An uncharacteristic battle involving the City of Windhoek, mobile communications giant MTC and a group of “concerned residents” from two of the capital’s luxurious suburbs seems not near from the end.

The standoff arises from the fact that the concerned group of residents in Klein Windhoek are against the erection of a new MTC base station in the suburb.

MTC, an institution of 15 years’ existence in Namibia, is widely acknowledged as one of the biggest companies in the country whose appeal in sports, business and social being of Namibia, cuts across racial and tribal barriers, and whose journey in search of greatness—pregnant with both triumph and tragedy—has captured the imaginations of the 1.5 million active users, where it covers 98% of nearly 2 million citizens, with more than 650 base stations and repeaters. Of these, 105 are stationed in Windhoek.

To some loyal users, MTC is more than just a mobile operator. It is an iconic institution that fulfils dreams (giving away 30 Volvos in 2008) and has produced leaders in Namibia and pioneers most ICT advancements in the country.

However, some believe that time has come for the City of Windhoek to take firm action, with tough measures on the current stand-off, or we can finally bury the decision making process of the City Fathers— which has been on life-support for some time now — in its grave.

Prime Focus has obtained a letter requesting the approval of eight construction sites namely, Klein Windhoek Town & Townlands (Bowker Hill); Erf 115, Eros Park; Erf 478, Hochlandpark; Erf 848 Kleine Kuppe;Erf 498, Goreangab; Erf 4386, Katutura;Erf 565, Khomasdal and Erf 4429, (Otjomuise) handed to the City of Windhoek in April 2009 by MTC.

An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was carried out by MTC’s consultant, Urban Green as is the procedure and communities were consulted as part of the application to the City of Windhoek before clearance was handed to MTC.

The communities of Eros Park’s Olof Palme Street and Klein Windhoek Town and Townlands No. 70 (Bowker Hill) sites in Klein Kuppe rejected MTC’s proposal to erect a base stations in their area. The argument was that erecting mobile phone towers would lead to high radiation exposure resulting in its effects on the surrounding residents’ health while the second and most striking argument was that, “a base station would spoil the look of the neighbourhood.”

Says MTC’s Tim Ekandjo, “Consultations were done by our consultant on 9 July 2009.The concerns raised by the public were therefore part of the EIA report submitted to the City of Windhoek and The Directorate of Environmental Affairs. These are the authorities that considered concerns before approving MTC’s application. Our application was granted while these concerns were considered by the authorities. In addition to these consultations, the City of Windhoek also arranged for a public platform for consultation on the matter and another session in the presence of the full Council, where the residents were given an opportunity to express their concerns. It is therefore strange for the residents to blame MTC for not consulting with them while extensive consultations took place on the matter.”

“I have also taken note that the City’s PRO remarked recently that MTC’s consultation on the matter was rather poor, what is strange is that the City also ran consultations with all stakeholders, is the City then also saying that they were not happy with their own consultation process?” Ekandjo asked.

The Directorate of Environmental Affairs issued a Clearance Certificate for the building of the site on December 14 2009 and the City of Windhoek granted approval to MTC for the construction of the sites on January 15 2010.

However, the construction of the two sites (Olaf Palme and Bowker Hill) was suspended due to continued public outcry forcing MTC to seek other means of answering the radiation concerns of the residents of Bowker Hill and Olaf Palme Street.

The mobile operator went out of its way to go through the process of radiation measurements whose results were presented to the City of Windhoek and the concerned residents.

One Professor Linda De Jager was then brought in and confirmed that the measurements and transmission level caused no harm and that MTC’s radiation levels were 100 000 times less than what the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) prescribes.

At a consultative meeting held at NamPower Convention Centre in May 2010, the ‘concerned residents’ blasted not only Professor De Jager’s findings, but also insulted the person of the MTC Managing Director for bribing the Professor into “biased findings.”

Despite vindicating De Jager’s findings, no scientific argument came from residents but rather insults targeted at MTC in that public meeting.

A question was posed as to why only the residents of these two areas, if genuinely concerned about health matters, only raises these concerns now while the whole of Windhoek have base stations even in their yards. The response from one of the concerned residents was, “those residents in Katutura do not have access to the internet and the information we have access to and that is why they are probably not concerned about radiation”, a reply that angered the audience in attendance as it was viewed as an insult to the rest of Windhoek residents. At the same meeting, the residents also accused the City officials that MTC has been drafting communication on their behalf on the matter, once again to the annoyance of the City officials in attendance, who asked the residents to withdraw their statement.

