We don’t hear much about African First Ladies and what they do. But if there is one that should be getting our attention, it is Monica Geingos – the wife of Namibian President Hage Geingob. She spoke to our editor reGina Jane Jere discussing a broad range of issues – from politics, motherhood to her strengths as one of Africa’s most successful business women – a feat she earned before marrying President Geingob. She candidly does not disappoint. Africa has a new breed of presidential spouses – a term she prefers than that of “First Lady”. Find out why.
NAW: In 2015 the African Union declared it the “Year of Women Empowerment: Towards Agenda 2063”. You are not just as a First Lady, but a respected and successful business woman, how do you view the status of African women today and do such initiatives as the AU did, make any significant impact?
Monica Geingos: Having an annual theme will never really have a significant impact because that’s not the purpose of having a theme. The purpose of a theme is to shine a spotlight on an issue. It was therefore commendable that the AU chose a theme this past year to focus on the empowerment of women. I think the idea was also to recognise all of the efforts and successes that have been made in many areas such the increase of female parliamentarians.
A lot is changing regarding the status of women in all spheres of life. There are more women at the top in many workplaces and the same shift is happening in politics. We cannot therefore say nothing is being done. I think what we can say is the rate at which these improvements are happening is problematic, and we must find ways to expedite the process of empowering women.
There are some successes yes as you say, but you just mentioned something really vital in your answer there. What exactly is failing the majority African woman from reaching their full potential and top positions?
It’s a complex issue without one answer. I think, to an extent, the African woman is first failed in her home. In order for her to have a small scale business, in order for her to go and study, in order for her to have a high-powered job as a professional and so forth, the majority of African women, first need support at home. If you look at the prevalence of single mothers, violence against women and children, all such things happen in private and are situations, which incapacitate women. It is difficult to go out there and make a difference either academically, in business or even in politically without an adequate support system to assist with the many obligations at home. In the majority of cases, the absence of a supportive partner, physical or emotional, is also is a big problem.
Therefore, resolving issues within the homes is a good starting point. Then there are barriers in the workplace from the recruitment process right through to remuneration and fair treatment.
There is need for genuine empowerment of women in all spheres, at all levels. Tokenism or window dressing not only undermines the incompetent token female appointee, it also undermines competent women who are genuinely capable and empowerment in general.
What is needed is real empowerment, what is needed is real power, politically, economically and socially; and I think that’s where we are being failed because the playing field isn’t level.
Namibia comes with the history of the liberation struggle and ofcourse, women were very much involved within SWAPO in freeing the country from colonial rule. Sadly today, in some parts of the continent, the so-called born-frees (the generation born after independence) attach little importance to fighting for freedom, or in this case equal gender rights for example. Do you think they lack and should have the same zest or zeal of the pre-independence African woman?
It may be a problematic comparison because its two different generations faced with different realities. To answer the question, I don’t think that today’s generation lacks the zeal of pre-independence women. The pre-independence freedom fight wasn’t their struggle; they have zeal for their struggle. Independence brought political self-determination while our economies continue to reflect pre-independence biases and entrench income inequality.
And how is this new struggle being fought and won, if that were the case?
The “new” struggle is for economic empowerment for all and not a select few. For economic empowerment to be achieved, women are required to be empowered at the same pace as their male counterparts. An example of how significant change can happen is how the ruling party revolutionised the political empowerment of women in Namibia. SWAPO (which is now the ruling party in Namibia) applied the 50/50 gender principle on their party list, which determines who, goes into Parliament. As SWAPO won the national vote by 80% and this translated into a jump from 27% female representation in Parliament to 47%. This catapulted
Namibia into the enviable position of having the fourth highest level of female political representation in the world. The lesson here is that quotas can assist with levelling the playing field at a faster pace. In contrast to the 47% of women in political representation, the private sector lags woefully behind with no indication of improving the levels of female representation at a faster pace. Now as you say, women fought in the struggle for liberation right alongside their male counterparts but when we talk about economic empowerment, it’s men sitting together in the boardroom, in the absence of the African women. So any talk of economic empowerment, economic diversification or industrialisation, done in the absence of women, or anyone else excluded including the youth and people with disabilities, becomes empowerment with no sensitivity. I think any kind economic exclusion is bad for Africa.
