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Gretchen Bauer's provides a careful and sympathetic analysis of the current status of the trade unions in Namibia, while also noting with interest just how important she feels a vibrant labour movement to be in safe-guarding political and economic democracy in that country. (jbv)

vol 11 no 3

Trade unions and politics: What's next in Namibia?
Gretchen Bauer

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 3, April 1996
Page 13



Gretchen Bauer, a professor at the University of Delaware, is a long time observer of the Namibian scene.

After playing a significant mobilizational role during the final years of the liberation struggle, trade unions in Namibia have continued to struggle in the more than five years since independence. While labour movements in many parts of Africa have provided crucial impetus and support for emerging democratization efforts, organized labour in Namibia has faced numerous constraints and challenges. As in the rest of Africa, however, active engagement by trade unions and other popular sectors is sorely needed if Namibia's fragile democracy is to be consolidated.

Trade unions in their present form have existed in Namibia for just over a decade. There are two trade union federations representing over 118,000 workers [see Box]. The major trade union federation, the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), is comprised of eight member unions and has an estimated "total rank and file membership" of 88,000. A second trade union federation, known as the Namibia People's Social Movement (NPSM), has a membership estimated to be more than 30,000.

Just as Namibia only gained its independence from South Africa in 1990, decades after most African countries won their independence, so too were workers in Namibia only able to organize themselves into trade unions much later than workers elsewhere in Africa. While initial attempts were made among fishworkers in Luderitz in the 1920s, Luderitz and Walvis Bay in the 1950s, and among mineworkers at several mines around Namibia in the 1970s, none of these efforts survived persistent persecution by colonial authorities and a completely hostile legal environment. Indeed black workers only came to be legally classified as `employees' in 1978 in Namibia and thus were only able to form and join trade unions from 1978. At the same time, prohibitions against political party affiliations continued to hamper the emergence of mass-based unions in Namibia even after 1978. While a number of the unions of the NPSM grew out of early white staff associations, the unions of the NUNW only emerged in the mid to late 1980s during a groundswell of community-based organizing in urban townships around Namibia.

Today organized workers in Namibia make up roughly half of the formal sector labour force. The formal sector workforce in Namibia is estimated at about 230,000 people out of a total economically active population of about 500,000; those not in the formal sector are primarily to be found in subsistence agriculture. Moreover, workers are particularly well organized in such strategic export sectors as mining and in the public service where they confront the largest single employer in the country - the government.

Just as important as their relatively strong numbers, trade unions in Namibia today face a generally favourable legal environment. For decades the leading liberation organization, the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), drew consistent and loyal support from among Namibia's sizable migrant labour force - not surprising given the link between exploitative labour relations and oppressive colonial relations in South African occupied Namibia. One of SWAPO's early stated priorities after Independence, as it took on the role of ruling party in government, was to legislate a new labour relations dispensation. The new labour law, finally implemented in late 1992, represents a dramatic gain for Namibian workers by, for the first time, introducing the notion of unfair labour practices.

Moreover, in the new Labour Act, employees may only be dismissed for a valid reason and in a fair way, and the onus lies with employers to show that disciplinary actions and dismissals have indeed been fair. Minimum wages can now be introduced in specific sectors of the economy following the directives of a Wages Commission, and Namibian workers have an extensive, though qualified, right to strike. Labour relations have been decriminalized with complaints processed in newly established district labour courts. Union members are allowed access to employer premises for the purposes of organizing workers, and unions must no longer demonstrate `representativeness' in registering with the Labour Commissioner. In general, the new labour relations dispensation in Namibia is based on the principle of tripartism - of consultation and cooperation among the state, workers and employers. Unfortunately for the unions, an overriding concern remains whether they have the overall capacity, political clout and economic muscle to participate effectively in new tripartite arrangements.

While the formal labour relations framework is a favourable one, current economic and social indicators are less promising for unions and their members. As a result of decades of apartheid policies, Namibia suffers from significant inequalities of wealth and income and access to public services that correspond closely to racial and ethnic categories. The legacy of apartheid rule in Namibia will take years to undo, and early reports indicate that in workplaces throughout Namibia - especially on commercial farms, but also in factories, on the mines and in other smaller worksites - past attitudes and practices endure. To most trade unionists, employers remain a formidable opponent with superior financial, material and human resources and as such are much better positioned to influence government than are the unions.

