A Namibian House: Sunshine of the Heart

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 27 October, 2016.  

I’ve written before about how our President, Dr Hage Geingob, has spoken of ‘building a Namibian House.’ He has stated that “Namibians want a house 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.” I’ve previously covered some of the values we as Namibians need in order to build a Namibian House – honesty and loyalty. But those are not the only ones we need. 

We know we have to alleviate poverty – after all, that is the ultimate goal of the Harambee Prosperity Plan – and to do that, we need to create wealth. Neo-classical economic theory posits that we’re ‘homo economicus,’ that we only know our own wishes and act rationally to maximize advantages to ourselves. Economic theory claims we are essentially selfish, but that is profoundly not true. After all, the basis for our civilization has not been everyone for her/himself, but rather one of co-operation. It is one of relationships – positive relationships. It is based on kindness.

Kindness at its core the intersection of empathy and compassion. In order to be kind, it is necessary to be able to place yourself in the position of another person, and feel the effect of their situation, or of their suffering. But empathy alone does not beget kindness – it is only when empathy is combined with compassion, the real concern and strong motivation to alleviate their suffering, that you can begin to be kind. Yes, empathy can be very distressing – feeling the suffering of others is quite an emotional experience and very uncomfortable, and our default response is often to withdraw, or even assert aggressive behaviour. That response, however, blunts the true effect of kindness. If you respond with compassion, if you are kind, and you relieve some of the suffering, empathically you yourself will also feel better – and you’ll make the world better as well. 

Too often in today’s world, we see kindness as a weakness. It does, after all, require you to be vulnerable for a moment, and in a cut-throat world, vulnerability cannot be tolerated. Strangely enough, we feel outraged whenever WE are not treated with kindness… An odd occurrence, don’t you think, that we are so reticent to spread it ourselves, then blame the world when it does not show kindness to us. Kindness is, truthfully, not even a big thing to give. It can be a smile to a person having an unpleasant day, instead of another unpleasant interaction. It can be a favour done for someone without expecting anything back. Stopping to help someone when no one else seems to want to stop. Lifting someone’s spirits just because you can. A compliment. 

Because kindness is not a weakness. All good leaders are kind – and that does not mean they don’t make tough decisions. Being kind does not mean not firing underperforming employees. It means you are kind when you do it, and that you were open to them that this would be the result should they not perform or fit in with the company. It means they won’t be surprised when it happens, because you always let them know where they stand. Being kind is good for business as well, since being kind to customers results in repeat customers, and that helps the bottom line. 

Kindness is the basis of nearly every ethical tradition. I’m sure you’ve all heard the Golden Rule, “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” It appears in human writings from the earliest times, from the Egyptian goddess Ma’at, to the writings of Confucius, to the Torah (Leviticus 19:18 - You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD), the New Testament (Matthew 7:12 - Do to others what you want them to do to you. This is the meaning of the law of Moses and the teaching of the prophets), in Islam’s hadith (An-Nawawi's Forty Hadith 13 - None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself), up to modern humanism, which states that humanists “make their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals.”

Unfortunately, our innate empathy is often short-circuited by our distressing ability to decide others are members of an ‘outgroup.’ We tend to identify with a certain social group, our ‘ingroup,’ and thereby our ability to empathize with those in an ‘outgroup’ falls by the wayside, and may even morph into what the Germans term schadenfreude - pleasure derived by someone from another person's misfortune. We Namibians have had the misfortune of being split up into different ‘ingroups’ during the South African occupation of our country – but we were united in our struggle for independence, and it is that unity that has held us together since. Our constitution’s preamble specifically singles out the “right of the individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of race, colour, ethnic origin, sex, religion, creed or social or economic status,” and we should strive to remember that we are all Namibians – the plight of our fellow Namibians should concern all of us. 

We are a young country, and a proud one.  The President’s plan to alleviate poverty by building a ‘Namibian House’ is ambitious, but achievable if we can all Harambee and pull together to make it happen. To do this, we, as a country with 300 days of sunshine a year, need to store some of that sunshine in our hearts, and shine a ray onto our fellow Namibians with kindness, to light up their lives whenever they find themselves in a dark place.