Coming to the issue that you mentioned earlier, domestic violence, I think you’re very passionate about that. That’s one thing that you have taken on board in the First Lady’s Office. How bad is this scourge, and as the President’s wife, many look up to you in Namibia am sure, the onus is on you to help put an end to it in your country where I believe domestic violence is rather bad. After all, like you said, you cannot economically or politically empower a hapless abused woman. This is a major problem isn’t it?
My main focus area is really about the integration of two economies. You normally have an urban economy and a rural economy. Most of our population is in the rural economy and only about 10% – 15% of our population participates in the urban economy. My focus is to focus on initiatives, which removes the obstacles which prevent the majority of the population from participating in the “urban” economy. One of the focus areas in the Office of the First Lady therefore, is to evaluate the issues holding us back and gender-based violence certainly falls into that category.
So would I be right to say it’s very difficult to pin down, in the Namibian context for example, the push factors of domestic violence?
Patriarchy is the overall cause but there are many other push factors like broken homes, fatherlessness, inability to control emotions, alcohol and drug abuse, excessive forms of jealousy, possessiveness and controlling behaviour, and the absence of the necessary psychological intervention. Namibia’s done exceptionally well in terms of identifying what those push factors are and given the high prevalence of gender based violence, it has become urgent to implement measures to prevent and prosecute abuse and protect victims.
How about the role of tradition? There are some African regions which reportedly some traditions hinder ending this scourge?
Patriarchy has no tribal lines; it has no racial lines therefore Gender-Based Violence is a global problem and not just in Africa. Western countries don’t have the traditional customs and norms you refer to yet they are grappling with the scourge of GBV, as we are. I think as Africans we are sometimes too hard on ourselves and are quick to blame traditional customs as if every aspect of tradition is negative.
But what about those who don’t observe traditions?
Yes, it’s not to deny that there are certain traditional beliefs which contribute to patriarchy and that is why one of the solutions is to widen the engagement of all stakeholders, including traditional leaders and community thought leaders.
So is this battle being won?
I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s being won and it’s not one battle. It’s a number of battles on a number of fronts. What you see very clearly for instance, is in Africa sometimes we try and tribalise issues that don’t need to be tribalised. We’ll say, ‘You know, it’s these Kikuyu men who like to beat’; it’s these Zulu men who are patriarchal; Its these Yoruba men who are unfaithful;’ These ethnic or regional caricatures are not helpful as it diverts our attention from root causes. Women are being killed in the leafiest suburbs and in the most remote villages.
Women are being beaten in public and private. Women and children are being abused and we have a responsibility to drastically reduce the prevalence of this abuse by holding anyone who perpetrates it held accountable and taking measures to identify and divert potential perpetrators as the signs are usually there.
We have perhaps enabled a permissive attitude towards abuse against women and children and it is important that society starts to share a common understanding that abusing women or children is wrong and wont be tolerated. Part of this is holding anyone who is guilty of Gender Based violence accountable as there are too many powerful people in our communities who escape responsibility. It could be a police officer, it could be a traditional leader, it could be a high-powered businessman, it could be a top politician, whoever it is, they must be held accountable. Even though it is less prevalent, there are also women who abuse men and this too must be treated with the same contempt as the more prevalent abuse of women.
If we have a system that is blind to who the perpetrator is, we may be able to overcome this tribal and regional discussion and realise that abuse is perpetrated by all types of men from different ethnic groupings and seeing GBV for the destructive social condition it is and not isolate and attribute it to particular groupings of people.