Limitations of the Namibian economy

Many factors combine to erode the position of organized labour in Namibia. First, the limitations of the Namibian economy, and especially the very small manufacturing sector, do not bode well for a strong trade union movement. Since independence the SWAPO government has committed itself to a mixed economy in which the private sector acts as the engine of economic growth and recovery. The government's development priorities involve reviving and sustaining economic growth, creating employment opportunities, alleviating poverty and reducing the aforementioned income inequalities. The outstanding characteristic of the Namibian economy remains the overwhelming but declining significance of the primary sector (mining, fishing and commercial agriculture) and the economy's export orientation (minerals, fish and beef).

Given the protracted weakness of regional and international economies and persistent tension in some commodity markets (diamonds, copper, uranium) on which Namibia relies heavily, since independence the Namibian economy has not expanded at rates which could be described as its full potential growth. Moreover, even economic growth rates of up to 3.5 percent annually barely keep up with the population growth rate. Still, considerable progress has been made in reviving and developing the fishing sector and key industries in the manufacturing sector (construction and fish and meat processing). Steady growth in agricultural output and a post-independence expansion of government functions and services have also been experienced. In general, the atmosphere of peace and stability (and a favourable Investment Code enacted in 1990) have played a significant role in enhancing the investment climate.

The Namibian government's own recent [ital] Economic Review [ital] predicts that Namibia's economic prospects for the mid to late 1990s are favourable. The projection hinges mainly on the mild economic upswing expected in the world economy and in South Africa (Namibia's largest trading partner). Growth rates of more than five percent are predicted for the mid to late 1990s. A number of factors will determine the future outlook, including: climactic conditions (already improved in 1994) and beef prices, diamond output and offshore marine operations, uranium output and export prices, and the expansion of the fishing industry.

Ties that bind: unions and SWAPO

While the limitations of the Namibian economy do not encourage a strong union movement, a number of other factors combine to further erode the position of organized labour in Namibia. One issue that has dominated the trade union movement more or less since independence has been that of the NUNW's affiliation to the ruling party SWAPO. The longstanding support of many Namibian workers for SWAPO has been noted; but the ties run deeper still. From 1970 among SWAPO in exile an NUNW was established and run out of the SWAPO Department of Labour. Moreover, key SWAPO cadres (former SWAPO combatants released from Robben Island in the mid 1980s) were instrumental in the final formation of the NUNW and its member unions inside Namibia. From the 1989 election onward, the NUNW and affiliated unions have participated actively in SWAPO election campaigns.

The NUNW's affiliation to SWAPO was formally reaffirmed at the federation's first congress after independence in 1991. Affiliation was challenged by member unions, including MUN and NANTU, at the NUNW's second congress in late 1993 but the challenge was defeated without even being voted upon by congress delegates. During 1995, the NUNW sought to clarify the meaning of its affiliation to SWAPO through the adoption of a formal accord with SWAPO. By mid 1995, however, little progress had been made on the accord, reportedly because of a lack of response from the party.

Those who support affiliation maintain that it ensures union input into party and government decision making processes; in any case, the relationship between workers and SWAPO is considered to be a historically tested and mutually beneficial one. Those who oppose the NUNW's continued affiliation to SWAPO charge that it prevents the unions from developing their own programs and identity as many workers fail to distinguish between the two; many fear that affiliation subordinates the unions to the party making trade union leadership accountable to the party leadership rather than to their rank and file members. There is a strong sense that the unions' support is taken for granted by party leadership. Finally, some fear that political party affiliation prevents those who are not SWAPO members from joining the NUNW, and it certainly has been an impediment to trade union unity in the past.

Several very unambiguous statements by SWAPO officials since independence have indicated just how seriously and unfavourably some within SWAPO view the potential disaffiliation of the NUNW from the party. When then General Secretary Bernhardt Esau announced in March 1994 that the federation was considering forming its own political party, his comments were "greeted with consternation in some union, SWAPO and even state security circles," according to [ital] The Namibian [ital]. Esau was summoned to SWAPO headquarters and quickly retracted his statement.

During the years of exile, some SWAPO leaders reportedly voiced just this fear, that the unions might ultimately attempt to form a separate party. Indeed, many in Namibia feel that the potential is very strong for a split within SWAPO with, for example, union members joining together with the Namibian National Students Organisation (NANSO), which long ago disaffiliated from SWAPO and has suffered dearly for it. Alternatively, union members could join with the Namibian Non-Governmental Organisation Forum (NANGOF), a recently formed non-governmental organization [NGO] umbrella group, and perhaps even members of the SWAPO Youth League, to form a new party. Moreover, many speculate that this is the only way in which a viable opposition political party will ever emerge in Namibia.

