Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
Addressing the politics of activism and the intergenerational culture of movement-building begs the question: how does hierarchy shape the politics of activism and what role do race and class play in movement-building contextually and socially?
Over the past two years since I became an activist in Namibia, race has predominantly shaped the socio-economic and cultural circumstances, largely characterised by our history of colonial segregation. However, post-independent Namibia has only seen scores of a Black majority taking up arms, forming movements and organising. Where are all the white counterparts? More specifically, in intersectional Queer spaces, how do they exist in our socio-political plight to confront hetro-patriarchal oppressive laws in our democracy?
The #BringPaulaAndMayaHome campaign was launched on 25 March 2021, although the cause started before. While still at Out-Right Namibia, a call was organised between me, Daniels, and one of the parents who was challenging the Ministry of Home Affairs, Immigration, Safety and Security for unreasonably denying his surrogate-born twins entry into the country from South Africa.
Since Daniels was not in the country then, I had to facilitate with the Director at Out-Right Namibia on what we would do about the case. The conversation didn’t go anywhere, so when Daniels returned to Namibia, we met and planned for the protest under the #BringPaulaAndMayaHome banner.
I did not want to get overly involved with the planning as I figured I just got a new job and had planned protests before. The best I could do was passively assist Daniels with the campaign. It was also a new front for me in my advocacy, particularly regarding race. In my advocacy and activism journey since I joined Out-Right Namibia, I had only seen a handful of whites attend the workshops and a few more at the parades; the constituency I had worked with was predominantly underprivileged and Black. Plus, I had no authority over the subject matter, particularly a legal case that concerned a white couple whose twins were denied entry because their white husbands were gay.
I was surprised that they sought the community’s support because their case only existed within a certain social class group, especially when we consider the case’s high-profile nature, the resources ploughed into it, and their high level professions. I was also sceptical of Daniels’ overwhelming involvement in the cause or on LGBTQIA+ issues that affected majority Black ethnic groups when it seemed like they had never taken up this specific position in the country they resided in before moving back to Namibia. A lot didn’t make sense, but the cause remained worthy, so I set out to play my part.
The protest was a resounding success, and I was equally surprised by all the whites who came out of the woodwork to support it. Maybe it was me who had been living under a rock, not necessarily taking stock of previous protests, equally big, attended by diverse race groups. Or maybe it was the advent of social media organising that finally reached the class groups LGBTQIA+ movements did not formally relate with; but I can remember being confused yet proud of the turnout. The night before the protest, I dreamt of standing in front of a white crowd chanting the words ‘bring Paula and Maya home!’ The following day in front of the actual crowd, the reception started poorly until our voices all chorally integrated. It was as if they did not know who I was. I didn’t know who they were either. ‘This is not my crowd,’ I thought.
This was another form of advocacy pressure I started experiencing. Before the #BringPaulaAndMaya home campaign, most of my work was rooted in workshop facilitation that empowered the community with human-rights material, information and organising events to enhance awareness, advocacy, and grow the brand of Out-Right Namibia countrywide. Suffice to say, I had been largely concerned with conscientising the majority of Black sexual and gender minorities with information about the Constitution, laws, and policies, but I had never actively been involved in court cases, let alone interpreting and analysing their outcomes. With the #BringPaulaAndMayaHome campaign, it felt like I was forced to, but it was also inspiring attending the hearings with Daniels, who seemed to have an extended grip on the subject matter. And rightfully so, they moved in with the husbands to assist them further with strategising and communicating through the social media accounts they opened for any court updates.
Race, historically and for Namibia’s context, has always caused division amongst different class and ethnic groups, and inevitably has shaped the politics of organising in Namibia. For example, Namibia’s very first progressive and independent newspaper, The Namibian, was founded by Gwen Lister, a white South African woman whose parents moved to Namibia during the thick of colonialism and apartheid rule. Interestingly, the ruling party and liberalisation movement, made up of majority Black activists, subscribed to the agenda and influence of The Namibian as both institutions were fighting an oppressive and racist regime. The white supremacist minority at the time, of course, already chose their side. Post-independence, you hardly find the white minority organising for a cause unless joining a parade and, surprisingly, unless you are two white gay husbands mounting a case at the High Court for the travel permits and citizenship of your surrogate-born white twins. Nevertheless, race and privilege do determine who might gain considerable capital support within intersectional Queer movement-building.
