

Next, we’ll take a look at the different economic sectors before taking an overall view. The Agriculture and Forestry sector is a highlight for 2017, as it managed strong growth of 12.7% compared to 1.8% in 2016. This is as a result of good rainfall, which saw an increase in crop farming (and in cereal production specifically) and resulted in the crop farming subsector posting 11.4% growth. Livestock farming also didn’t disappoint, with growth of 13.7%, given better export prices for livestock during the year.  The Fishing sector, however, did not do as well, recording a growth of only 1.3%, down from growth of 9.1% during 2016. This is attributed to the 10.9% decline in demersal landing, in stark contrast to its 27.2% growth in 2016. 

Mining and Quarrying, fortunately, also showed strong growth of 12.8% during 2017, compared with its 5.8% contraction in 2016. In particular, the diamond subsector grew by 12%, due to an increase in carats produced, while the metal ore subsector grew by 9.9% off the back of zinc production that spiked to 25.3%. The uranium subsector is still struggling, off the back of weak demand and low market prices, but 4 the subsector didn’t contract. Rather, it posted strong growth of 23.4% due to increased production as a result of new mines that came online during the year. The other subsectors also registered growth of 4.3% in 2017 compared to a contraction of 19.8% in 2016, due to granite and marble production that increased by 113.4% and 36% respectively.

The Manufacturing sector, however, only recorded growth of 1.4% in 2017 compared to 5.2% in 2016. With the meat processing, food processing and textiles subsectors declining by 14.4%, 4.6% and 3.2%, and diamond processing recording slower growth of 14.6% compared to 85% as in 2016, it was up to the grain mill, leather, and non-ferrous metal subsectors to enable positive growth, each growing by 16.3%, 10.3% and 4.8% respectively.  The Electricity and Water sector also felt the effects of muted economic growth, with electricity growing only by 4.2% and water down by 7.4%. The sector’s overall growth of 1.8% is due to an increase in intermediate electricity consumption, resulting in large power imports. 

The Construction sector continues its slide downwards, having recorded a contraction of 25.6% in 2017, compared to its similar decline of 26.3% in 2016. This is mostly as a result of government construction reducing by 29%, and the completion of mining construction projects, which also reduced by 64.4%. There does appear to be at least some signs of stabilization, with the value of buildings completed increasing by 35.5% in 2017 from a 25.5% reduction in 2016.
Wholesale and retail trade continues to feel the effect of negative economic headwinds, contracting by 7.1% in 2017, compared to growth of 2.7% in 2016. It’s in particular the vehicle and furniture subsectors that bear the heaviest burden here, with contractions of 24.5% and 3% respectively. Hotels and Restaurants also found itself with reversing fortunes, as it recorded a decline of 2% in 2017 compared with 2016’s growth of 3.2%. 

The Transport and Communication sector at least remained in positive territory, with growth of 0.8% compared to 2016’s 7% growth. The Financial Intermediation sector continued its constant growth, again growing with 2.8%, with the banking subsector contributing 2% growth and the insurance subsector contributing 4.1%. Real Estate and Business services showed growth of 2.4% compared to 2.7% in 2016, and finally, the Public Administration, Defence, Education and Health sectors still shows the effect of government consolidation, with Public Administration and Defence showing growth of 0.3%, but Education contracting by 1.2% and Health by 1.3%

As Lewis Carrol so aptly put it, “The time has come," the Walrus said, “To talk of many things.” We can no longer deny the truth that is the precarious situation we as Namibians find ourselves in. We can see where the holes in our economy are, and we know we have to patch them. But unlike the oysters in Carrol’s poem, we should not sit around and talk of many things, for then we shall be devoured as surely as those oysters. The time of talking is clearly over for the Namibian Economy. The time of doing should start now.

A Year Of Trade

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 29 March, 2018.

Over the last century, a web of trade has developed between countries, and it is largely responsible for the economic development we’ve seen globally since the mid twentieth century, due to the economic theory of comparative advantage. In short, it postulates that certain economic actors can produce certain goods or services at a lower opportunity cost than others. To maximize economic output, then, it makes sense to produce that which a certain country can produce at lower cost than anyone else and export it, and then import those goods which can be produced by other countries at a lower cost.

