– Martha Mukaiwa
If Namibia were an episode of Scooby Doo, the masks would be pulled off a selection of incensed leaders no doubt uttering these iconic words: “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.”
The meddling kids in this metaphor are the Namibian youth. A brash band of mostly born-frees who’ve super charged their smart phones, logged onto Twitter and casually started a socio-political revolution.
Using the app as a town hall to discuss dire social issues, as a mobilising station to populate protests as well as a resource depository to archive and spread the word to the world, the activists behind campaigns such as I Am Not Next Namibia (IANNA), #TheGallowsMustFall (GMF), A Curt Farewell (ACF), Legalise Abortion in Namibia (LAN) and ShutItAllDown have harnessed the might of a space local users have affectionally dubbed “Nam Twitter” to spark intense national discourse while building powerful, “real world” movements.
Though Namibia’s active Twitter users represent a mere fraction of the country’s 2.6 million inhabitants, screenshots distributed by the nation’s ardent WhatsApp users have ensured that calls for the removal of residual colonial artefacts as well as demands for sexual and reproductive justice, the establishment of a sexual offenders registry and the declaration of a state of emergency in response to rampant sexual and gender based violence have additionally reached Facebook, Instagram, local and international news and ultimately local, regional and national government.
Most successful in its move from Twitter to the streets is ShutItAllDown, a movement against sexual and gender based violence that culminated in a series of disruptive multiple day protests outside the country’s parliament, at the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare and at various sites in the city during October 2020 set defiantly to the smooth tones of Cardi B’s ‘WAP’.
Born on Twitter and continuing to make use of the app to engage protestors, plan marches, educate the citizenry and document developments, ShutItAllDown is unprecedented in its local and international impact. The result? A movement that has shone a merciless light on failing ministries, incompetent ministers, an ineffective police force and the urgent need for law reform.
This, amidst Namibia’s horrifying culture of victim blaming, low bail, light sentencing, lost dockets, multiple year trials, apathetic law enforcement, no social or economic consequences for abusers and the familial pressure to ‘forgive’ that has made the country a rapist’s paradise.
In the period between September 2019 and September 2020, over 5 000 cases of sexual and gender-based violence were reported to the Namibian police countrywide. Of those, 800 were instances of rape and 74 of murder.
Since it’s inception, ShutItAllDown has been pushing for the fulfilment of their demands with President Hage Geingob, Minister of Gender Equality and Child Welfare Doreen Sioka and the Namibian police. And what the movement’s eventual engagement with the above parties makes clear, it’s not just Twitter.
And those who have underestimated the potential of the platform are slowly wising up to the power of this new sociopolitical arena.
“Those in power who do not appreciate the power of social media are merely echoing and regurgitating the same uncritical and lazy platitudes about these platforms,” says ShutItAllDown activist Ndiilokelwa Nthengwe.
“Especially so-called African ‘leaders’ who associate the advent of technology with a digression and erosion of tradition, culture and heritage. Twitter, or largely social media platforms, are used as tools to challenge these baseless, hysterical myths, but most importantly, to organise with communities beyond our reach to realise common goals.”
A video of the Henties Bay gallows burning defiantly in the night shows that Twitter as a means to educate, realise common goals and mobilise distant communities is on fire.
“The conversation about the gallows started on Twitter from a picture I posted that asked people what they think of the gallows in Henties Bay,” says activist Mavis Braga Elias, who inspired the petition to remove an apartheid-era noose erected by two white men in 1978.
The gallows, which is undeniably a trigger for our collective trauma as black people, was ostensibly built to dissuade littering but instead recalled the hanging of Africans under both German (1884 -1915) and South African rule ( 1915-1990), as well as the horror of lynchings throughout black American history.
“I used Twitter as a platform to create awareness, and that is how the petition was able to garner the numbers and backing of the Namibian people. It also inspired journalists to write on the matter in local newspapers which furthered the conversation at decision making level in Henties Bay.”
As Elias and activist Lebbeus Hashikutuva’s petition and calls to have the offensive landmark removed were gummed up in the chilling mire of bureaucratic half measures, missed deadlines and red tape, a group of Namibians 350 km away from in Henties Bay took it upon themselves to simply burn the damn thing down in June.
Naturally, the video of the gallows in flame made the rounds on Twitter and across other social media, bringing the chain of organisation followed by the documentation and archiving of the movement’s real world effects full circle.
“When one says ‘it is just twitter’, they stand to dilute the work that the numbers have done. It is in coming together for a common cause that one truly sees just how influential the youth can be. It just so happens that Twitter is where we gather,” says Elias.
“The Namibian youth have begun to take a keen interest in the Namibian landscape and have become action-driven. This comes from a place of educating oneself on the happenings on the ground and it has created a platform that allows for access to information, open debate and advocacy.
As the youth, we are the future of the country, and our voices matter. We are effective because we understand the power our voices hold and the power in numbers.”
In the case of activist Beauty Boois’ Change.org petition to Legalise Abortion in Namibia, the numbers cannot be ignored.
The number of signatories advocating for access to safe and stigma free abortion as well as pre and post-abortion healthcare currently stands at 62,158 supporters and counting.