The ICNIRP is the world’s recognised body that gives guidelines on radiation matters. All mobile operators should comply with their standards, not just MTC. Namibia as a country is a signatory to the United Nations, and ICNIRP is recognised by both the World Health Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Disagreeing with the ‘concerned residents’ will therefore constitute disagreeing with the WHO, ICNIRP, IAEA and the City of Windhoek, which are renowned experts on the matter. It was then that the issue of the Bowker Hill Conservancy came up. After this the ‘concerned group’ changed tone and began arguing that no base stations must be erected as the area is “protected” where any other taller structure would affect the visual look of the place since it is on a hill.

While the City showed that they value the residents’ concerns, by surprisingly placing a moratorium on the erection of base stations, after this consultative meeting, one wonders whether the country’s development can now be held hostage by a group of residents who think their land cannot be exploited.

As a mobile operator, the right to erect base stations is enshrined in MTC’s licence, for which they are held responsible for by the regulator.

“If we do not perform as far as connectivity is concerned, the regulator can take us to task,” Ekandjo remarked.

Ekanjo further remarks that Bowker Hill and Olof Palme and Kuiseb Street have one of the lowest network receptions in Windhoek. Former MTC Corporate Affairs Manager Albertus Aochamub, now NBC Director General is a resident of one of the suburbs and it does not need a rocket scientist or Aochamub’s influence or the ‘concerned group’s objections to tell that the area has one of the weakest signals in Windhoek.

Prime Focus would want to believe that MTC has experts who can test the network signals in different areas in Namibia, and based on those results identify areas where there is need to improve network coverage and strength.

Says Festus Mbandeka, MTC Legal Adviser, “As a company, we have an obligation as part of our licence conditions to provide a reliable network, and these base stations allows us to fulfil our mandate. We have customers that rely on a strong and reliable network, including the security of this country, and we cannot compromise that.”

Mbandeka also says while the City of Windhoek was sleeping during the period of the eight month moratorium (February-October), one of MTC’s competitors erected and activates one of their base stations in Khomasdal.

The moratorium was lifted on during August 2010. However such decision was only communicated to MTC by the City through its letter dated 18 October 2010. The letter from the City of Windhoek to operators reads in part:

“The City has consulted widely with the community members’ concerns, and issues of health effects have been resolved as follows:

The levels of radio frequency energy emitted by Base Transceiver Station result in exposure that are well below international accepted limits such as those proposed by International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP)....Till this date there has been no confirmed scientific evidence that links the normal use of cell phones to effects that could be considered hazardous to human health.”

On November 4, after learning about the lifting of the moratorium and realising MTC’s readiness on the sites, the group took to the streets in protest about not being consulted in the developments of their land.

The argument further seems to be not much about radiation this time, but that the construction may affect the value of property and landscape around the area and that Bowker Hills is “a protected area and should not be touched as no consultations were made”, albeit in contrast to the City’s October 18 letter that says consultations had been made with the communities.

Ekandjo remarked that the concerned group refers to Bowker Hill as a “conservancy”, but to his knowledge and information from the City of Windhoek, no application has been made by these residents to call it a “conservancy”, and he wonders where this concerned group got the power to make such decisions or declaration on behalf of the City of Windhoek

He further states that graffiti was littered all over MTC’s equipment by the demonstrators the following morning, and more shocking was the fact that the City of Windhoek wrote to MTC requesting them to halt “construction activities due to continued community grievance at Bowker Hill sites and in Olof Palme Street.”

More questions are still being asked: Since when do residents proclaim protectorates in the capital? Is this not a reminder of how the minority has always stood against the majority?

Bowker Hill and Eros are not protected areas and might never be. A bunch of residents mistook the size of this country’s democracy as a licence that gave them the freedom to bully everyone who comes their way, and if need be, use force and finance to subdue the majority.

One gets a feeling that this is the same syndrome that is affecting the economic freedom today, the soul of development persecuted by people who still regard (parts of) Namibia as theirs and untouchable and worsened by a state of confusion created by a leadership that appears helpless to lead the way.

It is also worth noting that the decision to form conservancies is entirely voluntary, and that the policy and legislation simply provide the framework for how to form conservancies, once the community has expressed interest to form their conservancy.

The legal requirements for the recognition and registration of conservancies “measure up well against the principles for designing long lasting common property resource management institutions”.

Communities who decide to form conservancies are required to define who they are clarifying who their members are and should keep a list of registered members. In Namibia, the concept has been relatively easy for smaller size communities who are not too scattered over a large geographical area. But the Bowker Hill and Eros communities have not applied to be a conservancy.

Conservancies are further required to define their own geographical area and to negotiate and agree on their boundaries with their neighbours. Once communities have defined themselves, registered their members and agreed on their boundaries with their neighbours, they are required to develop their own constitution, which will also provide for the development of a management and utilisation plan even after conservancy registration.