To Shape History

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 20 October, 2016.

Tomorrow, exactly 211 years ago, one man managed to change the course of history, and shape the world that was to come. But first, let me set the stage – the year was 1805. The First French Empire had been established by the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte a bit more than a year ago. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was marching across Europe, scoring streaks of historic victories that gave Napoleon an unprecedented grip on power over the entire continent. 

Off the coast of Europe, however, was a group of small islands that viewed the events on the continent with some concern. King George III, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, knew that should the Grande Armée make it to UK soil, they could not expect reinforcement from opposing continental forces, and the British Isles would fall. 

Already during the French Revolution, the Royal Navy had enacted a successful naval blockade of France, and after the Peace of Amiens was broken, Napoleon was determined that such a blockade should not stand. For his invasion to succeed, the Royal Navy must not be able to intercept the invasion flotilla – which meant Napoleon had to gain control on the English Channel.

His plan was for the French and allied Spanish Armadas in the Mediterranean to converge and join forces, then return to Cadiz, breaking through the British blockade, and clear the channel of Royal Navy ships. Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve was in charge of the fleet, and broke through the British blockade, setting off to the Caribbean, to add those ships to his fleet, with the British in pursuit. 

In August, Villeneuve set off for Europe once again, but that same month, another man finally returned to the British Isles after two years at sea. The Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. Nelson was a veteran of the Royal Navy, well-known for his unconventional battle tactics, as well as his battlefield injuries. He had lost his right eye at the Battle of Calvi in Corsica and his right arm in the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, but had, sans the arm and eye, won decisive victories against the French at the Battle of the Nile and over the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen afterwards. 

On 2 September, Villeneuve’s fleet had reached Cadiz, but the HMS Victory, Nelson’s ship, was not ready. Villeneuve’s fleet was resupplying, however, and Nelson set sail on the 15th of September, to take command of the Royal Navy Fleet on 28 September.  The French and Spanish Armada had 41 ships, of which 33 was ships of the line, while the Royal Navy fleet had but 33 ships, with 27 being ships of the line. On 18 October, Vice-Admiral Villeneuve received word that six British ships had docked at Gibraltar – and assuming the British fleet was weakened, prepared to set sail.

By 20 October, the fleet was organised, and set sail for the Strait of Gibraltar. British frigates noticed, and notified Nelson – he set off in pursuit. That same night, the French noticed the British were in pursuit, and began preparation for battle. At the time, the traditional battle plan was to approach an enemy fleet in a single line, firing broadside in parallel lines – with the entire fleet in line, signalling could be done in battle, improving control. But it also allowed any side to disengage by breaking away, and the other side had to break formation to pursue. 

Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson was having none of that. He wanted a conclusive battle, and so instead he decided to cut the opposing line in three, approaching perpendicularly with two lines of ships. This would interfere with their signalling, and well as surround a third of their ships. At 8 am of 21 October 1805, Villeneuve ordered his ships to turn around to face the Royal Navy. By 11am, the two fleets could see each other, and off the coast of Cape Trafalgar the fight drew close. Villeneuve was concerned about the two parallel columns, but Nelson was outnumbered and outgunned. The French had nearly 30,000 men and 2,568 guns to England’s 17,000 men and 2,148 guns.

At 11h45, Nelson sent his second-to-last signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” A great cheer went up across the fleet as the message was relayed. Then he signalled, “Engage the enemy more closely,” and the battle was joined. At noon, the first shots were fired. Vice-Admiral Collingwood on the HMS Royal Sovereign said to his officers, "Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter." The Battle of Trafalgar had begun.

The HMS Victory herself was under fire for 40 minutes from the Redoubtable, who had a strong infantry corps – and who tried to board the HMS Victory, but as a second British ship approached and fired on the French crew, their casualties became insurmountable. Unfortunately, they had dealt stunning damage – shortly after 13h00, a marksman from the Redoubtable had fired on Nelson, and stuck him in the spine. He said, “You can do nothing for me. I have but a short time to live. My back is shot through.” And was carried below decks. 