You come with a very strong and admirable background as a very successful businesswoman. Not to dwell on the negatives, but in Africa, there is always the role of the First Lady is perceived as non-influential in terms of influencing policy for example, and that it’s a very underwhelming role, or sometimes spoken very negatively about. What is the role of the First Lady from the point of how you are experiencing it?
I think the first lady’s role in influencing policy should be underwhelming as that is not her business. A First Lady is not elected. She is not a political office bearer. A First Lady’s function is multi-dimensional but it’s not a political role. Another misconception about first ladies is that they are primarily decorative. I’ll challenge you as a journalist to go and do some homework on the backgrounds on most of the African first ladies. The President of the Organization of African First Ladies is the Ghanaian First Lady has a masters degree in governance and leadership, the Ethiopian First Lady has two Masters degrees. If you go through more profiles, you will find trained lawyers, medical doctors, engineers and First Ladies who may not have educational qualifications but who have and continue to play a meaningful role both before and after becoming a First Lady.
Why do you think their stories are never told? From the media perspective, I personally find access to first ladies almost impossible and bureaucratic. It would be great if the New African Woman magazine could feature one first lady to get to know, in every issue. Why are you absent in the media?
First Ladies are, and should be, sensitive around media access and the risks around it. I think it’s a great idea to feature a First Lady in each New African Woman Magazine as your readers will be pleasantly surprised at how constructive many African First Ladies are in their countries and on the continent. (pauses) That’s my husband peeping in. (She waves to President Hage Geingob who is in the next room)
You are on record stating that the title of First Lady itself “rattles you” why, if that is true?
I said that at a YALI (Young African Leaders Institute) conference in response to a specific question and I did express a level of discomfort with the wording of the title First Lady. The title “First Lady” shouldn’t become institutionalised. I prefer terminology which is gender neutral and which also accepts that not every spouse will be prepared to assume an active role.
We don’t know what to call President Johnson Sirleaf’s husband for example, is that what you are saying?
It is an opportune time to reflect on the title and as the role and gender-mix evolves, we must ask ourselves if First Lady is an appropriate title.
I have a 21-year-old daughter and I told her I was coming tointerview you and I asked ‘If you wanted to ask her a question, what would you say? Her answer was: ‘Okay, what does she tell the President if people are against the President?’ I think you had, the youth activist Job Amupanda questioning the land issue in Namibia recently. The land issues, is important to women as they are the mainstay of agriculture in Africa, and probably it’s the same thing in Namibia where there’s the big problem of access to land going on. What do you say to President Geingob on such sensitive, but crucial issues?
My husband went into political exile at the age of 21 and after a long and bitter struggle for independence, returned to Namibia 27 years later. He is a founding member of SWAPO and was a key influencer in SWAPO’s recognition by the United Nations as the sole and authentic representative of Namibia. Sam Nujoma, our Founding President, assigned numerous leadership roles to him from a young age. While in exile in Zambia, he headed an Institute which was tasked to train Namibians who would take over the civil service after independence as well as developing sectoral research for the government of an independent Namibia. The Politburo of SWAPO sent him back to a tense and racially divided Namibia to prepare for the first elections as SWAPO’s Director of Elections. He was the chairman of the Constituent Assembly that drafted our constitution, he was the first Prime Minister of an independent Namibia and had to work hard to build a civil service and democratic institutions which never existed before.
His political career stumbled after 12 years as Prime Minister and he found himself out of Government and out of the Ruling Party’s Politburo but remained a committed SWAPO cadre. He used the time to finish his PhD with the University of Leeds. He briefly left the country and returned a year later as a Parliamentary backbencher. He returned to the Politburo then was elected as Vice President of SWAPO upon which he was appointed as Minister of Trade. When he was re-elected as Vice President and confirmed as the Party’s Presidential candidate, he was promoted to Prime Minister and won 87% of the national Presidential vote to be elected as a highly popular President. I tell this condensed version of a rich history to make the simple point that it is impossible for me to add much value or give much political advice to a man of such political calibre.