Conservancy constitution normally outlines amongst other things their overall purpose and objectives, a definition of their membership and description of boundaries, their management structure and how these will be elected and function, as well as over-all decision making within the conservancy. Conservancies are recognised as an organised voice of the vast majority of the people where they occur, and often represent their communities.

Conservancies further represent their members on other very important local decision making structures like Land Boards, which are responsible for the allocation of land in communal areas under the National Land Policy of 1998 and the Communal Land Reform Act of 2002.

The rapid increase in the number of conservancies registered over the past few years is indicative of the desire of communal area residents to form legally recognised governance bodies at the community level.

The motivation for forming conservancies differs from area to area but it is striking that conservancies are starting to emerge even in areas with very low potential for wildlife and tourism development.

Bowker Hill is an illegal conservancy, if at all, it is a conservancy.

It therefore would be interesting to note if the Bowker Hill community are granted conservancy rights by the City, if and when they apply, because besides having an illegal conservancy, theirs is the interest to strengthen their rights over most of other resources, which in this case, only a beacon and a water reservoir that exist at Bowker Hill.

Conscious attempts need to be taken, to avoid several ‘illegal groupings’ such as is this one, but rather to integrate land and resource use planning and management.

Neither is the case being helped by the failure of both the City of Windhoek and perhaps Government to take firm decisive action, if not on the trouble causers of this ‘small kingdom’ created at Bowker Hill, and stop the madness that will mock ICT development in the country or any other form of development to come in the area.

The next thing, someone will come and object that their neighbour build a double-story house in the suburb and the City of Windhoek, will place a moratorium.

Already, there has been frequent blame on MTC’s promotions which are said to be causing network congestion resulting in network jams in Namibia recently.

But the truth is not on promotions such as Aweh Aweh, it is about capacity. MTC needs to increase its towers across the country to improve network capacity and provide quality service to the public. But how can that be achieved, if towers should only be erected in Katutura and other areas and not in certain low density suburbs whose residents regard as ‘conservancy’?

Are these not the same people who complain when they go into rural Namibia and find that there is no cellphone network? Where do they think the base stations are? On the moon?

The City Council’s failure to effectively deal with this issue, changing goal posts upon pressure by the few whose case cannot be proven scientifically except for their own aggrandisement, has been one of the glaring shortcomings of the men and women Windhoek put into positions of authority.

True, MTC is known as a bully giant by its competitors and Prime Focus does not have qualms on that, but for the City Fathers to watch helplessly as “hooligans” block development of the city, is a shame.

Being network providers, if MTC do not shape network traffic then networks become overloaded and unusable at peak times and in high-volume areas, while if they do limit data download in some way then they are open to accusations being incompetent.

The erection of base stations remains in limbo, but only in these two communities. Is Windhoek’s decision making system now divided on racial grounds or who stays where?

Thanks to this circus, we are now certain to believe that not everyone has accepted that Namibia is for us all, not for selected few.

The joke of the year will come when this small group decides they have enough of this madness and decide to take a legal route on MTC.

But this is not about MTC and base stations.

At the time of going to the press, the tune had been changed by the group who argued that the presence of the base station might affect the property prices. From radiation fears to protectorates and now property prices, where was this very same group of concerned residents when MTC erected 650 towers all over Namibia?

Why were they not worried about the radiation of all Namibians and the property prices in Khomasdal, Katutura, and other low density suburbs? Why wait when it comes to Eros and Bowker Hill?

This is about some land in an independent Namibia being deemed untouchable. About a rejection of policies by the minority, about a lack of respect for the rule of law, about a stern refusal for certain land to be developed except by the residents.

Why are these few individuals in low density suburbs being allowed to behave as if they have turned into some kind of super chiefs, in imaginary kingdoms on Mars, where they are not answerable to anyone?

Is this not a reminder of South West Africa?

Is this still the same game that banned certain leaders, not so long ago when it was still under firm leadership, simply because they had stepped over the line?

Every group has a leader; it would be interesting to know who this leader is and the interests of its leader. More interesting than the fact that only the German media, both print and electronic have covered this issue extensively and in none of this coverage has MTC been (or not?) contacted for comment.

This group of residents in low density suburb merely has an intention to cause minor chaos that will bring greater benefit for the few.

Yet no matter what the intentions might be, the consequences of such behaviour meddling against the majority of a country’s citizens can be dire.

Prime Focus believes that MTC, Telecom or Leo should not be deterred by a ‘concerned group’ with hidden agendas that serve their own interests and not that of the community they claim to represent and must not accept any suggestion to restart a consultation process which have already been over-exhausted already.

The next thing is that no road will be allowed to be constructed in that area for reasons best known to, but not spelt out by this group. As a pro-development magazine, it is our platform to speak against such practises. PF