By 13h55, the Redoubtable had surrendered. Another two ships surrendered shortly thereafter, as more and more British ships entered the battle. Nelson was informed of the ships surrendering shortly afterwards, and begged Captain Hardy to pass his possession to Lady Emma Hamilton, his mistress. After three hours of battle, the outnumbered British fleet had captured 22 ships of the Franco-Spanish Armanda, and lost none. Nelson, whose strategies had handed them a spectacular victory, lay dying. His surgeon heard him say the words, “Thank god I have done my duty,” and became weak. Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, died 3 hours after he was shot.

In the aftermath, the French Empire no longer had a significant navy to deploy, and any plans the Emperor Napoleon had for invading the British Isles were permanently scuppered. Instead, he turned his attention eastwards, to Russia – a costly mistake that would result in his final defeat by the Duke of Wellington on 18 June, 1815. The Royal Navy was not seriously challenged at sea again for more than 100 years, and their prowess on the oceans gave way to the Pax Brittanica, with their unchallenged sea power. 

The British Empire grew to become the largest empire the world had ever seen, with at its height covering 24% of the world’s surface, and comprising 23% of the world’s population. Their culture was exported to the world, and their norms became world norms. Nelson’s victory is the reason we here in Namibia have a Parliament, speak English and play sports such as soccer, rugby and cricket. And as for Nelson himself…

In the UK, in the city of Westminster, there is a square, 110m by 110m, known as Trafalgar Square – commemorating his battle. In this square, you’ll find a 52m tall column, with a statue at the top, of an officer in Naval uniform, missing an arm – a statue of Nelson, atop Nelson’s Column, looking out over the city and country he had loved so much. So whenever someone tell you that they are unimportant, and that they cannot change things, tell them his story. Because the right man or woman, at the right time, doing the right thing, can change the course of history.

It’s Not The Planet That Needs Saving

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 13 October, 2016. 
Frequently you’ll hear, on the news, on social media, about the troubles that the environment is facing. The “very sustainability of our fragile blue-green planet,” they say, is threatened. That has always seemed quite unlikely to me – after all just how ‘fragile’ is this planet we find ourselves on? Because it has endured quite a lot throughout its 4.5-billion-year lifetime, and yet…
It took life 700 million years to appear on planet Earth, and these basic forms of life were quite resilient. It took until 450 million years ago for an event to occur that could threaten it. It was the start of the Ordovician-Silurian extinction event, lasting for 25 million years. A burst of volcanic activity occurred, depositing silicate rocks on the surface of the earth – silicate rocks that drew carbon dioxide from the air as they eroded. At the time, the earth was a veritable greenhouse, with a thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide that trapped heat from the sun. As the carbon dioxide was leeched from the air, heat could escape, and the atmosphere changed. The planet cooled. At the poles, ice caps started to form.

With glaciers starting to form, sea levels dropped, and the habitat of sea life was extinguished. But glaciers break up, and then drift back into the ocean – and as a result, melt and cause sea levels to rise again. With sea levels rising and falling, populations moved into areas, just to go extinct when the next wave of glaciers built up and lowered them again. During this 25 million years, this cycle repeated 5 times. 85% of marine species went extinct, and those that survived found a different environment to flourish in once sea levels stabilised. 

By 375 million years ago, the land had been colonised by plants and insects had evolved. Life was flourishing once again, but life does not commonly have a global view, instead focusing on survival. Plants, now growing without the intense competition of previous ages, could grow much larger, increasing in size from 30cm to 30m, and developed seeds, allowing them to spread much further. They developed massive root systems, entrenching themselves in the soil, and splitting it up, eroding it. This released a large amount of nutrients into the water, causing eutrophication – the wild growth of plants and algae. Unfortunately, that results in the water being depleted of oxygen – or anoxia. 