There were quite a number of meetings between myself, Daniels, and the family on the niche and focus of this nascent movement. I asserted that it only focuses on court cases which had been a gap unexplored in the Namibian LGBTQIA+ landscape. Daniels had requested that I come on board as a co-founder of the movement because I had guided the many strategies of the movement since its inception. I cautiously accepted the proposal as I had a nagging feeling that perhaps someone with insecurities was using friendship, my proximity, and the cause to launch their politically veiled aspirations through pseudo-liberal rhetoric and under-researched precarious statements. It was a mouthful to digest, and because I did not want to come across as unreasonable myself, I confronted them about particular tendencies they started exhibiting earlier.
I organised a dinner at Sicilia Restaurant, where we dined over pizza and sparkling wine. It seemed to have become our modus operandi to connect and get to know each other more intimately outside of Brewer’s at 5!, the holding place for organisers. That evening I decided to pour my heart out.
‘I know how movements start and end. Egos get flared up. Entitlement and narcissism gets employed. I am just here to help. You can set up the accounts, run the email account and liaise with stakeholders, but I will be taking the backseat. I still don’t know you, but this is what I picked up at the #BringPaulaAndMayaHome protest: you were condescending to the volunteers. And why do you keep calling that protest the biggest in Namibia’s history? Were you part of protests in the last 30 years? Why does size matter so much to you? I want us to be friends, but I feel a certain level of entitlement and competition from you. Why must you compare everything you do to the #ShutItAllDown movement? You want to have a meeting with the President, yet you’ve not answered my questions on why and what the contents of the meeting would be. We work great together, but we need to move past this conversation first if I am going to get involved in this new movement with you.’
They responded: ‘I hear you, and I can confirm that you’re right about the entitlement part. I know I also get very condescending, people have told me about this before, but instead of apologising and saying that I am sorry, I am just going to do better because you’ve been the only one who has helped me shape this movement into what it is today and warned me of toxic people within the CSO space.’
After dinner, I felt more empowered. I was not as apprehensive as before; I also needed to confront my insecurities about the new kid on the block taking over syndrome. As much as I was moved and influenced by their brilliant organising and campaigning skills, I was equally subdued by the persona that left conflicting feelings about my perceptions of them and their intentions. That evening was not enough to unmask what I had just gotten into, but it confirmed that my instinct had not failed me.
Over the months we worked together, I took the opportunity to educate myself on the court cases independent of their influence and position in the movement as co-founder. We organised more protests jointly as they travelled to and from the city for the #NoHateInMyState, #JusticeForMercedez, #RecognizeUs, #PaulaAndMayaAreHome campaigns and protests. There were many moments when we were in sync, and I revered them even deeper. I was struck by their agility, sense of compassion, camaraderie and deep sense of passion for movement building. We dominated the streets and the discourse on intersectional Queer issues together. They began to pour more research into a topic or a statement, and it seemed they had lost their obsession with obscuring the efforts and work of previous movements through grandstanding. I was proud of their growth but also proud of my own. As much as they had improved like they said they would, I was still conflicted about their counterintuitive behaviour. Things changed only on a surface level, I thought.
The obsession with being the only person to have ever done something did not necessarily stop, it was just dormant. Their tweets and statements to redefine and rewrite history was problematic alone but wilful ignorance to discount history was just as violent. This prompted me to tweet: ‘Advocacy OBSESSIVELY rooted in always purporting to be the “largest” or the “first” obscures the contextual impact of a cause, becoming an avenue for grandstanding and (through sheer narcissism), a platform to erase previous efforts. In the long run, movements get greatly harmed.’
