Foreign Policy Blogs

At a Crossroads: Unionism in Post-Independence Namibia

The National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), an umbrella body of affiliated Namibian workers unions in public and private sector, is winding down its national congress in the capital under the theme of “Back to Basics.” Back to basics is a befitting theme because the congress is taking place at a time when Namibia’s largest trade union is embroiled in what Cuana Angula (writing in the Namibian newspaper) calls a “battle for the soul of the union” as members tussling out on bread and butter issues affecting Namibian workers, including corruption, accountability, leadership, and worker control.  Hot on the agenda is the umbrella union’s perceived drifting away from its pre-independent notion of social activism that challenged and confronted domination, inequalities, and injustices, including whether to allow union leadership to serve in management structures of private companies, government, and parastatals.

The NUNW’s attempt to do self-introspection arises within the context of the umbrella body’s continuing affiliation with the ruling party South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO).  Immediately after independence in 1990, the once vocal and vibrant NUNW aligned itself with SWAPO. Why? The belief that SWAPO stands for democracy, progressivism, and a pro-worker platform played a role in the move to affiliate.

Those who support affiliation are convinced that affiliation provides a strategic opportunity for the trade unions to influence policies from within, thereby providing Namibian workers an inside advantage. This view stresses the historical link between the party and union, and the belief that independence created incentives for a collaborative relationship between the government and the union.  Therefore democratic dispensation requires a union to adapt to new roles which are not adversarial to the government, so it is argued. Commenting on a facebook discussion about this issues, Dr Ngurare argues that from the perspective of the Swapo party constitution, “the affiliation accord entered into between SWAPO and NUNW, if fully implemented, would have made NUNW the best and most effective watch dog ever to the ruling party.”

Critics disagree, and argue that the affiliation has reversed the gains made by workers because it compromised the federation’s mediating function between the state and workers as unions lose more and more of their independent and influential voices to the powers that be.  To date, it is believed that the boundary between NUNW and the SWAPO party is hard to distinguish due to a growing trend toward controlled union activism, an activism defined by loyalty and patriotism on the part of the mother union. The historical linkage, accompanied by patriotism, loyalty and nationalism, is believed to have pushed the federation to the center-right of politics as most of its leaders have assumed, including the outspoken ones, ministerial positions or joined the parliament on the SWAPO ticket, and they have become staunch supporters of demanding workers’ loyalty and discipline to SWAPO.

In addition, post-independence has seen an increasing move toward policies that not only legitimate patterns of economic and social inequalities, but benefit the union’s top leadership, what my good friend Jade McClune would call as  ‘trade capitalism’ replacing trade unionism, at the expense of the workers.

Therefore it is argued that the only way to sharpen the voices and agendas of workers is through a non-affiliation working relationship. The NUNW and its affiliate unions were at the forefront of the national liberation politics, serving as a vehicle for pre-independence activism in Namibia.  Organized through mass-based groups (such as workers’ unions and student organizations) and other popular sectors (youth groups, community groups and churches) not only did trade unions provide crucial impetus for Namibia’s independence, but they also served as a vehicle for participation and representation for Namibia’s poor and working class masses.

Well, with Namibia’s independence in 1990, it was optimistically hoped that the post-independent Namibia would strengthen Namibia’s workers unions, and provide them and other marginalized groups new opportunities to fight social inequalities.  But,  we are now at the crossroads, and it’s not clear whether the movement will turn toward justice or blind loyalty.  In my opinion, crossroads are nothing but trouble! However, whatever the outcome of this congress, I hope the workers of Namibia win!



Ndumba J. Kamwanyah

Ndumba Jonnah Kamwanyah, a native of Namibia in Southern Africa, is an independent consultant providing trusted advice and capacity building through training, research, and social impact analysis to customers around the world. Mos recently Ndumba returned from a consulting assignment in Liberia in support of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
In his recent previous life Ndumba taught (as an Adjunct Professor) traditional justice and indigenous African political institutions in sub-Saharan Africa at the Rhode Island College-Anthropology Department.

He is very passionate about democracy development and peace-building, and considers himself as a street researcher interested in the politics of everyday life.
Twitter: NdumbaKamwanyah