Anoxia in the water resulted in the mass extinction of vertebrate species, with 97% disappearing. This Late Devonian extinction event, as it is termed, devastated marine habitats and sharks, for example, only survived as a species less than a meter long. It would take 40 million years for them to increase in size again. And yet after this 15 million years long extinction event, the continents were green, and land life started to make gains.

Then, 252 million years ago, less than a hundred million years later, a global disaster occurred. An asteroid impacted the earth at Araguainha in Brazil. The impact occurred in oil shale, releasing massive amounts of oil and gas. Massive earthquakes were triggered, releasing buried coal. This mixture of oil, gas and coal precipitated global fires. The world burned. Global warming was the result, and with layers of ash on the oceans, anoxia occurred once again. This allowed sulphate-reducing bacteria to thrive, producing large amounts of hydrogen sulphide. This poisoned the plants on the surface, and depleted the ozone layer, allowing fatal levels of UV radiation to kill much of the life that was left.

96% of all marine species went extinct in this Permian-Triassic extinction event. Over 70% of vertebrate species went extinct, and this was the only known mass extinction of insects. So much biodiversity was lost, that it took life 10 million years to recover. In their wake, reptiles and eventually dinosaurs began to emerge. But it would take the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event that occurred 202 million years ago to make dinosaurs the dominant form of life on the planet. Not much is known about this extinction event, since it happened in such a short time-frame – less than 10 000 years. It caused the extinction of around half of all known species.

Then, after the universe took a break for a bit, it happened again. 66 Million years ago, an asteroid struck Central America, near the Yucatán peninsula, in what is today known as the Chicxulub crater. This 10 to 15 km rock impacted with the force of 100 teratonnes of TNT – a billion times more powerful than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event had begun. Global firestorms resulted from the heat pulse – the entire terrestrial biosphere burned. The dust cloud blocked sunlight for a year, killing all photosynthesizing plants. The oceans became acidic, killing all shelled organisms. Over the next 10 years, the dinosaurs died out, along with 75% of all species. But a new form of life emerged – mammals.

Then, 200 000 years ago, a new species of mammal emerged – homo sapiens sapiens. This species was remarkably adept at bending its environment to suit it, instead of adapting to suit its environment. There appeared the first faint glimmers of intelligence. The fruits of intelligence were many: fire, tools and weapons. The hunt, farming and the sharing of food. Families developed, then the village, then the tribe, until finally this species developed civilisation. Then, 200 years ago, they developed industrialisation. Soon, the riches below the earth were to be used as fuel – carbon deposits such as coal, and oil, were burned to power their burgeoning civilisation. But like life in the first few extinction events, this species did not have a global view, and focused only on its own survival. A controlled global fire was underway, and similar to the previous extinction events, changes started to occur. Two weeks ago, they finally increased the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere back up over 400 parts per million – for the foreseeable future. Within the next 50 years, this species will have raised the global temperatures by 2°C, and the next extinction event will have begun. 

So you see, the blue-green planet isn’t quite as fragile as everyone expects. Life, as Ian Malcolm was so fond of saying, will find a way. The planet will do fine – it’s the people that are doomed! As a result of our actions, Namibia has been experiencing the worst drought in memory – and if we as a species cannot find a solution, it will be the first of many. It would be quite sad if the monumental feats of our civilisation are to be swallowed by the mists of time – I, for one, am quite proud of what we have achieved. But if that is what should happen, I shall sleep soundly, knowing that the planet has survived, as it always does. After all, 99% of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. Maybe the next intelligent species to emerge after 50 to 100 million years will do better. Or maybe the dinosaurs will make a comeback. I can only dream…

A Namibian House: Never Leave You Hanging

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 6 October, 2016.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how our President, Dr Hage Geingob, has spoken of ‘building a Namibian House.’ He has stated that “Namibians want a house 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.” I stated that Namibians in general agree with that sentiment, and have hope his Harambee Prosperity plan can build the house the President proposes. And I pointed out that while the plan has concrete goals, it lacks in one significant area – what we as the Namibian people need to be for the plan to succeed. 

