• December 5th, 2019

NUNW: Proud history, uncertain future

WINDHOEK - Despite the prominent role played by Namibian trade unions in the country’s struggle for independence, and regardless of the fact that the labour movement is still among the strongest of Namibia’s ‘civil society’ organisations, trade unions have lost much of their popularity and political influence in recent years. Their social base, employed workers, play a central role in the economy and their wages contribute significantly to the survival of Namibian households. Employed workers bear a substantial burden caused by widespread unemployment and most workers in formal sector employment share their income by way of remittances to members of their extended families in urban and rural areas. 

Despite its small population, Namibia has over 30 trade unions split into three federations and several unaffiliated unions. Historically, the most prominent trade union federation has been the National Union of Namibian Workers (nunw), which represents an estimated 60 000–70 000 workers today. This article focuses on the nunw, which played a key role during Namibia’s liberation struggle and continued to be affiliated to the ruling South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) Party after independence.

The historic link between the nunw and swapo nunw’s history is closely linked to that of swapo, as a result of its particular history. Namibian contract workers formed the central component of swapo in the party’s formative years. The plight of contract workers – mostly from northern Namibia – was first taken up by the Ovamboland People’s Congress (opc), which was founded in Cape Town in 1957 mainly by students and intellectuals. Migrant workers in the Namibian compounds responded enthusiastically to the opc, which expressed their aspirations. 

In 1958, the opc became the Ovamboland People’s Organisation (opo), its central aim being to abolish the contract labour system. opo’s demands for ‘political, social and economic emancipation of the people’ reflected the needs of the workers in the compounds. Its message was also spread to the rural areas through returning migrant workers. In 1960, opo was transformed into a national liberation movement – swapo. Its aim was to establish a unified, independent and democratic Namibia, free from colonial exploitation and oppression (see Katjavivi 1988; Moleah 1983; Peltola 1995). 

Following swapo’s consultative congress in Tanga, Tanzania, in 1969/70, several new departments were established within the party, including a labour department. Although the congress documents did not mention the formation of trade unions, a decision to establish nunw in exile was taken on 24 April 1970. Its function was primarily to represent Namibian workers at international fora such as the International Labour Organisation (ilo). Another aspect of its work in exile was to train trade unionists under the name of the nunw in the Soviet Union and Angola (Peltola 1995).

In 1978, the swapo Central Executive Committee decided to affiliate the nunw to the World Federation of Trade Unions, which provided a link between the nunw and the socialist countries. In 1979, nunw set up its headquarters in Luanda, Angola, under the leadership of John Ya Otto, who served as swapo secretary of labour and nunw Secretary General at the same time. Ya Otto prepared a constitution for the nunw for adoption by swapo’s National Executive Committee, but it was never approved. 

Nunw as part of the liberation struggle
For Namibian workers inside the country the class struggle was intertwined with the struggle against racial discrimination and white minority domination. As observed by Peltola (1995), the class struggle waged by workers was seen as one and the same as the liberation struggle waged by swapo. Thus, class differences were blurred and trade unions (membership and leadership alike) regarded themselves less as representing a particular class than as an integral part of a broader national liberation movement opposed to apartheid colonialism.

By the mid-1980s over 100 000 troops controlled by South Africa were inside Namibia, and 80 percent of the population lived under emergency regulations. Thousands of Namibians were removed from their homes along the Angolan border, and soldiers, who brutally harassed Namibians, destroyed fields in the north. 

In 1985, the South African apartheid government was spending R3 million per day on the war in Namibia. During this time of repression, community activists started organising at the grassroots level. Community organisations surged in response to the crises in housing, employment, health, education and social welfare. In the absence of trade unions, workers began to take their workplace problems to social workers at the Roman Catholic Church and the Council of Churches in Namibia. At that time, the umbrella of the churches provided political activists with a shield under which they could start organising workers. Unlike trade unions, which had been crushed by the colonial state, churches were able to operate across the country. By 1985, workers and community activists had formed a Workers Action Committee in Katutura, which became the forerunner of trade unions (Bauer 1997).

