Supply Your Own Light

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 18 January, 2018.

The year 2017 was a hard one. Here, in our own country, we faced an economic recession and political infighting to a level never seen before. Globally, while the world seem to try and recover economically following the long malaise after the credit crunch a decade ago, humanity seems to be more disunited than ever before, with the United States seemingly embracing its President’s approach of ‘America First’ and as such, relinquishing its mantle as ‘Leader of the Free World’ with its actions. Britain is Brexiting, dividing the European Union, and more and more countries seem to be disintegrating from within.

As we enter 2018, everyone seems to feel more and more powerless to affect the way the world is heading, and seem content to wash away in the flood. Yet they are not. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1946 work, Existentialism, he examines the human condition in the face of an indifferent world, and finds that our most important consideration is to realise that we are individuals – conscious beings independently acting and responsible for those actions – rather than a category, a label, that they think they fit into in society. 

Sartre stated that a person is defined by their actions, and remains responsible for those actions – pretending otherwise is acting in bad faith. Every time a person claims they did something ‘because they had no choice,’ they are acting in bad faith, and purport to make themselves a mere object in the world, even though they are a thinking human being. Every person always has a choice in how they act – they may not have a good choice, hence the want to make themselves an object at the mercy of the world and not responsible for their actions, but they nevertheless always have a choice in their actions. 

When applied against the backdrop of the world, however, we encounter the problem of the Absurd. The Absurd arises because we as human beings naturally seek an inherent value and meaning in life, while the universe is in itself meaningless, or indifferent. Sartre drew upon the works of two other philosophers with differing opinions on resolving the dilemma of the Absurd, Søren Kierkegaard’s work The Sickness Unto Death (1849) and Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) to show our options when faced with this dilemma.

The first of three options when, as a person, we face the meaninglessness of the universe along our own desire to find meaning, is suicide – or escaping existence. This however, is a false solution – Camus and Kierkegaard considered it non-viable, with Camus going as far to say that it does not counter the Absurd, and in fact makes life even more absurd. 

Kierkegaard endorsed the second option – a religious, spiritual or abstract belief in a transcendent realm, being or idea. This is a solution where you come to the belief in a reality beyond the Absurd that has meaning – a belief in an irrational but maybe necessary acceptance in the intangible and empirically unprovable. Kierkegaard referred to this as a ‘leap of faith’. Camus, however, considered this solution as ‘philosophical suicide’.

Camus chose the third option – accepting the Absurd and continuing to live in spite of it. By accepting the Absurd, we, as human beings, can achieve the greatest extent of our own freedom, by recognizing that we have no constraints and fighting against the Absurd while we know it to be inescapable. Through doing this, Camus believed we could construct our own meaning for our lives in the process, and live as people in the world, and not merely objects to be pushed around by it. 

 When we thus take a look at the world around us, seemingly imposing itself on our consciousness and trying to convince us we are powerless to affect it, we should remind ourselves that the world is not malevolent – rather, it is indifferent. More importantly, we are not powerless against it – we can act, and we have a responsibility to act. We are the actors in the great play of life that needs to imbue meaning into a meaningless world. And if my words cannot fully get this message across, perhaps those of Stanley Kubrick will: 

“The very meaninglessness of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism — and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in the ultimate goodness of man. But, if he’s reasonably strong — and lucky — he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s elan

Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh sense of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death — however mutable man may be able to make them — our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”

Be Buffy

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 7 December, 2017.

On the 10th of December, we here in Namibia celebrate Human Rights Day, but we also celebrate another day, one that’s sadly overshadowed by it. We also celebrate International Women’s Day. Now, I realise that as a man, I have very little authority to talk about women’s issues, but as Sir Patrick Stewart so eloquently put it, "People won't listen to you or take you seriously unless you're an old white man, and since I'm an old white man I'm going to use that to help the people who need it." I hope I can do a bit better, and have someone else do the talking. Buffy Anne Summers.

Buffy Summers was created as a response to that old writing trope – that of the bubblehead blonde that wandered into the dark alley and got murdered. Buffy was that bubblehead blonde, and she fought back and won. As she taught us, appearances can be deceiving – she might have been blonde, true, and a typical girl, but she was no bubblehead, and she was in no way weaker for being either. For "into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer."

Because while Buffy the Vampire Slayer seems to be but a simple pop-culture show, it is anything but. It has more academic papers, essays and books written about it than any other media property – at last count, over 200 – and those papers range from gender and family studies to aesthetics. Because while Buffy may appear to have a simple premise, the fights against vampires, demons and the forces of darkness parallels the similar fights most women have growing up – fighting their own vampires, demons and forces arrayed against them. 

Buffy is, in essence, teaching us all how to deal with the absurdity of life. We all seek inherent value and meaning in life, while the universe we inhabit is by its very nature meaningless – the very nature of our existence is thus absurd. How do we deal with it? The way that Buffy shows us – we need to create our own meaning in life, and to live life to the fullest, as it can be snatched from us at any moment. As Buffy tells her sister, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”

Buffy teaches us that all we need to be strong is ourselves. No one else. Even when almost defeated, and her former lover taunts her with a sword pointed at her with, “No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away, what's left?” Buffy can respond with, “Me.” Strength is in what you are, not what you’re given, and you should not allow anyone to take it away from you. 