He is also fortunate that he was directly elected with an unprecedented margin of 87% so he has no need to doubt his popularity. Quite correctly, his focus is not on detractors, no matter how vocal they may be, but more on utilising his vast governance and leadership abilities to implement his dream of an inclusive Namibia where poverty and income inequality are effectively addressed.
The question asked by your 21-year-old daughter on how political discussions happen in the home makes me think of our 21-year-old daughter who is equally insightful and inquisitive. All our children ask difficult political questions which are no different to what youth leaders ask. My husband is known to be a consultative leader politically and he’s also very consultative at home so he often subjects himself to lively debates on current affairs with our children. Some of these discussions his views prevail and other times, he agrees with their positions on issues. This consultative leadership was evident when he engaged Job Amupanda, the youth activist you mentioned, and de-escalated an angry and volatile confrontation on urban land. A six-hour long meeting at State House, between the youth activists and the President resulted in consensus on the way forward and the involvement of youth activists in a massive land-servicing project.
Conflict often occurs because of the lack of dialogue, to quote my husband, “wars happen when diplomacy fails”, so what our president is specifically good at is consultative leadership from negotiating the first Constitution with former oppressors, to nation building through inclusive policies to accepting the input of youth activists right up to giving his children the freedom to freely articulate their views at home. Our home is a place where robust debate is encouraged so the youth must feel rest assured that they have indirect representation in our home through our children who have strong views which are reflective of their generation’s aspirations. To directly answer your daughter’s question of what do I say to him if I don’t agree, the position I’ve taken is that Namibia is a democratic country and is lauded as having the most free press in Africa.
The press makes full utilisation of this freedom so he is often subjected to both constructive and destructive criticism and as a leader throughout his life, this is a reality he accepts as part of his public life. In his private life, his home is his sanctuary so I am reluctant to subject him to unsolicited views in the only space that he should feel safe.
Can you give us an example of a day in the life of the first lady or the first family?
There is so much to do in a day so we both sleep late and wake up early. The day is usually a balance of office work and meetings which is usually punctuated by official engagements and persistent meetings. My husband is a workaholic who works very late hours so we both try our best to balance working late with family obligations.
You still do your 9-5?
Yes, I have maintained my pre-First Lady employment as that is a role which will outlive the temporary designation of First Lady. I however have many obligations and programs as First Lady which I am deeply passionate about and which keep me very busy so I have reduced my professional working hours. The decision to remain employed is what motivated my decision to declare my assets with my husband, despite there being no legal obligation for either of us to do so.
You started at the age of 24 working there, am I correct?
That’s right. I cut my teeth at the Namibian Stock Exchange from the age of 24
and after heading the Listings division, I left to do Corporate Finance for an Investment Bank. I left the investment bank to become the Managing Director and one of the founding shareholders of Namibia’s first and largest private equity fund, which position I occupied for eleven years. In addition to the private equity fund, I served on the former President’s Economic Advisory Council for eight years. The former President also appointed me as the Deputy Chairperson of the Public Office Bearers Remuneration Commission, which I served for nine years and resigned from on account of my relationship with a Public Office Bearer.
I am also the Chairman and a shareholder of a commercial Bank with a mobile banking technology focus. I am fortunate that all of this happened before a relationship started with my husband. To address potential or real conflicts of interest, my husband and I contracted the audit firm, PriceWaterHouseCoopers to analyse our respective assets and advise us on whether any would present a conflict of interest and further requested that they evaluate all our assets and list them for public disclosure. I was advised to resign from the boards of investee companies as well as to dispose of an investment which relied on a government license, which I have done. The three directorships I have retained and the assets I own are fully disclosed.
The public knows the full details and values of bank accounts, properties and all other assets and the idea is to do another disclosure in the future to allow the public to compare asset values and details and assess for themselves whether we have assets which are incapable of being explained. Due to the constant accusations and suspicions of impropriety, transparency on wealth accumulation is a critical tool in the identification of corruption but also protection from false accusations.
