Ithana taming the bull at Home Affairs

By Penda Jonas Hashoongo
November - December 2015

The Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration, which is tasked with the mandate of managing the national population register as well as facilitating lawful migration has over the last few years transformed into one of the most efficient Ministries in the country.

In light of this, Prime Focus Magazine Editor, Penda Jonas Hashoongo, sat down with the Minister responsible for this transformation, Hon. Pendukeni Iivula-Ithana, to zoom into the strategic plan for the Ministry, the challenges it has had to overcome as well as several other aspects pertaining to the Ministry’s operations.

Prime Focus: The Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration implemented a turn-around strategy not too long ago when you took over as the Minister. Are you now satisfied with the results?

Iivula-Ithana: The turn-around strategy for the Ministry of Home Affairs has taken the public by surprise. Although the Ministry was, and remains to be, at the heart of service delivery when I got here, people would often complain about the quality of the service they were receiving from it. It was however not long after the implementation of the turnaround strategy that the public started reporting to me that things have changed in this regard because those who know me would want to come and share with me their own experiences of how they have been received at our front desk.

This says a lot about the success of the turnaround strategy. It’s not only what they say but it is really a reflection of what we have done here. We have changed a lot of our structures. If you go to the front desk you will see that arrangements have been made to create the ambience of an office that is meant to receive people who are coming to the Ministry to access its various services.

We have also reworked our signage to the extent that whoever comes to the Ministry for whatever service will not get lost in the crowd. The signage will tell them exactly where to go for what service. The way our officials are now receiving our clients has also improved a lot. This is not something that I have to see myself but is rather reflected in the comments I receive from the public.

Prime Focus: There are quite a few Namibians who still do not have identification documents in the marginalised areas of the country. Is it in your Ministry’s plan to have your team of experts decentralising their operations and also engage periodic outreach programmes?

Iivula-Ithana: The issue of citizens not having national documents has been a concern of the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration for a long time, even before I got here. I found that the Ministry had arranged and organized a system of mobile registration exercise where officials of this Ministry would load all the necessary materials and the personnel required to go to the rural areas particularly during the time shortly before the writing of the Grade 10 examinations. These officials would go particularly to secondary schools where students would be writing Grade 10 examinations and also the surrounding communities to extend these services to the people who did not have them.

We have just revamped that program by going to communities that do not normally get information or are not in a position to go out and access these services themselves. These are such as the San community and other vulnerable groups. We go out to them. This year (2015) in August, I and a team of officials visited Gam Settlement and Eiseb Block to capture the Botswana of Namibian origin who had migrated back to the country. For a long time there had been a cry from these areas that people did not have national documents. This has been the case because the Ministry has been waiting for an Act to allow them to register these citizens.

The Namibian Parliament has this year passed a new legislation called ``Namibian (Second) Special Conferment Act,``(Act 6, 2015), which allows the Namibian Government to grant citizenship to descendants of Namibia who left Namibia owing to persecution by the colonial government that was in control of the country before 1915. More than 300 people were issued with Citizenship Certificates and other national documents on the spot.

Last month again we undertook a similar exercise to Tsumkwe, where we captured the data of members of the San Community living in this area, and those who qualified to get national documents were assisted . Much like the first exercise, the surrounding areas also benefitted. We plan to go to areas like Opuwo and Kavango Regions in the near future. We have also written to the regional governors through-out the country to capture the names and the villages of all those who do not have national documents so that when we plan Mobile Registration Programmes, we are not going to hunt for these people.

Prime Focus: What are the current challenges facing the ministry?

Iivula-Ithana: One of the challenges facing the Ministry is the long distances that people are walking to access our services. Here in Windhoek and the other urban areas where the community is at one place, it’s easy to give our services unlike in the villages were people are still walking long distances.

Imagine if somebody in the village has a family member who passes on, that person would often have to walk sometimes 200km to the nearest place where they can access services of Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration since we are encouraging our citizens to get death certificates so that we can capture these in our database. We are thus realizing that our people are still finding it difficult to access the services offered by our Ministry.

