There are seemingly comparative changes and continuities in the relationships of labour migrants and their communities in post-colonial Namibia to those of labour migrants under the institutionalised contract labour system (1925 to 1972) in Namibia. In the past, labour migrants left ‘home’ (former Kavango and Owambo lands) to work destinations in central and southern Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa for 18 months.
The migrant labourers did not leave ‘home’ as individuals but as part of the communities and thus the expectant wives and family members observed cultural taboos for the sake of the safety and fortunes of the migrant labourers. The family and community expectation was that the migrant labourers will return with money to accumulate wealth that benefited everyone at ‘home’, although in many cases, the expectant families were disappointed that returning migrant labourers fell short of family and community expectations.
The migrant labourers further believed that since the right place to observing cultural taboos was only at ‘home’, which they saw as the women’s place, many believed that unlike women at ‘home’, men were not expected to uphold fidelity standards in terms of for example avoiding extramarital or sexual affairs while at work destinations. The infidelity of men at workplaces was downplayed and was not considered an existential threat to their sending community as it occurred away from ’home’ (Likuwa 2020).
As such, many contract labourers held extramarital affairs at work destinations but after the expiry of contract work, they left the urban female partners and children born at workplaces and returned ‘home’ to their families to former Kavango and Owambo areas.
Labour migration from former Kavango and Owambo continues after Namibia’s independence in 1990. The more many labour migrants in post-colonial Namibia see their experiences as different from that of the past contract labourers, the more they find some similarities. The post-colonial migration of opportunity seekers from former Kavango and Ovambo lands migrate partly as a result of colonial under-development of these areas and the fewer opportunities for access and distribution of local resources. This compels many labour migrants (now including women) to migrate in the hope of acquiring opportunities in order to accumulate wealth so as to address their family social economic problems.
I assert that our understanding of the past exploitative contract labour system can help to put into historical context the feelings, dreams, hopes, aspirations for improved wages by migrant labourers to address the economic and social plights of expectant families and communities in post colonial Namibia. A new history book publication, which highlights the voices of contract labourers on contract labour system in Namibia is thus a timely publication for 2020.
The new book titled ‘Voices from the Kavango, a study of the contract labour system In Namibia, 1925 to 1972’, explores the contribution that the life histories and the voices of the contract labourers make to our understanding of the contract labour system in Namibia. In particular, it asks: is it possible to view the migration of the Kavango labourers as a progressive step, or does the paradigm of exploitation and suppression remain the dominant one? The study highlights contract labourers engaging in a defeating activity and their disappointment with the little rewards, which were non-lasting solutions to their problems. The realization of their entrapment under the contract system and the eventual frustrations led to the political mobilization for independence by Swapo.
Prof Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie rightly noted “there is sensitivity as to how to conduct oral interviews, a talent for the languages of the area such as Rukwangali, Rumanyo and Thimbukushu, and a maturity in analysing the narratives themselves well beyond mining these for information. This is not a local history but a transnational history taking one across the borders into Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The scholarship of Namibia is enriched with this new work on the Kavango and the people of this most northern region have secured their rightful place in the country’s history.” Similarly, Professor Patricia Hayes states that in this new book “A fascinating constellation of labour sites and their meanings for these men come out, and in this respect, the author displays his own talent as a storyteller and historical narrator.” This new history book was launched at the University of Namibia’s main campus at the Leisure Centre on Monday 7 December 2020 and is open to the public.
*Dr Kletus Likuwa is the Deputy Director for the Multidisciplinary Research Centre (MRC) at the University of Namibia in Windhoek but writes in his own personal capacity.