According to Namibia’s Abortion and Sterilization act of 1975, abortion is illegal in the country except in cases where the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or if the pregnancy may endanger the life of the mother or child. In March of 2017, the Ministry of Health and Social Services reported that 7,335 illegal cases of abortion where recorded at state medical facilities during the previous year.
Boois, then based in Cambodia, diligently used Twitter to create awareness and educate the Namibian public on sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice while providing petition updates as well as the succinct pro-choice truth bombs . While those exploded across local media, organisers in the country facilitated a complimentary march on the ground.
This Twitter born pressure then spilled into Namibia’s pearl-clutching, mostly Christian conservative real world which resulted in Deputy Health Minister Esther Muinjangue tabling a motion on legalising abortion in parliament.
“Namibian activists who use Twitter or other forms of social media as advocacy and awareness tools have recognised that it is a great way to share information and start important dialogues,” says Boois.
“Activists and Twitter users in general tend to be willing to engage and learn from each other and in the past Nam Twitter has come together to start charities, form creative collaborations, to hold oppressive voices accountable and to name and shame abusers.”
At the forefront of unmasking abusers – much like Twitter-fuelled movements such as #MeToo Namibia and the Slut Shame Movement – is I Am Not Next Namibia (IANNA).
The activist organisation founded by Cuba-based medical student Tuwilika Nafuka is currently advocating for the establishment of a publicly accessible digital sexual offenders registry and notification programme.
“The idea of IANNA came from a tweet dating back to September the 3rd, 2019. It said: “Do we have a Sex Offender Tracker App or data base in Namibia?” A question extended to activists and organisations in Namibia,” says Nafuka.
“After learning of its non-existence from organisations such as the Legal Assistance Centre of Namibia and seeing how fragmented this information was, I ran a little prototype and forwarded it to a number of organisations and activists of which only Pombili Kadhila-Amoomo responded confidently, and she is now an advisor for IANNA.”
IANNA is currently using Twitter to engage policymakers such as the Minister of Justice Yvonne Dausab while drumming up signatures in support of IANNA’s Law, which will ultimately set in motion the creation of a sex offenders’ registry under the Child Care and Protection Act passed by Parliament in 2015.
“Twitter is such an effective space for advocacy in Namibia because it’s a non-politically governed platform. Outside of the internationally trending hashtags, Namibians on this platform are paying attention to pressing social issues that need addressing. One cannot be oblivious to these issues when they begin trending and it equally forces them to participate,” says Nafuka.
“On Twitter and other platforms, we have seen a lot of social reforms that have started off very small and eventually picked up, resulting in collaborations to push the reform narrative further,” she says.
“The ‘it’s just tweeter people’ don’t understand that despite the tiny size of Nam Twitter, the rest of the world occasionally listens in on our conversations. After unplugging from Twitter, those conversations steep in our living rooms and at bar dates. The conversation continues off the internet and that is the power of such a platform.”
For Hildegard Titus, the founder of ‘A Curt Farewell’ – a petition and campaign calling for the removal of the statue of German colonial army leader Curt Von Francois – Twitter is like having the masses on speed dial.
“I’ve had Twitter since 2009, and how I use it has completely changed over the years. I remember when I first started on it, I didn’t figure it out for about a year. But once I got the hang of it, I realised what an important platform it is and I’ve been hooked ever since. It’s like having everyone’s email address or phone number since you can potentially reach out to so many people.”
Titus has used Twitter to mobilize the masses for protests as well as to educate people about the man honoured by a statue that ironically takes pride of place on the corner of Windhoek’s Independence Avenue and Sam Nujoma Drive.
Von Francois was the commissioner of the imperial colonial army of the German Empire in German South West Africa (now Namibia) and he was tasked with providing security across the territory.
In April 1893, Von Francois led an attack on Nama leader Hendrik Witbooi’s headquarters at Hornkranz after Witbooi refused to sign a protection treaty. The surprise attack resulted in a mass of civilian casualties, most of them women and children.
Echoing the #RhodesMustFall movement which sought to decolonize the landscape at the University of Cape Town and sparked similar movements around the world, Titus says Von Francois like Rhodes like the Henties Bay gallows must fall.
Namibia – regardless of the backlash Hildegard has received through the very same social media platforms she has used to protest – must bid Curt Von Francois a curt farewell.
“Twitter has been a quick and effective way to spread the message to people, beyond my immediate networks, and it has been a really great tool for striking up conversations and movements,” says Titus.
“On the flip side there has been a lot of backlash. Somebody attempted to hack into my Twitter account. I’ve also received some nasty messages from racist trolls, and the comment sections around any article mentioning the petition tend to be rather problematic and have a lot of racial undertones in their criticisms,” she says.
“The comments say things like ‘Oh, THEY are just bored and unemployed and have nothing better to do than remove statues’ or ‘Don’t they know they would still be running around naked if they weren’t colonised?’ Things like that.”
A place to source protest crowds, build sway and mount pressure on failing leaders even while vexing racist trolls – Namibians’ new soap box is social media and Nam Twitter is precisely the girl she thinks she is.
Follow Martha Mukaiwa on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and visit marthamukaiwa.com for more.