We are however encouraging the families or the parents to register their children immediately after birth as this will give us certainty that the identity of that person who has been born remains true compared to those who get registered after they have been around for a long time since it increases the likelihood of their basic information being altered.

In the scenario where somebody gives birth at home, this means that somebody, either the mother or the father, will have to go and register the baby at the nearest Home Affairs and Immigration office and it might be hundreds of many kilometres away. We are really feeling that given the resources, we would like our services to be located at the nearest centre and the nearest centre in our view is the constituency office.

In every constituency, there should be Home Affairs and Immigration services provided. If need be, we can create a desk in the office of the Councillor where these services can be provided. This however will require resources in terms of finances and personnel. The other challenge we have is a lack of transportation, because for us to be able to carry out outreach programs, we need vehicles that can reach the farthest points of the country especially at very rocky or sandy areas.

Prime Focus: Most countries have now moved to E-Governance and processing of documents electronically, what plans have you put down as a Ministry to make sure that people can easily apply for Identification Documents (IDs), Birth Certificates, Work Permits and many other documents online and how efficient is it?

Iivula-Ithana: The whole point of introducing IT systems in government is really to move towards paperless governance which is also known as E-governance. We are in the process, albeit on a smaller scale, to move towards this but realistically speaking, this probably not going to happen during my era because for one to migrate to paperless governance, you need everybody in the country to be registered and all their biometric data captured so that the only document an individual carries, like in some countries, is that one card which carries all their necessary documents such as the driver’s license, voter’s card and even the bank card.

I have seen this system working in Estonia where they only have this one card. In some instances they also use it to pass through border posts because it has all the information of that individual. Our systems however, are still not mature enough for us to jump into that system without having all the other aspects properly worked on and captured.

Prime Focus: There has been a general complaint by the corporate sector that one of the stumbling blocks in skills transfer and also expatriate labour engagement is because the Ministry of Home Affairs takes long to process work permits. What do you think about this and what are the remedies laid down by your ministry to deal with it?

Iivula-Ithana: The matter of issuing documents to foreign nationals has so many dimensions to it. This Ministry does not have a problem with a company that wants to import foreign nationals with a skill that is not obtainable in Namibia. That is our ground rule. If a skill is not here, that company can import somebody from anywhere in the world and we will deal with that matter as soon as possible but the challenges that we have been receiving are that certain companies, not all of them, have a tendency of wanting to bring in their own nationals, creating jobs for their countries at the expense of qualified Namibians and that is something we are not comfortable with considering the policy of this government is to employ Namibians first.

However, we have improved the way we operate and therefore you will hear that the Immigration Control Board (ICB) takes retreats by going out of its normal operations to deal with the backlog of work permit, work visa or permanent residence permits applications. Every Tuesday the board meets from 09h00 until late and the only thing they do is consider these applications.

The way some foreign nationals sometimes look at our system shows us that some of them really want to manipulate it. It should also be noted that the approval process involves other stakeholder. For example, if somebody wants to settle in Namibia, there are requirements that involve other institutions that should provide the board with information about the applicant before the application is considered. The delay does not come from the Ministry but from the stakeholders that have to examine and asses the backgrounds of the applicants.

Prime Focus: Could the Minister untangle the issue of dual-citizenship, which has been largely misunderstood within the country?

Iivula-Ithana: The citizenship regime is set out in the Namibian constitution. One is a Namibian citizen by birth and that citizenship is never relinquished. You are a citizen of Namibia for good, whether you live in America or wherever. This is your country of birth. There is also citizenship by descent just like the citizenship by birth where one is a Namibian on account of parents being Namibian and these two are critical to the situation of dual citizenship. There is also citizenship by naturalization, which is when somebody has lived in the country for many years and feels that he or she should become a Namibian and therefore just applies and based on that, citizenship is accorded to this person. Then there is citizenship by marriage which is also being abused here because people come here and marry for the sake of becoming Namibian citizens.