At the same time, South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) began to organise workers at the mines of Namibia’s Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) and Rössing Uranium in Oranjemund and Arandis, respectively. These workers linked up with the Workers Action Committee and by April 1986 had formed the Rössing Mineworkers Union, which later became the Mineworkers Union of Namibia (MUN) (Bauer 1997).

Another factor that contributed to the emergence of trade unions was the release of Namibian political prisoners from 1984 onwards. Some returned to Windhoek and resumed their work for the SWAPO structures. A decision was taken to reactivate the NUNW inside Namibia, and by April 1986, a Workers Steering Committee had been formed. This body incorporated the Workers Action Committee and all other groups attempting to organise workers around the country. 
A group of field workers (including Gabriel Ithete, Ruben Ithengula, Loide Kasingo, Jappie Nangolo, and Ben Ulenga) began organising different workplaces. Jointly with Bob Kandetu, Lindi Kazombaue, Anton Lubowski and Barnabas Tjizu, these fieldworkers formed a steering committee to oversee the establishment of trade unions under the umbrella of the NUNW (Interviews with J. Nangolo and J. Shikongo).  The response was tremendous, and in September 1986. the NUNW’s first industrial union was launched, this being the Namibia Food and Allied Workers Union (Nafau) led by John Pandeni, one of the former Robben Island prisoners (Bauer 1997). Shortly thereafter, the Mineworkers Union of Namibia (MUN) was launched, led by another former Robben Island prisoner, Ben Ulenga. In 1987, the Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union (Manwu), led by Barnabas Tjizu, and the Namibia Public Workers Union (Napwu), led by Petrus Iilonga, were launched. The Namibia Transport and Allied Workers Union (Natau) was launched in June 1988, led by Willy Matsi, followed by the Namibia National Teachers Union (Nantu) in March 1989, led by Markus Kampungu.  After independence, the Namibia Domestic and Allied Workers Union (NDAWU), the Namibia Farmworkers Union (NAFWU), the Namibia Financial Institutions Union (NAFINU) and the Namibia Music Industry Union (NAMIU) were formed and affiliated to NUNW.

In the early years, the nunw unions provided workers with an organisational vehicle through which they could take up workplace grievances as well as broader political issues, which were always seen as linked to the economic struggle. This occurred firmly within the swapo fold as the nunw unions openly declared their allegiance to the liberation struggle and to swapo as the leading organisation in the fight for independence. The exiled and internal wings of the nunw were merged during a consolidation congress held in Windhoek in 1989. At that time, the nunw unions inside Namibia had already established themselves and were a formidable force among grassroots organisations. They enjoyed huge support even beyond their membership and played a critical role in ensuring swapo’s victory in the elections of 1989 (Jauch 2007). 

The NUNW’s history is in many ways similar to that of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), as both were key agencies in terms of mass mobilisation against apartheid and colonial rule. Like their sister unions in South Africa, the nunw unions linked the struggle at the workplace with the broader struggle for political independence and formed links with other social and political organisations such as women’s and students’ organisations. The nunw understood its role as that of a social movement, which could not address workers’ issues separately from those affecting the broader community. Exploitation at the workplace was thus linked to the broader struggle against racial and political oppression (Jauch 2007). Thus the trend in Namibia conformed to that observed in many African states where trade unions played a key role in the democratisation process. Sidibe and Venturi (1998) attributed this to three major factors, which enabled trade unions to play that role: firstly, their long history of struggle; secondly, their massive potential for organisation and action; and thirdly, their expectation that democracy would benefit workers and trade unions.

NUNW and the party after independence
The nunw still played a prominent role in the public policy debates during the first decade of independence and maintained its links with the swapo Party through an affiliation accord. This link has led to heated debates both within and outside the federation. While the majority of nunw affiliates argued that a continued affiliation would help the federation to influence policies, critics have pointed out that the affiliation would undermine the independence of the labour movement and that it would wipe out prospects for trade union unity in Namibia. This issue was hotly debated during the nunw’s congresses in 1993 and 1998, and both congresses confirmed the federation’s political affiliation. 