I thought back to when #ShutItAllDownNamibia had been recognised as ‘the largest youth-led protest’, and for the longest time, I revelled in that description until I quickly came to realise that I was pandering to grandstanding too and that the description was incomplete, almost fragmented, if you will. I thought it necessary to start adding ‘of our current generation’ and ‘of our era’ because it felt more true to say it this way for all intents and purposes. It felt like a moral and ethical duty to bring more awareness and accuracy to this description.
Things turned for the worse when that combative, competitive demeanour resurfaced with an entitled flair just cognitively permeating and dominating every aspect of our conversations. ‘All I want is a meeting with the President like the #ShutItAllDown movement.’
‘At least the First Lady needs to show that she is on the right side of history by meeting the twins and their fathers.’
‘The First Lady’s PA is blocking my way from meeting with her.’
‘Who does this journalist think she is? She probably thinks they’re the best in the country, but I already told her I would get back to her.’
‘This will be Namibia’s first Pride March and Pride Week; who has done this before?’
‘I’m going to tell Mr Gay World that it’s not safe for him to comment on just every Facebook post of The Namibian as a gay man coming to Namibia.’
‘Do you think that everyone would love me in parliament? … #ShutItAllDown is done now; you guys must move on!’
And so it went on and on.
The cherry on the cake was when the President, through the Youth Advisor’s Office, organised a hybrid Youth Engagement at the State House through a virtual link for the youth to apply and attend to discuss youth matters. Daniels and I applied, even though I wasn’t sure I would be able to participate due to other commitments scheduled on that day. I never received confirmation for virtual or physical attendance, but Daniels did for virtual attendance. Their reaction to this was nothing short of surprising but also telling of how much worse things had become: ‘Fuck it, it is fine. I won’t attend. Why must I be accepted for virtual? These people are playing with me.’ What followed after that was a screenshot of a tweet they intended to post but perhaps wanted me to vet first. It read: ‘LMAO! Not the President’s office pushing me to virtual attendance even though I applied for in-person attendance the minute the application got put out for the Youth in Conversation. The silencing of Queer voices is deafening, performative youth inclusivity in-deed.’
At that moment, I thought about biting my tongue as I had been doing in all those months, downplaying the sheer arrogance, entitlement, and delusion as I attempted but continued to shield them from their own hypocrisy, blind spots, and from their own ego. But I could not hold it in any longer as I had reached a boiling point.
As much as we have seen personal interests shape politics, they also shape the foundation of movements and their trajectory. During the apartheid era, the personal interests of the minority white supremacist groups shaped the laws, politics and the Constitution of both Namibia and South Africa. Everything from education, health, labour to law was intended to benefit only a minority group whose wealth derived from exploiting and violently excluding the Black majority. In today’s political context of Namibia, more so movement-building politics, that does not seem to have changed except that our discourse and identity are represented by the Black majority who launch movements and organise protests. Inevitably, grandstanding within these same spaces does undermine the kernel within a social justice cause.
This then interplays with a number of intersections which we must consider especially in how they affect, separately or intersectionally, feminist movement-building, erasure, leadership and what democracy will look like if these same movements are obscured so significantly because our ego, influenced by personal interests, gets in the way. One important question to consider is where power sits and shifts as movements are born: predominantly, it has been men at the forefront of a liberation movement, and for Namibia, it is the same. Except for the modern-day Queer activism on the scene in Namibia, which I have led. Was Daniels challenged by the ideal that it is a Black female as a representational symbol of Queer liberation in our generation so much so that they were grandstanding, or did they want to be the iconic symbol of Queer movement-building parallel with the majority male counterparts who have historically shaped Daniel’s heroistic narrative as the opposite gender?
I have certainly learned, in the past two years of activism, and now having institutionalised movements I have co-founded, that there is more to the surface than meets the eye. Visibility right now is the new politics of our era, but power, control and influence are shaped by a different undercurrent, and perhaps even combined with a minority Black elite group who grandstand and minority white supremacists who live in perpetual oblivion. It takes years to build movements, but it takes just a few seconds for them to be undermined by race, class and privilege.