To maximize economic benefit, then, every nations imports some goods and services and exports others. These two do not always match, however, and this mismatch is called the balance of trade. The balance of trade is a large part of a country’s current account – which not only includes trade, but also capital flows in and out of an economy. Usually, countries produce a trade surplus during economic boom times, and then records a deficit during tougher times. 

Namibia is no exception, with government’s trade policy aimed at developing, promoting and diversifying the country’s exports while reducing our reliance on imports. It is therefore quite important that we monitor our trade to see if government is, in fact, successful in its stated endeavours. Let’s then examine the Annual Trade Statistics Bulletin compiled by Statistician General Alex Shimuafeni’s Namibia Statistics Agency to see what trade occurred during 2017. 

During 2017, Namibia’s exported N$ 63.5 billion worth of goods, while importing N$ 87.9 billion, leaving us with a total trade deficit during the year of N$ 24.4 billion. As such, we’ve effectively exports locally created wealth abroad. While we saw an improvement in the trade deficit from 2016 of 18%, it remains a fact that Namibia now consistently has a trade deficit, instead of a trade surplus, every year since 2008. 

Let’s take a look at exports and imports individually. Namibia’s largest export market, as usual, is the Southern African Customs Union, with N$ 23.4 billion exported to that group of countries, or 39% of our exports. In second place is the European Union, with N$ 14 billion in exports (24%), then the European Free Trade Area (basically Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein) with N$ 8.6 billion in exports (14%), followed by non-SACU SADC with N$ 5.4 billion (9%) in exports, and finally, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) contributing 7% in exports and BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) contributing 6% .

When we take a look at the individual countries we export to, South Africa comes out top with N$ 15 billion exported to, or 24% of our exports, with Botswana at N$ 8.4 billion (13%), Switzerland another N$ 6.5 billion (10%), China with N$ 3.3 billion (5%) and Belgium with N$ 3.2 billion (5%). Together, these 5 account for 58% of our exports. 

For Botswana, unsurprisingly, our exports are mainly diamonds, and while South Africa also receives diamond exports (38% of our exports to them), we also export live animals (16%), fish (9%) and beverages and spirits (5%) amongst others. For Switzerland, we can see that 90% of our exports are copper ores and copper blisters. This seems to be the result of the Louis-Dreyfus Group, based there, that via its subsidiary, Dundee Precious Metals, acquired the Tsumeb Smelter, and seems to be importing copper to Namibia for smelting before re-exporting. We mainly export ores as well to China (54%) but in addition, China also receive a lots of our exports of zinc (30%). Belgium mainly receives exports of diamonds (49%) and copper blisters (19%) from Namibia, in addition to a sizable amount of zinc (17%).

In terms of imports, the SACU is by far the largest source of imports, with N$ 54.8 billion imported, or 66% of our imports. The EU is second with N$ 11.4 billion (14%) imported, then the BRIC countries with N$ 7.1 billion (9%) imported, and COMESA with N$ 4.7 billion imported (6%). Taking a look at the individual countries we import from, South Africa stands at N$ 49 billion, accounting for 56% of our imports, with Bulgaria at N$ 5.8 billion (7%), Botswana at N$ 5.4 billion (6%), China at N$ 4.5 billion (5%), Zambia at N$ 4.2 billion (5%)

From South Africa, we source vehicles, electrical and mechanical appliances and equipment as well as most of our manufactured products and pharmaceuticals, as can be expected. This remains the main reason the Namibian dollar cannot delink from the Rand. Botswana’s imports are 94% diamonds – most likely re-imported after processing there. From Bulgaria and Zambia we imported copper ore and copper blisters – for smelting, as mentioned above. From China we get electrical and mechanical appliances and equipment as well as other articles of iron and steel, which can be expected, seeing as their products remain quite popular here in Namibia.

The data has now been turned into information, and the picture it paints is not positive when we consider the government’s trade policy. Our exports are still primary resources. Our imports are manufactured products. With a country that is struggling economically, why are we not encouraging the development of local manufacturing ability? Why can we not process these primary resources we’re exporting first, and export manufactured product to try and reduce our trade deficit? We need to start developing our own manufacturing industries, so we can export more to cover our imports. Until we do, we’ll simply keep exporting our natural wealth – and when that runs out, we’ll be up a creek without a paddle.