The affiliation accord between the nunw and swapo was signed in 1997. This accord states that the affiliation shall be based on the independence and decision-making autonomy of both organisations. It also states that consultations will guide the relationship and that both organisations are mandated to work in the interests of their members – subject to the broader principles enshrined in the swapo constitution.  The accord stipulates that the nunw recognises swapo as the senior partner in the relationship and agrees to work jointly for economic reconstruction and social development in Namibia. Both parties commit themselves to the principles of popular mandates from their structures whenever any joint action is taken. In addition, “The rank and file members of the affiliated industrial unions will be encouraged to participate in the party structures based on the principle of freedom of association.  However, their participation in party structures, at all levels, will be subject to the provisions of the Swapo Party Constitution”.

Supporters of the affiliation between the NUNW and Swapo believe that the affiliation assisted the federation to influence policies in favour of workers. The general secretary of an affiliate remarked: “The affiliation helps the nunw to influence certain policies because it is easier for the unions to go to the president if they are affiliated to swapo.  On the other hand, several trade union leaders within the NUNW recognise the need for a trade union’s independence in decision-making and that neither the government nor the ruling party should be allowed to influence union decisions. Some argue that the nunw’s political affiliation hampered their work.

The NUNW is aware that its affiliation to swapo lies at the heart of the current divisions within the Namibian labour movement. The dilemma of splitting workers along party political lines rather than uniting all workers under one umbrella is not unique to Namibia. Other southern African trade unions experienced a similar challenge. During a meeting of the Southern African Trade Union Co-ordinating Council in November 1998, for example, Zambian and Zimbabwean unionists pointed out that at some stage they had also maintained a close relationship with their respective ruling parties, but came to recognise the need to be independent in order to defend their members’ interests, which often ran contrary to government policies. 

The achievement of independence in 1990 required a redefinition of the role that trade unions wanted (and were able) to play. Given the close structural links between the nunw unions and swapo, as well as the fact that most union leaders played a prominent role in the party too, there was a widespread expectation among workers that the swapo government would be a ‘workers’ government’. However, the ideological shift in swapo in the 1980s towards the acceptance of a capitalist order was rapidly consolidated once swapo became Namibia’s ruling party. Revolutionary working-class politics were dropped while the capitalist structure of the economy was maintained and the notion of social partnership was introduced into labour relations. Trade unions were expected to define a new role within this framework and although the nunw had previously called for more radical change, it accepted the new framework with little resistance. 
The nunw’s task of influencing broader socio-economic policies in favour of its working class base proved to be extremely difficult in the face of an onslaught by the neo-liberal ideology that both business and the Namibian government portrayed as the only practical policy option for Namibia.

Future prospects
Today, the NUNW finds itself in deep crisis. There are clear signs that the federation lost its vision and now struggles to develop a strategy of how to play a meaningful role in the process of social change. Deep political divisions, not only between the nunw and its rival federations but also within the nunw itself, worsen this dilemma. These divisions are often driven by individual political interests but they undermine the potential power of the Namibian labour movement as a whole. A multitude of trade unions that are unable to work with each other cannot provide Namibian workers with the strong organisational base needed to advance a working-class agenda. 

Statements by the NUNW and its affiliates in recent years point to a lack of ideological clarity and even deep-seated ideological contradictions. Sentiments of radical nationalism and liberation, for example on the land issue, have been combined with an acceptance of neo-liberalism as the ideology of the ‘free market’. As trade union leaders entered company boards as part of a poorly defined union investment strategy, their views (and interests) increasingly converged with those of government and business. Also, some trade union leaders are now occupying management positions in the public and private sectors, which contradicts the principle of worker control within unions. These developments point to a lack of clarity regarding the working-class base of the labour movement and whose interests it is meant to serve. 

Confronting the current crisis is thus a huge task. It is uncertain if the NUNW will be able to revitalise itself to become once more an agent for progressive socio-economic change, capable of mobilising thousands of workers around a common cause.  Unless the federation can achieve this, it is likely to be remembered for its proud history during the struggle for independence while being questioned about its relevance in Namibia 

New Era Reporter
2019-04-30 09:41:43 | 7 months ago

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