Therefore, if a Namibian gets married to an American for instance, and because of those arrangements decides to get citizenship of that country, you can’t really say they cannot become citizens of the country of their spouse. Those are the three or four categories under which somebody is a Namibian citizen. However, when somebody becomes Namibian by naturalization, this person can terminate this citizenship at any time without any problems.

Prime Focus: You are one of the few Ministers who have taken a Ministry that was struggling and instituted measures to improve its operations. Do you feel there is need for some of your colleagues in cabinet to also follow suit in trying to improve service delivery?

Iivula-Ithana: I cannot be prescriptive to other Ministers. They have their own mandates and they work according to their own steam. However, if what has happened here is to the benefit of the country or the institutions that they are leading, then it is really up to them to emulate it or not. I cannot prescribe but the public has seen how not only the Ministry but the government is going forward. The Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration is at the heart of service delivery since we deal with the public on daily basis and if they are happy here, why can’t they be happy somewhere else where service is also being delivered?

Prime Focus: Do you think Namibia as a country has enough budget allocation and funds to improve Home Affairs and Immigration matters in the country?

Iivula-Ithana: It can never be enough unless I want to stretch the truth. As I said, the public still faces challenges in accessing our services and if we are going to set up these regional offices then they need to be managed. Employees need to be remunerated too, as they cannot work for free. Whatever services we offer go hand-in-hand with the financial requirements. It goes without saying that we need more funds.

Prime Focus: As minister and indeed a mother, what do you think about fictitious or scam marriages, particularly involving young Namibian women and foreign nationals and how best can this issue be done away with?

Iivula-Ithana: Well this is a very tricky issue to deal with because we are not endowed with the skills to read the intentions of others. Some people get married to Namibian men or women for love while others get married wanting to become Namibian citizens.

It goes both ways in terms of the person getting married to and the one wanting to marry. What we are working on is the law. I have seen in certain systems that if the person wanting to marry comes from a certain regime, you need to get information about the marital status of such a person before the marriage is consummated in your country.

The problem here is also that marriage is conducted by a different Ministry and the registration of the marriage by another. The Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration is only responsible for the registration of marriages.

We are not the ones to consummate the marriage as this is done by Priests, churches and Magistrates, who are officials of the Ministry of Justice. Until such a time that the relevant authorities find common ground in the registration and consummation of marriages or these processes are done by one institution, this will continue to be problematic.

Prime Focus: Where would you like to see the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration by the time you finish your term?

Iivula-Ithana: Even if I leave tomorrow, at least I will be happy to leave the Ministry on this high note. It is really on a high note that we are able to process all our documents within a reasonable time. We are in a position to make the public, who are our primary stakeholders, feel excited when they visit the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration. This was previously never the case.

According to the feedback we have received, the status quo compared to the situation that was in place before is considerably better. Our advancement has been such that an individual can even decide to come to the Ministry during work hours to access any one of our services and within 20 minutes, this person would have been assisted and go back to work. This was never possible in the situation that was in place before. That to me is an achievement even if I leave today.

Prime Focus: Are there any additional remarks the Minister would like to confer to the Namibian public?

Iivula-Ithana: It’s very difficult to examine and assess yourself. I always encourage the public to be forthcoming in exerting their right to be served in a manner that benefits a Namibian or a person on the Namibian soil. If we are not coming to the board in terms of service delivery, it is their right to inform us so that we improve. However, if the public, even when they are not getting what they expect, continue to be silent, we may sit back thinking we are getting it right while it is not the case.

Lastly, this interview is taking place on the eve of the festive season and the festive season is often described as a carnage period. I would just like to appeal to Namibians to avoid driving while under the influence of alcohol and to consider other road users as important as themselves, to avoid speeding and to really prioritise arriving at their destinations safe and sound. I’d like to wish the entire Namibian nation a Merry Christmas and a happy 2016