The show also teaches us the power of forgiveness and redemption. Throughout the seven years, we see not only Buffy grow up from a teenage girl to an independent woman, but we see the people around her, and how she deals with them. Just like the real world, her world is not black and white, but rather varying shades of grey. Several characters that could at the start be said to be bad, find redemption, and those that start good turn bad as well. Buffy herself has to learn to forgive those around her, because “To forgive is an act of compassion. It's not done because people deserve it. It's done because they need it.”

Buffy also reminds us of our own empathy, by deliberately invoking a feeling of sonder – i.e. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own — populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you. Or as she put it to Jonathan, “My life happens on occasion to suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone.”

But perhaps the greatest gift Buffy gave to all women is her message of agency. Buffy had to fight many demons, both internal and external throughout her struggles, but what she never gives up is her capacity to act. She never gives up. In a world where women are constantly under siege, in a country such as ours with a horrible culture of domestic violence, the one thing no woman should ever forget is that she has the capacity to act – to change the world. Even more powerful than her message against domestic violence (“No man is worth your life. Not ever.”) is her choice to never cede agency. As she puts it, “Strong is fighting. It's hard and it's painful and it's every day. It's what we have to do, and we can do it together.”

So to all the women in Namibia, Buffy only has this to say: “So here's the part where you make a choice. What if you could have that power, now? In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power should be our power. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power, who can stand up, will stand up. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”

Trial And Error

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 16 November, 2017.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked quite a bit about the values each of us should possess if we want to build a Namibian House. One “where everyone feels a sense of belonging, where everyone is presented with a fair opportunity to prosper in an inclusive manner and by so doing, ensure that no one feels left out.” We, as a people, need to be honest, loyal, kind, jovial and generous, whilst uniting in the bonds of friendship. But what does our government need to do? For a start, it needs to lift all Namibians into prosperity based on an inclusive Namibian House, united in its cause. 

There are, of course, several policies one can implement to alleviate poverty, but none of them work without economic growth. It is often said that economic growth will alleviate poverty, but this is not strictly true for economic growth alone – it will only alleviate poverty if the lowest wages rise faster than the average wage, and if benefits and pensions are kept in line with average wage increases. Economic growth, however, creates new job opportunities, and that is how poverty gets alleviated. It is quite well known that the biggest cause of poverty is in fact unemployment! 

Government has had some success in this, but it appears to have followed the time tested method of trial and error – repeated, varied attempts which are continued until you find success. Unfortunately, it appears government is only measuring the end result to see what is effective – and as a result, may be missing the intermediary measures one can examine to see if policies may not be able to improve those. 

This seems like a job for our Statistician-General, but until such time, we can also look to international studies – such as the Doing Business Report of the World Bank Group. In its 2018 report, however, the results did not look good. Out of 190 countries, Namibia came 106st on its ease of doing business, dropping 5 places in two years.

In particular, there are several sub-sections where Namibia should mightily improve if we want to build an inclusive Namibian House. In terms of tackling unemployment, perhaps the most important of these would be the ease with which one can start a new business. Namibia ranked 172nd out of 190 countries – we’ve dropped 8 places in just two years.

To start a new business, there are 10 procedures that need to be followed, which takes 66 days. Compare that to New Zealand, the best, where there is only a single procedure that needs to be followed, and it takes but half a day to register a business. Would it not be better for Namibia’s unemployment if this wall were not in front of every entrepreneur that wished to enter the economy? To simply pay a company’s taxes requires 27 payments a year, and requires 302 hours of work to complete. While this only makes us 79th in the world, that still means a new entrepreneur needs to work almost two months of a year just on his taxes. This is time not spent building his business!

Registering a property takes 8 procedures, and 52 days – placing us 175th out of 190 countries. It also on average costs 13.8% of the property’s value. With the world leaders having only a single property procedure taking a single day, and with it costing zero in Saudi Arabia, is it any wonder we’re complaining about land provision when it takes this long and costs so much simply to register it? Perhaps the problem with land is the cost of acquisition…

For trading across borders, I came across an even more startling statistic, which could explain why the Bank of Namibia is constantly warning our citizens that our imports exceed our exports. In order to export from Namibia, it requires 15 working days to ensure border compliance, or two working weeks. It requires an additional 11 working days to ensure the documentation is completed for that export, with the costs to ensure compliance amounting to almost US$1100. Now compare that to the 6 hours required to ensure goods are compliant to import, with only 3 hours required for import documentation, costing less than US$210. 

And to enforce a contract here in Namibia, it takes 460 days to be heard by the court (only 120 days in Singapore), while it would cost 35.8% of the claim (0.1% in Bhutan), although our court system did get credit for the reform process case management and information communication technology systems. There are several more statistics that relate to the ease of doing business that increase our score compared to these, like Getting Credit (68th), Getting Electricity (68th), Dealing with construction permits (107th) and Protecting Minority Investors (89th). 

If we as a nation wish to alleviate poverty and unemployment, it seems clear where we should start. I know that we as a nation want to do all that we can. We want to make a contribution – we want to be a part of the plan. Our destiny seems uncertain, and that can be hard to take, but our path will become much clearer with every new choice we make. Patience is never easy; we can all understand wanting more. But we also know how hard it is to wait, as a nation, to spread out our wings and soar.

But we are here for a reason – as a nation, we are gifted, and we are strong. We know we belong here, and we’ll solve our problems. Our time is coming soon – as the sun rises, so does the moon, and as love finds a place in every heart, we are a nation. We’ll play our part.