Speaking with Nancy Nnaji, the Executive Producer and Anchor of the Moneyline With Nancy TV, First Lady of Namibia, Madame Monica Geingos shares her insight on gender parity in Namibia, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Namibian households, her One Economy Foundation, and her decision to donate all her wealth to charity.
Check out the full interview and more in the recently released AEC Magazine here!
NANCY: We are glad that you and the President have recovered from COVID-19. How do you think that Africa has handled this COVID-19 pandemic and the issue of vaccine access? What is your message for Africans who are averse to taking the vaccine?
FIRST LADY: So there are two conversations. There’s the conversation of accessibility of vaccines and there’s the conversation of vaccine hesitancy. And I think the conversation of accessibility and availability of vaccines to me, is a bit more important because how do you access hesitancy if you don’t have sufficient vaccines in the country, you don’t have options for people to choose from. If in the rural areas, we also may be struggling from distribution? So I think we need to fix this whole vaccine apartheid where Africans really struggle. Even the African countries like Namibia which can pay for vaccines, to access vaccines timelessly. And once the vaccines arrive, to make sure that they are distributed across the country and then that we mitigate the misinformation that has seeped through from the West that causes the vaccine hesitancy. So my message to anybody who has an available vaccine is, the only way that we can get out of this quagmire that COVID has caused for us is the vaccine.
NANCY: How do you think we should handle that vaccine access, because the talk around is that we should be able to produce a vaccine in Africa. What do you think?
FIRST LADY: So there are a number of things including patents, financial resources, skills. So if we were producing many vaccines before COVID, then this would be an easier discussion. I think it’s a wake-up call that we do need to be a little bit more self-reliant given the number of vaccines our continent requires. These are outstanding conversations about why we’re not producing from our side. But we can’t pretend as if the global pharmaceutical companies have ensured a level-playing field for the continent to do that. So I fully support the African Heads of States who are speaking about trips waivers, for instance, it’s critical. I think sometimes when we have these conversations, we are really harder on ourselves as Africans but we’re not interrogating enough, the global inequalities that exist in public healthcare. And I think COVID has given us an opportunity to take a cold hard look, not only at ourselves – in some of the things that we should have been doing in our healthcare – but also about how global healthcare generally views and treats Africa.
THE ONLY CRIME THAT WENT UP WAS SEXUAL VIOLENCE, RAPE TO BE SPECIFIC. DOMESTIC VIOLENCE WENT UP. SO THE PERSONAL SAFETY OF WOMEN AND THE TRAUMA THAT ACCOMPANIES THAT IS UNQUANTIFIABLE.
NANCY: This COVID pandemic has caused a lot of economic setbacks not just for developed nations; the effects are even more devastating for developing countries especially in Africa. Namibia has a population of close to 3 million now of which over 50% are women. How do you think that this pandemic and the resultant commodity prices such as diamonds – which Namibia is blessed with – has affected women?
FIRST LADY: For context, we as Namibians experienced the commodity downturn from 2016. So if I remember correctly, we have already started seeing a contraction in our economy in 2016, actually, I think it was 0% growth in 2016. 2017, it was -1%. Come 2018, Nancy, what we started to see, there were these green shoots of our economy coming to a recovery out of a recession that was exacerbated by drought. In 2019, disaster struck. As our economy was starting to pull itself out of a recession, COVID hits us. Our 2020 starts off that we’ve seen the biggest contraction in our economy since independence 31 years ago. So it’s catastrophic for us economically and there’s a long path to economic recovery. But what this means for women – and again let’s take a step back – is the position of a woman in a recession whether its triggered by a commodity downturn, economic recessions, they result in increased levels of violence towards women. Domestic violence goes up. Gender-based violence, in general, goes up in times of economic recession. Now imagine, an economic recession that was triggered by a commodity downturn and then the incident of drought that is exacerbated by a public health crisis as severe as COVID which caused lockdowns. What that means for women, from a personal safety perspective, is that every single crime in a country like Namibia during our lockdown went down. The only crime that went up was sexual violence, rape to be specific. Domestic violence went up. So the personal safety of women and the trauma that accompanies is unquantifiable. It’s also not something that you get over in a year or two years. Any person who has experienced sexual violence, domestic violence, the trauma that comes with it, that’s something that you live with, that you have to deal with. And there are economic consequences attached to that.
Further than that, we’re going to the economic sphere. We must look at the kind of roles that women play generally. So normally in countries – especially in our countries, women are the ones with employment and economic livelihoods that are not secure. In a time of lockdown, it’s the woman on the side of the street selling roasted meat who can’t trade her wares. It is the woman who’s a domestic worker who can no longer go to her employer’s house because the government has declared a strict lockdown and no place of employment can operate. If you look at employment and people being laid off from their jobs, a woman has double jeopardy. If it’s not her being laid off from her employment, it’s her husband. And if he’s laid off and he doesn’t know how to deal with the pressures of being unemployed, her personal safety will go back to the issue of gender-based violence because again we know these are the triggers. So it’s so multifaceted about how this affects us. We know women who had to leave their employment in order to play caregiving roles for partners who were ill and continued to be because of the long effects of the COVID. So I think the setback that COVID has for women is unquantifiable. What it’s done to our place in the workplace, what it’s done to our purse, our collective purse, and our economic livelihoods is quite severe.