Still on your business and the private sector industry, I’m sure you probably read the African Development Bank’s report on representation of women, African women, in boardrooms, how is the situation in Namibia or with the companies that you have worked for, are women still breaking the so-called glass ceiling, are we there and how do you see it in the context of the entire continent?
I was reading a report on female representation on the Boards of a Fortune 500 companies so its safe to say that the lack of women in global boardrooms is an issue. The corporate world is doing an exceptionally poor job of advancing women. The workplace is a reflection of society, so I think the boardroom mirrors societal realities. If your economy is run by a particular demographic, that is the same demographic you will find in the boardroom representing their interests. Gender inequality in boardrooms is a manifestation of the exclusion of women in our society. We must deal with this exclusion because it manifests itself socially, politically and economically. You can’t expect to politically exclude people and not have that political exclusion manifest itself in the economic world, so it’s a very consistent pattern of our societies, so we can’t just judge the corporate world, it’s society as a whole which is on trial .
How do you deal with that issue probably in your own company if it exists? Or being the woman at the top, do you gender-balance by practicing is it positive discrimination?
I don’t think that making an effort to be inclusive and ensure that all citizens are given fair opportunities can ever be described with the word discrimination attached to it as nobody is being discriminated against. If there are no women or diversity in top management and there is an insistence for a more diverse, integrated Board, I don’t think it is in any way being unreasonable. Its not always easy to convince all male Boards to diversify their mix nor do they always listen but it is important to consistently raise the issue and propose suitable names.
Let’s talk more about politics. We are hearing a lot of reports, true or not true, but they are there regarding the First Lady of Zimbabwe Madam Grace Mugabe entering their political mainstream. Do you hold any political ambitions and would you aspire for political office at some time, may be not now, but even in the future?
There should not be a problem with any woman, whether a First Lady or not, who aspires for political office. If that’s what she wants, and she gets the necessary political support, then the discussion should really be about credibility, capability and competence. It is important to distinguish the principle from the person because if the world finds it okay for a former First Lady in America to run for political office, then its okay for any First Lady. Do I have political aspirations? The simple answer is no. I am not a politician. Despite my lack of political interest or inclination, I find myself being asked this question a lot and I prefer to take it as a compliment. I have indirect exposure to the complexities of presidential life and I don’t think that’s what I would want to do with my time.
So after State House, definitely you will go back into business?
That’s where I was, that’s my permanent. This is temporary. It’s linked to my husband and his very, very specific political background. He is a politician through and through. I am not. So I am part of the eco-system that supports a president. I do not aspire to be a president after he has left office.
You have a very busy lifestyle. How do you sit down and unwind, be it a spa, spiritually or anything – how do you relax?
Not having time has been a feature of my life for the past fifteen years. It’s not a new thing. So from a beauty perspective there are certain concessions I need to make. I don’t have the time to maintain a proper beauty regimen so hair, make-up, nails and anything time consuming is difficult for me. . That’s why I’m glad you didn’t ask me any fashion related questions; I’m generally open and I’m willing to speak about anything except fashion. I refuse to be judged on how I dress, or how I look, as opposed to my views on a certain issue. I’m more than willing to defend my views and my position on social-economic issues but I absolutely refuse to be judged by what I wear.
A powerful message loud and clear and it embodies the New African Woman ethos. But in your own words can you describe a New African woman?
The new African woman isn’t one person. You have African women who are rural based, you have African woman who are disabled, who come from different ethnic groupings, who have different sexual orientation from you and I. So it’s not one grouping of the same people, we come from different regions; there’s French-speaking Africa, there’s Anglophone-Africa, there’s Lusophone Africa. So the new African woman is really a mixture of so many different influences but I think what defines her is her ability to not only survive but also to thrive in a political and social set-up that is not equipped for her to survive and to thrive.