The issue of affiliation has also been one of the main factors inhibiting unity between the two major trade union federations. Not surprisingly, there has been intermittent talk of the need for labour unity in a country where more than 15 unions represent just over 100,000 workers. In 1995, trade unions came together for formal unity talks, issuing a document containing 20 points of agreement and six of disagreement. At the least, delegates agreed on the need for the establishment of a forum representing all Namibian unions in order to be able to discuss common socioeconomic concerns and input into national policy making. According to [ital] The Namibian Worker [ital], most of the delegates to the talks indicated their wish to form a single umbrella body for Namibian trade unions.

Since independence Namibian unions have not only been pursuing unity talks with each other, but they have continued to work closely with other community-based organizations (CBOs). As noted, the NUNW unions emerged during a period of heightened grassroots activity in Namibia, and there has long been an overlap among those active in the unions, churches, student and women's organizations and NGOs in general. This collaboration was manifest most clearly in September 1994 when the unions joined forces with a number of NGOs to convene their own conference on land reform in Namibia. The groups charged that the government had failed to competently address the land question in Namibia. Moreover, according to the unions and NGOs, land grabbing by government officials was rampant in the communal areas of Namibia. The land issue in Namibia is one around which numerous groups remain agitated. Other issues that have preoccupied the unions since independence have included the enactment of social security legislation (containing maternity benefits for women workers), public sector negotiations and union input into various reform processes, for example, in education.

The most recent concern of trade unionists in Namibia, however, has been the proposed establishment of export processing zones (EPZs) in the country and particularly in Walvis Bay (returned to Namibia in February 1994). While the unions have not objected to the notion of EPZs in and of themselves, they objected strongly to the government's attempt to have Namibia's progressive labour law not apply in the EPZs. For months during 1995, union and government leaders attempted to reach an agreement, with government calling the unions' attitude `confrontational' and the `wrangling' between the two sides `unfortunate,' and the unions threatening to take the government to court over the matter.

Ultimately, both sides agreed to a compromise. The Labour Act would apply in EPZs, but EPZs would be considered essential service areas and thus strikes and lock-outs would be prohibited. For the unions, however, this has been just one more instance of the government not consulting properly with the unions on a major policy issue directly affecting them and their membership. In March, NUNW President Israel Kalenga described the problem of the EPZs as one of "gravity and magnitude" for Namibian workers; in the days before the EPZ Amendment Bill was to be taken up in Parliament he warned the government that Namibian workers would not be "sacrificed" for their cheap labour.

An uncertain future?

For the NUNW unions, input into policy making might be both an opportunity and a threat, as they lose more and more of their cadres to influential government positions. After the December 1994 National Assembly and Presidential elections, the NUNW and member unions lost three more of their top leaders (also SWAPO Central Committee members) - Bernhardt Esau, John Shaetonhodi and Walter Kemba - to SWAPO seats in the National Assembly. On the one hand, this may be merely further evidence of the co-optation of union leadership by the party with little benefit to the unions. On the other hand, it may offer the chance for greater representation of worker interests in Namibia or for a more militant leadership to come to assert itself within the unions.

Ten years after their emergence, unions in Namibia, in particular the unions of the NUNW, continue to face an uncertain future. Overall membership in the federation has grown considerably in the last few years and several member unions have strengthened markedly their organizational, administrative and financial capacities. The unions are servicing their members better than ever before, they are taking advantage of the experience and expertise of regional and international affiliates, and they are conducting myriad educational and training programs for their own members. While still lacking in the requisite research capacity, the unions have recognized the need to represent their members' interests in national policy debates, and on a few occasions have joined together with national NGOs and CBOs to do so.

But in many respects the unions' future direction seems fundamentally tied to that of the ruling party, SWAPO, and broader political developments in Namibia. With every election SWAPO grows stronger and the fledgling opposition parties ever weaker. In such an environment an active and insistent civil society - including vocal trade unions - is all the more crucial to Namibia's attempt to consolidate its nascent democracy.



National Union of Namibian Workers

* Namibia Public Workers Union
* Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union
* Namibia Food and Allied Workers Union
* Namibia Transport and Allied Workers Union
* Namibia National Teachers Union
* Mineworkers Union of Namibia
* Namibia Domestic and Allied Workers Union
* Namibia Farm Workers Union

Total membership: approximately 88,000


Namibia People's Social Movement

* Public Service Union of Namibia
* Namibia Building Workers Union
* Local Authorities Union of Namibia
* Namibia Wholesale and Retail Workers Union
* South West Africa Mineworkers Union
* Bank Workers Union of Namibia

Total membership: approximately 30,000

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