Richard Poplak (Ja, No, Man, The Sheik’s Batmobile) and Kevin Bloom (Ways of Staying) have formed themselves into an intrepid reporting duo, as noted on BOOK SA before, and their latest collaborative effort sees them take a trip to Namibia, where they visit the building site of the Oshakati market and taxi rank, which is being built by a Chinese-owned firm. The Namibian construction industry is entering a showdown with Chinese firms, which the Namibian unions claim are operating outside the law and undercutting local firms in tender bids. Bernard Milinga, the general secretary of the Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union (Manwu), says that the Chinese companies exploit local workers.
At the Oshakati market and taxi rank, Poplak and Bloom meet “Tony”, the Chinese translator on the compound. Tony’s words indicate a different cultural and economic approach to labour. He claims that he is paid worse than Namibians and is “baffled by their insistence on taking weekends off”:
The construction site, at first blush, is like any other. Located in northern Namibia, in the former SA Defence Force stronghold of Oshakati, it is little more than a sun-baked clearing that reeks of stagnant water.
The gate in the barbed wire fence is secured by a length of pipe cleaner, a uniformed guard in a wooden hut dozes with a shotgun on his lap. Before us, a sign insists that this will one day be the Oshakati market and taxi rank.
We gently wake the guard and enter. It is Sunday today, quiet and lethargic, and only a skeleton crew mans the site. Barefoot Owambo teenagers drag muck from a waterlogged pit; in the shade, two sunburnt Chinese men lazily observe their progress.
Poplak and Bloom also visit the township of Katutura, 10kms from Windhoek’s CBD, where they speak to Simeon Bernardino, who welcomed the influx of Chinese business in the country, saying of Katutura, “There has been no electricity for two years and to use the toilet you must go to the bush”. Bernardino is now a “five star” member of the Tiens Group, which is a multinational conglomerate with a homebase in Tianjin. According to Bernardino, the company offers opportunities to those seeking a better life – opportunities which are otherwise hard to come by were it not for the presence of the company in Namibia.
Hifikepunye Pohamba’s new presidential palace sprawls over hectares of prime, hilly Windhoek real estate. It is surrounded by an imposing iron fence, adorned every five metres or so with garish, vaguely botanical crests.
The tiled walls give the impression of a high-end outhouse and there is a distinct whiff of gangster communism about the place — it would, one imagines, be more sanguine in Pyongyang. Indeed, the North Koreans prepared the designs for, and started construction on, the stronghold. When they were unable to finish it, a Chinese firm stepped in. Underneath the vast main buildings, we are told by a local construction magnate, bunkers and tunnels have been built to spirit away Pohamba and his court should things turn nasty.
On a velvety night, cold blue moonlight catching the acacia-studded koppies, the palace makes for an impressive sight. We pull off on to a side road and prepare to take some pictures. Several shots in, a van pulls up. Three armed men leap out and start barking orders and the most strident among them, a North African Arab — one of an increasing number of foreign mercenaries in the country, loyal only to their paymasters — demands our passports. “Would you take a picture of the president’s home in your country?” he asks. “Never!” They possess a coiled violence that makes us both very nervous.
Editor’s note: The article inflamed some commenters, who dispute Bloom and Poplak’s description of the infrastructure of Katutura. Our original reporting on the article, which quoted extensively from the comments as well as the article itself, drew a heated call from Bloom, who characterised our post as reinforcing these claims against the reporters’ credibility (by M&G Online users posting under the names Lihongeni Hamayulu, Piers Vigne, clarence mbai and Angus Matthews). The phrase in our original post, which drew Bloom’s ire, said that these commenters were “calling out out Bloom and Poplak for ‘irresponsible reportage’”. (The actual phrase used in the comments section is “trashy reportage”, but we wanted to avoid that word – our use of quotation marks was meant to convey the gist.) We often include comments in our wider coverage of articles of interest, but certainly never mean to imply that commenters are correct (or otherwise) in their assertions, and always intend to prioritise the original article over the “breadcrumbs” that might end up scattered around them. That didn’t quite happen in this case: our apologies to Poplak and Bloom for causing any offence. We’ve asked Bloom for a response to the M&G Online comments and will gladly publish it here.
- Ways of Staying by Kevin Bloom
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