Katrina Benz – Namibia

Katrina Benz – Namibia

Date: June 26, 2012
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On the few occasions that she spoke during the Rehoboth Council meeting, DTA Councillor Katrina Benz elected to do so in her mother tongue Afrikaans.  Alone on the opposition bench in a council comprising herself, four members of the ruling Swapo Party and an absent CoD councillor, Benz used each occasion to raise the tough issues that the council seemed to want to skirt: alleged irregularities in the appointment of the CEO; correspondence she had not received; and what the council planned to do about residents who had gone on a march over the absence of flush toilets in their neighbourhood.

“I told them at my swearing in ceremony that I’m not going in this for myself but for honesty. I know some councillors don’t like me, but I would be a zombie if I agreed with everything people said,” a feisty Benz said in an interview the following day.

The first time councillor who had only been in office for a few months after replacing a deceased male councillor from her party works in a complex political environment. During the struggle for Namibia’s independence, Rehoboth, with its majority mixed race population who call themselves “Basters” threatened to form a break away state. Sixteen years later, suspicion of the ruling party is just so many inches beneath the surface.

But the community has split along the lines of those who feel it is politically expedient to cast their lot with the ruling party (represented in the council by deputy mayor Cecilia McNab-Sherally) and those still staunchly DTA, even though it is a crumbling edifice. As one woman in the focus group put it: “the Basters still stand by their case but it is time to change. There was no progress here.” Now that Swapo Party has a slim majority in the council, the women say that “things are beginning to happen.”

Benz believes this is all the more reason why a strong opposition is needed, to play a watchdog role over a council that she says is often too cosy within itself, with rumblings of corruption and nepotism never far from its corridors.

But being a thorn in the flesh is not an easy role to play. Benz maintains that since she began five months ago, she has been denied access to much of the background correspondence and documentation that she has sought. In particular she had still not had access to the council’s audit report, despite the criticisms from central government of over spending and need for scrupulous oversight.

She said the system whereby most decisions are taken by the management committee comprising only Swapo Party members who come to meetings to announce that “it is so decided” is undemocratic and disempowering.

As a woman councillor Benz believes that she has a responsibility to women; “it breaks my heart to see the level of abuse by men.” She has started a campaign against illegal shebeens because she says drugs and alcohol abuse are at the root of many gender related problems in the neighbourhood. Another of her concerns is that the council has no affirmative action plan for women, either in its employment practices or in the awarding of tenders.

Asked if she is able to form an alliance with Deputy Mayor Cecilia McNab Sherally over these issues she said that she got “little support from the two Swapo Party women” and the deputy mayor “agrees with everything the mayor said”; as observation also made in the course of this research (see earlier section on “gender lens on council meetings.”)

Ironically, Benz said that she had a closer relationship with the male chair of the management committee, also a Swapo Party member because he is independent minded. Researchers observed that the MANCO chair spoke 30 percent of the time (compared to the 39 percent of the time in the case of the mayor) but he was the only one in he council to challenge the mayor. McNab Sherally spoke 14 percent of the time (mostly to second motions made by the mayor) and Benz nine percent of the time (mostly to raise questions that were not answered).

Referring to the chairperson of the management committee as a man of integrity, Benz said that “it makes little difference to me if a person is a man or a woman. I get on better with principled men than with women who are on the council just to serve their party.”

While her work is “stressful” Benz has the support of her family, her party and her community; this she says gives her the strength to go on.

“As a woman in opposition I judge myself according to how the community feels. I am not one to give up easily. I can’t see things going wrong and do nothing. I may be wrong, but it is better that I speak my mind than that I remain silent.”

A participant in the men’s focus group observed that Rehoboth needs both women like McNab Sherally who is in a leadership position as well as Benz who is in the opposition. “Both are passionate and productive. They have a positive vision for the town. They play a constructive role.”


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