I’ve stated that there are several values I believe to be crucial for our Namibian House, and last time, I covered honesty. There is, however, more to being a member of the Namibian House than just honesty. What we need as well, is loyalty. Loyalty, or giving and showing firm support to a person, institution or idea, is something that is becoming ever rarer in a world that seemingly espouses love for those who achieve only in the name of self-interest.

Companies, however, have long-since known the value of loyalty. In terms of customers, most companies strive to develop a form of customer loyalty. It costs less in terms of marketing to retain an existing customer than it does to acquire a new one – and companies that are unable to retain customers will soon find themselves having no customers at all. Customer loyalty also somewhat isolates a company from price competition – after all, saving a few bucks while making a gamble on an unknown service level from a new company is less likely to occur if you’ve already experienced great service from your existing provider. It also reduces your marketing spend – because customers talk. And we all know the powerful effect word-of-mouth has on sales.

It is, however, not only in customers that companies have experienced the powerful effects of loyalty. With employees, loyalty is a powerful boost to productivity! Loyalty, as it turns out, has two types – agency loyalty, and identification loyalty. Agency loyalty is owed – you signed a contract, and per that contract you are required to perform certain duties. It is owed to your country as well. You live in your country, and collectively utilize the services the government offers – therefore, you owe the country an agency loyalty – you’ll pay your taxes, and obey the laws, etc. 

But it is the second type of loyalty, identification loyalty, that makes the difference. Agency loyalty is mostly concerned with the actions taken by both parties – it is a business arrangement more than anything else. Identification loyalty, however, concerns attitudes, emotions and a sense of personal identity. It develops when you start to identify with the ideals of your employer, and it aligns with your personal sense of what is right – your ethics. That loyalty, however, is much more difficult to develop. 

It happens when a person enjoys his or her affiliation with the employer, and the employer recognises that their contributions are valuable. The employees who feel a sense of accomplishment in achieving goals that advance the company will start to develop identification loyalty. This is, however, not a one-way street. Employees have to be treated fairly, receiving a fair share of the benefits and difficulties that is dished out. Companies that see employees only as a means to produce profit, will only ever have agency loyalty. Those who treats them as partners that will take both of them forward, can expect identification loyalty. 

Loyalty is powerful. And that means that it should be bestowed with a sense of responsibility. Last Friday, Dr Quinton van Rooyen said, “But we should guard against our very Namibian instinct to create a cult of personality around one hero – one person that must unite us all.” Loyalty here in Africa is often bestowed on a person we do not know personally, who espouses beliefs and value we hold dear. But loyalty to a person you do not know means your loyalty could be warped to support and enable actions you would not ordinarily support. 

This results in people not wishing to provide support to a government due to the people within it – thinking their loyalty would go to a person. It is important to remember that loyalty to Namibia does not mean loyalty to a government – Namibia is a concept, codified in our constitution. As long as we can ensure our loyalty to Namibia, to the Namibian constitution, we can move forward. Loyalty to an individual should be reserved for family, or those you know very well.

But loyalty to an idea, a set of values, that can be judged against your own ethics, and if it is compatible, that is even more powerful. That is how companies are able to generate identification loyalty, and it is what President Geingob is attempting. With his idea of A Namibian House, President Geingob is trying to dismantle our propensity towards a cult of personality. By making our progress tied to an idea, we can measure it by its words, and measure it to our hearts. If the ideals specified in the Harambee Prosperity Plan aligns with yours, you might start to develop a sense of loyalty. Identification loyalty. And that is necessary for the plan to succeed. 

When a person is excited about something, and feels a sense of accomplishment, a high-five is often initiated. Those who share in that excitement will complete the high-five, and not leave a friend hanging with his hand in the air. It requires giving and showing firm support to a comrade – it requires loyalty. The Harambee Prosperity Plan requires building a Namibian House. It firmly states the Namibia will never leave its citizens hanging. The plan has its hand in the air. Don’t leave it hanging.