I find myself hoping that what many optimistically call the new democratisation of Swapo, will help lead the party out of what I would term the struggle doldrums, the tendency to revert to the thinking of the ‘old days’.

But I am aware too that it will take more than just an open contest for the four top positions to liberate Swapo from conservative attitudes. This was manifest not only in the disappointingly low level of campaigning (which was mostly about personalities and not about policies), but also in the tenor of resolutions adopted by the congress.

One in particular caught my attention, namely: “That a Ministry of Cybersecurity be established in order to control information in the social media and guard against cyber crimes such as hacking and monitor illicit flows” (sic).

It is perhaps no coincidence that such a proposal follows the example of repressive countries like China, where free speech is not only frowned upon, but viewed as a criminal offence; but also closer to home, where Mugabe’s Zimbabwe recently followed Beijing’s lead with the creation of such a ministry.

In tandem with this, congress also resolved: “That members of the Swapo Party are urged not to use social media against the party, its leadership, members and the public”.

There is generally a consensus that a progressive law on cybersecurity is necessary to combat the criminal and unauthorised use of electronic data, but to set up a ministry to this end is a waste of money and resources. To combine it with the intent to control social media would be complete political overkill, which threatens to erode the rights to freedom of expression and opinions.

Cybersecurity concerns (and they are real) have NOTHING to do with the free exercise of views and opinions on social media, even those which are critical of the party, its leaders or membership. These are two entirely separate issues, and should not be confused. Perhaps it is partly due to ignorance about these concepts – workshops that have been held for parliamentarians on the topic of cybersecurity, for example, have been poorly attended – but that is no excuse.

Had some of the Swapo seniors bothered to inform themselves on these matters, they could have helped educate congress, and warn against initiating draconian controls which would fly in the face of our Bill of Rights, and negatively impact our proud status of heading the African rankings as far as press freedom is concerned.

The call on Swapo members not to use social media against the party, its leadership, members and the public is just as retrogressive. Inherent to democratic understanding is the free exchange of views and opinions. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Swapo members, or anyone else for that matter, taking to social media to freely express their views about any or all of the above.

What is important, though, is for Swapo to instead promote media literacy and encourage open discussion, but to guard against allowing this to degenerate to the point of hate-filled personal attacks, which is precisely what characterised their own recent campaign.

President Hage Geingob said it himself when he urged contestants to “play the ball and not the man”. Don’t get me wrong, though. It is absolutely acceptable to put elected officials on the spot, and to criticise them freely and vigorously on their public record, as well as matters concerning the governance of our nation.

In cases where anyone goes beyond criticism into making libellous and defamatory comments on social media, we have both a media ombudsman as well as adequate laws in place through which means the aggrieved can seek justice. But we do not need (or want) a cybersecurity ministry (God forbid), or additional controls put in place to do this.

The last thing we need are ominous signs of what is happening in other African countries where governments have begun to shut down citizen access to information and the exercise of their freedoms by switching off the internet to silence the voice of the public. Swapo would do well to circulate among its membership the Code of Ethics and Conduct adopted by the Namibian media, and to encourage, rather than stifle, debate and even dissent.

Better still, they should encourage their ranks to ensure this happens on a higher level so that interactions do not deteriorate into hate speech, tribal attacks and incitement to violence.

It is important that the ruling party frees itself of the tendency to try and control information flows; instead, to be more forward-looking and to urge both their members and Namibians in general to liberate their minds in a spirit of mutual tolerance, and not to seek ways and means to constrain rather than promote the exercise of democratic rights. It would do well for Swapo to remind itself of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, viz: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, and regardless of frontiers”.

The party should, therefore, abandon the idea of a cyber ministry. A good law to this effect would be just fine. And Swapo must withstand, at all costs, the temptation to try and control social media. Teach the ways of the present and the future, rather than remaining stuck in the past.

* Follow me on Twitter: @GwenLister1