• September 28th, 2020

Opinion: Towards University Academics Trade Union   

During breakfast discussions at the staff cafeteria at the University of Namibia (Unam), a scandalous development came to our knowledge as concerned decolonial scholars. 

The scandal is that workers at the Unam have no union to advance their rights and represent them in collective bargaining matters. This was caused by the fact that the two unions – the Namibia Public Workers Union (Napwu) and the Namibia National Teachers Union (Nantu) – lost the mandate to represent the workers following the loss of support of 50 plus members. Let us return to this later. 

 It was on these pages, that I wrote an article titled ‘is higher education creating critical thinkers or zombies’ on 30th November 2018. That formulation questioned the content and character of higher education in general and that of knowledge workers – the academics - in particular. 

I had asked: “how does an academic teaching administrative law sit in a meeting, participates and accept an unlawful/irregular conduct and thereafter run to a lecture hall teaching students to never allow their rights, contained in Article 18 (Administrative Justice), to be trumped upon by the powerful? How does one explain management of a higher learning institution accepting instructions from a politician to get rid of a fellow academic? 

How does one explain professors (labour law and finance) represented, in salary negotiations, by a teacher holding a Basic Education Teaching Diploma? I then submitted that “instead of being mediums of development, decolonisation and intellectual pursuit, higher education institutions have become undemocratic autocratic zones – rewarding submissiveness and punishing intellectual vibrancy at the caprice of politicians, business elites and higher education executives. The outcomes of such an environment is one; zombies.” 

 At the time of writing, employees at Unam had overwhelmingly voted to go on a strike. 
The strike polarized the university because of the strategies and tactics employed by both management and unions. The university is still limping, in terms of employee relations, from the consequences of this strike. The loss of trust in the unions is one of the results. Although scandalous, it is no surprise that Nantu and Napwu lost mandates to represent the workers at Unam. Ndeshi Namupala, a sociology lecturer at Unam, was quoted expressing these sentiments in a screaming headline in The Namibian that read “The unions betrayed us – Unam staff”. On close inspection, this was coming long ago. Think about the following; (a) firstly, there is a difference between lecturers and teachers. It is lecturers who train teachers and not the other way. It is the same reason why students and teachers have different unions – Nantu (teachers) and Nanso (students). 

How is it possible, and whose idea was it, that lecturers (senior to teachers) are represented by the teachers in their union – Nantu? Secondly, there are 4000 unqualified and underqualified teachers in the pre-primary and primary phase. 

Imagine these teachers nominating delegates amongst themselves to attend a Nantu congress to elect leadership and draft up a program of action. Will these majoritarian teachers elect a professor into senior Nantu leadership? Those who affirm must tell us how many Professors, senior lecturers and PhD holders ever held senior positions in Nantu. The knowledge gaps and commonality of issues between university academics and teachers are single quarters and Wall Street. It is thus scandalous that academics had auctioned their representative powers to their intellectual juniors for 29 years. Third, as what happened during the Unam strike, how can a Professor in education, Labour law, a economics or finance leave and invested trust in a holder of a Basic Education teaching Diploma (BETD) – from the Nantu Katutura offices – to negotiate with the university professors in management for his/her salary? 

These are, amongst many, the indicators that for the past 29 years of independence, the academics have been asleep and have operated and relied on a flawed institutional framework of representation. 

 Beyond the scandal of the recent loss of mandate, academics at Unam have been weaker and vulnerable, unable to meaningfully engage the university in an organized fashion beyond salary negotiations. It is for this reason that the unions were unable, for example, to organize and meaningfully engage and present an alternative informed proposal to influence the current restructuring process that is underpinned by neoliberal corporatization and commodification of higher education. Beyond wage negotiation, unions at Unam have nothing to offer. 

 While academics in Namibia bank their fates on BETD holders to represent them, their counterparts elsewhere are flourishing. In 2008, academics at the University of Cape Town – Africa’s number one university – established what is called UCT Academics Union led by professors and senior academics whose scope and orientation is not just salary negotiations. The union has managed to obtain representation of several university committees such as Academic Freedom Committee, Time Table Committee, University Transformation Advisory Committee, Staff Development Committee, Organizational Health Committee, Naming of Buildings Committee, Nominations Committee and many others. This has given power to the academics to have meaningful participation in the affairs of the university. In Namibia, ‘oto afraida tate’ – Unions don’t come closer to that. In Nigeria, academic staff had always been represented by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) since 1978. 

On 1 June 2006, the University and College Union (UCU) was formed in Britain to represent researchers, teaching staff and lecturers in further and higher education. With 120 000 members, it is the largest union of academics in the world. 

Why Namibian academics, particularly at Unam, remains under the control of the BETD leaders for 29 years is a scandal worthy of examining through a PhD dissertation. 

 Universities have always been agents of change. Indeed, fundamental changes of any society cannot occur with a docile university and docile academics. It is because of the docility of Unam academics – under the leadership of BETD unions – that the university has been left behind in the debate of decolonizing the higher education, universities and their curricula. Because higher education in Namibia is left behind, one can almost observe the retreating to the days of Kenyan’s Daniel Arap Moi. 
During Moi’s reigh, writes South African political scientist Prince Mashele, “everything about their society was tied to the ruling party, the Kenya African National Union (Kanu). In this dictatorship, citizens were obliged to follow in the footsteps of Moi. 

To entrench his despotism, Moi introduced a philosophy called Nyayo (footstep), projecting himself as a pathfinder and the rest of society as followers. Political commentators who dared not to follow in Moi’s footsteps faced one of two hard realities: you disappear or flee to exile. So serious was Moi about his Nyayo philosophy that he could replace a vice-chancellor of any university with someone prepared to follow in the correct political footsteps”. How Namibian academics in higher education mimics and uncritically recite slogans of politicians such as ‘Harambee’ (moving in one direction like goats) is reminiscent of Moi’s Nyayo dictatorship. 

It is these retrogressive tendencies that an academics’ union can repudiate to preserve or position an African university on what Professor Dani Nabudere called “a path in the search for knowledge and truth”. For academics at Unam, it would be a missed opportunity should they fail to rectify the flawed institutional representation framework that has intellectually suppressed and undermined them for 29 years. 

They must not waste any time in marching towards the establishment of the University academics’ union – whatever name they give. If they fail, the BETD union will regain the lost ground and remain leaders of professors finalising wage deals with politicians at Nantu offices while professors are in lecture halls. What a scandal. 
*Job Shipululo Amupanda is a decolonial scholar and activist from Omaalala village in northern Namibia. 
Email: shipululo@gmail.com 

Staff Reporter
2019-10-02 07:23:22 | 11 months ago

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