NANCY: With what you’ve just said, are there some specific steps that perhaps Namibia has taken with respect to gender equality in the economic space, education, political spheres for example. And what are some other steps that were taken during the lockdowns to help ameliorate the sufferings of women?
FIRST LADY: Government really did a lot. There was what was called a Stimulus and Relief Package which amounted to about N$8.1 billion, that’s probably about $550 million directed to businesses, households, and trying to also do cash accelerations. So what the government did, was to start paying entrepreneurs quicker. They would start paying VAT refunds quicker. So there was quite a lot that the government tried to do to give support to entrepreneurs, to households. There were economic stimulus, relief packages for the business sectors, particularly those in productive economic activities like tourism. There were subsidies for hardest-hit sectors so that these sectors could avoid retrenching their employees particularly again in the tourism, hospitality, travel, aviation, construction sections. There were also the accelerated payments of overdue and undisputed VAT refunds and that was about N$3 billion. There were also accelerated payments that were due to the suppliers of goods and services to the government. You’d think these are small numbers but it’s big numbers. In a way, I think we shouldn’t allow the invoices of entrepreneurs and businesses who supply goods and services to pile up or VAT refunds to pile up. Because that’s money that’s sitting in the places that should be out in the economy. I think COVID taught us a lesson; pay people what is due to them quickly. We’ve supplied you or we owe VAT to you. Because that way you have more money circulating in the economy. Our development bank also provided N$500 million convectional loans at good rates to the agricultural sector, particularly the small businesses. There was another loan scheme as well to help out cash-strapped farmers who were also struggling to pay off their loans for their farms. There was policy relief to borrowers and most of our big financial institutions – particularly the ones with a developmental focus – which was on a defined period of time but at least it delayed any immediate crisis; let people recapitalize their interest. There was tax loan-back schemes for non-mining corporates to just provide some breathing room, the tax paying businesses in the non-mining sectors. So there was quite a lot done by the government. And you must remember that when we speak about all of these things, we’re speaking about a government that was coming out of a recession, but it had to go into whatever it could find to assist households and businesses. But there was also some non-financial assistance given like relaxation of labour regulations to protect jobs and avoid these major retrenchments and business closures. There was support to households. The one that I can think of, there was an Emergency Income Grant brought that was given to individuals and to people who had lost their employment which was a one-off payment of N$750 to everyone who was qualified. This cost the government about N$562 million. So there was quite a lot measures.
Where there measures specific to women? I don’t recall that but I do know for instance of these kinds of subsidies. The municipalities were supported by the government to have water subsidies where nobody’s water was cut off; people who couldn’t pay. These types of things do trickle down for the benefit of women because often we have female-led households. The 750 individual grants trickled down primarily to women because they were the ones who mostly qualified in the criteria that were provided. So I think that when we deal with a crisis, we often forget that many – if not all crises – have a component and you must be specific in your interventions to cater to the gendered nature of how crises impact different citizens.
NAMIBia leads in gender parity
NANCY: Fantastic ma’am. Let’s take a look at even your role as a First Lady. I also do know that Namibian women occupy close to 45% right now of the proportion of seats in the National Assembly and that is a wonderful feat compared to the median position of some other African countries. Even in Nigeria, it’s not like that at all. We can say at least in our Senate we have 109 seats; we don’t even have up to 20% of women. So Namibia is a great example of that. But how have you and other women that are occupying these kinds of positions encouraging the younger generation of women and girls to push for gender parity across all sectors, not just politics?
FIRST LADY: That’s the interesting part. We’re doing so well and we’ve been identified as one country that’s doing very well in this type of closing the gender gap. The statistics is fantastic whether it’s from an African perspective or a continental perspective. Even from a legal perspective, we’re doing well. But let me tell you, Nancy, doing well in terms of the inclusion of women in the political sphere. There are many things that governments can learn from the private sector but this is a space where the private sector has to learn from the political space. Here, the political sphere is outperforming our private sector in the empowerment of women. So there is a lag there. So the private sector has to catch up to the exceptional work that the government has implemented in making sure that women are provided the same opportunities. One thing that I am especially pleased with, in both our ruling and opposition parties, we have a lot of young women under the age of 30. We’ve got a number in the ruling party and in the opposition party; a number of young women under age 25, for instance. I suspect that Namibia has the youngest female parliamentarian. Her name is Hon. Patience Masua; she is 22 years old if I’m not mistaken. I also suspect we’ve got the youngest Minister on the continent. She’s obviously a parliamentarian but she’s also the Deputy Minister of ICT and the opposition also has very dynamic, outspoken, go-getter female parliamentarians and I think that’s a huge credit to where we need to go.
But I want to point out something as well. The way that Namibia managed to leapfrog other countries in closing the gap with female representation in parliament was not through a decision of the government. It was through the decision of the ruling party that implemented a 50:50 quota system in its parliamentary list when it went to its internal congress.
Now the significance of this. They then applied not only 50:50 but they also applied a zebra; meaning for one man, there must be one woman under him. So there would be a list of male candidates, a list of female candidates and then you take whoever got the highest score on the male list, they come first, whoever took the highest on the female list, they come second. Then the next person who got the highest on the male comes third and the next female comes fourth. And that to me was a huge eye-opening experience how a non-state actor can effect the kind of consequential reform that impacted our parliament. So we almost doubled our female representation in parliament as a country because of the actions of one political party. Which then begs the question, we should take that example and apply it across the board to all political parties in the country. To have the same principles. Because the logic doesn’t break between political parties, women should be given the same opportunities as men. This isn’t a political question. This is a question of logic. There is no way that you build a nation when you leave anybody behind; whether it is on the basis of gender, whether it is on the basis of ethnicity, whatever basis. You simply cannot leave any citizen behind when you’re building a nation. So I really want us to sit and reflect on how consequential quotas can be in making us speed up to meeting our targets. And I say this intentionally because, when you look at the pace of female participation in the workplace and politics, there has been growth in the last 20 years. But it’s so slow that UN Women is calculating that it’ll take us more than a hundred years to reach gender parity. It makes no sense. So obviously we need ways to expedite the time its taking us include women. And I think quota has certainly worked in the Namibian context. And this is how you breathe life into policies. The policies of women empowerment is certainly part of our policies and regulatory space. But it’s not often reflected in the realities and the quota system worked exceptionally well.
NANCY: I’d like to ask you about your One Economy Foundation as well as the President’s War on Poverty and Inequality in Namibia and also juxtapose them with your pledge in 2020. I read you made a pledge to give all your wealth estimated at $3 million – I don’t know if you’re wealthier than that now – to charity. So can you speak to me about what influenced that decision, are you still standing by it, as well your One Economy Foundation and what the President is up to?
FIRST LADY: I’ve entrenched it into my will and into my estate. So I stand by it. I stand by it because I strongly believe that inheritance is one of the biggest drivers of inequality. And I am sensitive to this conversation because Namibia is the second most unequal country in the world, second to South Africa when it comes to income inequality. And it’s got a lot to do with our shared history of apartheid. And one of the drivers of this inequality is inheritance. So when you have privilege, when I stand at schools to motivate young people in rural areas with parents who have nothing, and I go and tell them all you need is a good education to succeed in life, why should I exempt my own children? Why should I not then give my children a good education and expect them to be successful? So I want to practice what I preach this. And I do believe if I can do a couple of things and if you don’t mind Nancy I want to take you through them. If I as a parent can protect my children from harm – particularly my daughter – to make sure that no harm comes upon them because I know the toll that untreated trauma and undiagnosed trauma have on young girls. I need to protect my child from traumatic events and I need to build the confidence that is associated with it. That’s my role as a parent. I need to make sure that they have a good education. I need to make sure that they’re hardworking and they’ve got the right attitude towards life. And if I’m telling other people’s children that these are the ingredients of success, surely it should apply to my children. So I don’t want to be someone who inadvertently perpetuates the very system that makes me so deeply uncomfortable. I’m already deeply uncomfortable that there’s such a gap between my asset base and that of the average Namibian. How then do I see people knowing that I’m going to perpetuate it? And in Namibia, it’s aggravating by the fact that we don’t have an inheritance tax. We don’t have a donations tax. We don’t have a capital gains tax. So everything that I have will transfer straight to my children tax-free without them having done anything in particular to grow the economy. If I’m lucky, my children will be responsible, they’ll create businesses, they’ll participate in the economy.
So to me, it’s about, I don’t believe that inheritance helps us with inequality; I think it worsens it and therefore I don’t believe that my children should be inheriting my assets. I think it should go to organizations like the One Economy Foundation, which is my world to try and bridge the two economies and make sure that the country has more participants in the first economy and not so many in the second economy. Because at the end of the day Nancy, we can be as wealthy as we want in our countries whether its Nigeria or Namibia. But what is the point of being wealthy if I have to hire private security so nobody kidnaps my parents and asks for ransom? If I have to build walls so high to keep my fellow citizens out of my house because they feel, “let me break inside. I can at least have bread to feed my family.” So what is the point of having all these huge capital returns when the social return is still low? You won’t have the opportunity to enjoy it.
So I’d rather earn lower capital returns, higher social returns where there is a level of stability, security, and predictability in the country that I live in. I do not want to become a refugee. I do not want to live in a country that’s unstable where I have to go to other countries to live my life. I’ll always be a stranger in somebody else’s country. I want to live in my country so I have to play my role in making sure that the social and economic fundamentals of the country that I live in are sustainable and works for everybody and not just for me.