The sun was setting in the blue Namibian sky as we drove into the small town of Karibib on the edge of the Namib desert.
Our guide was Comrade Gabriel ‘Samora’ Ithete — organiser for the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW). He took us to the home of Comrade Elia Kayamo — NUNW organiser for Karibib.
We sat down in the small living room under a huge poster of Herman Toivo ja Toivo — father of the struggle for freedom in Namibia
Late that night, after speaking to Elia Kayamo and many of his comrades, we left the small house in Karibib to continue our three – day trip around Namibia. And everywhere we went, the story was the same.
Workers told us of wages as low as R50 a month. They told us of being fired without warning. They spoke about compounds for workers that look like jails.
But we did not only hear about the hardships and the suffering. We heard how the workers of Namibia are standing together and fighting back. In the last 18 months, the NUNW has grown from strength to strength. It has spread like wildfire.
In every town we saw workers walking in the streets with the bright red, blue and green T-shirts of the NUNW on their backs. Like the rains that sometimes bring flowers to the desert, the NUNW has brought hope and a new spirit to the dry townships of Namibia.
WEALTH UNDER THE EARTH
On the way out of Karibib, Samora told us that Namibia was a huge country, more than half the size of South Africa.
The country looked dry and poor — but under the ground there are diamonds, copper, gold, tin, uranium and coal. The sea is full of fish and the farmland is good for cattle, he said.
This huge country has only one and a half million people — about the same number of people that live in Soweto. Most of these people are workers on the farms, factories and mines, said Samora.
Thirty kilometres down the road from Swakopmund, amongst the white sand dunes of the Namib desert, is a town called Walvis Bay. It is one of the biggest towns in Namibia.
We drove into the township to meet the chairman of the local NUNW branch. He wasn’t home. But just then a man called Daniel walked past. He stopped for a chat — and we found out that he too was a member of the NUNW.
Daniel works for the municipality and lives in the compound nearby. “The compound is surrounded by barbed wire. It has no windows on the outside room. There are no doors on the toilets. The beds are made of concrete and have no mattresses,” he said.
“Sometimes our wives and children come to visit us. If they come into the compound, they can be arrested. That is why we are joining the union. We want to push the Boer so that he can see we are also people.
“The NUNW came to Walvis Bay about a year ago — to fight for a living wage,” said Daniel. “Already about half the workers in the fishing factories, harbour and municipality have joined the union.”
We wanted to go to a meeting in Grootfontein that day — 700 kilometres north of Walvis Bay. So we set off across the hot sands of the Namib desert.
Samora, like many union organisers, is a talker. He used the long hours on the road to tell us about the history of his country. He told us how the Germans first stole the land of Namibia — and how the people fought back.
“In 1904, the German rulers decided to wipe out the Herero people,” said Samora. “Their armies used machine guns to kill the Herero men. They stabbed women and children to death. And they poisoned the water near Herero villages. In these wars, more than 60,000 out of the 80,000 Herero people in Namibia were killed.”
Then the Germans decided to stop the killings. They needed the men and women of Namibia to work the land and the mines of the country. So they turned the land into one big prison for workers, said Samora.
“After World War One, South Africa took over the country from the Germans. They told the world that they would rule Namibia until the people were “ready” to rule themselves. In the meantime, they promised to care for the people of Namibia. Today, 60 years later, they are still here,” said Samora.
“Nothing changed under the South Africans. Workers were still forced to leave their homes to work for low wages on farms and mines and factories. They were forced to live in big compounds. The workers had to sign a contract for 20 months.”
The South Africans called this the contract system. Workers called it the ‘odalate’ — the wire. Samora said the contract system made the South Africans rich. They used the workers of Namibia to “dig” the wealth from the land.
BREAKING THE WIRE
The road was long and Samora was still behind the wheel — and still talking. He told us of the long fight to break the ‘wire’ and to chase the South Africans out of Namibia.
“The first union in South Africa was the ICU. Old men in Luderitz here in Namibia remember how the ICU came to their town in the 1920’s,” said Samora.
“In 1949, the Food and Canning Workers Union organised workers in the fish factories in Luderitz and Walvis Bay. In those years there were many strikes as workers fought for a better life under the wire.”
“Then in 1959 Herman Toivo ja Toivo started an organisation to fight the contract system. The organisation was called the Ovamboland People’s Organisation. In 1960 it changed its name to the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo). Today Swapo is the biggest group fighting to get South Africa out of the country.”
THE BIG STRIKE
We were feeling sleepy. But Samora, like many organisers, needs very little sleep. He began to talk about how Swapo helped organise the biggest strike in the history of Namibia.
“In 1971, the workers of Namibia decided it was time to break the ‘wire’. Many of them were members of Swapo. They helped plan the big strike which began on December 13 and ended three months later. Nearly 20,000 workers stopped work.
Namibia’s rulers were forced to make some changes to the contract system,” he said.
At that time, workers in South Africa had no strong unions of their own. They watched the strike in Namibia — and they saw the power of unity. So they began to organise unions of their own.
Today those unions, that learned from the workers of Namibia, have come together in the giant Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).
THE SEEDS OF THE NUNW
After spending the night in Grootfontein, we began the long drive back to Windhoek. Samora warmed up quicker than the engine of the car. He began talking about the history of NUNW.
“Workers organised the 1971 strike themselves. There was no union in the country at the time. So Swapo set up the NUNW in 1978. But at that time many Swapo leaders were arrested. Many others left the country to join the army of Swapo,” said Samora.
“So the NUNW faded away. But it did not die completely in the minds of the people. In 1985, many Swapo leaders came back from Robben Island. Some of them got together and decided it was time for the union to live again.”
THE FLOWERS GROW
Now, two years later, the union already has 30,000 members — more than 20 percent of the workers in the shops, mines, hotels, railways and municipalities of Namibia.
In 1986, the new union leaders decided to set up one union for each industry — just like the unions in Cosatu. Today the NUNW is made up of the following industrial unions:
The Namibian Food and Allied Workers’ Union (NAFAU). This is the biggest member of NUNW, with 12,000 members.
The Mineworkers Union of Namibia (MUN) has 10,000 members in the mines around the country.
The Metal and Allied Namibian Workers’ Union (MANWU) has between 8,000 and 10,000 members in the building industry, engineering factories and garages.
The NUNW also has worker committees in the municipalities, post offices and railways. Soon it plans to start a transport union and a union for government workers.
As we got close to Windhoek, Samora began to tell us of the many problems of the NUNW. He told us how he and other union organisers spend their lives on the road. Sometimes they must travel more than 600 kilometres to meet workers.
Since the union started, many workers and union leaders have been arrested and detained. In July, police raided the compounds in Windhoek, Walvis Bay and Luderitz. Many workers were beaten and over 100 were arrested. Last month five of the top officials of the NUNW were detained and held for a few weeks.
“I’ve been lucky this year,” said Samora. “I have only been in jail for one day. Almost every year I spend a few weeks inside. When I’m not in jail, I spend most of the time on the road. My wife and children don’t see much of me.”
He told us that the law in Namibia is very old. It does not give workers the same rights that they have in South Africa. For example, there is no minimum wage. Bosses can pay workers whatever they like.
Unemployment in Namibia is very high. In Windhoek, one out of every two workers has no job. But there is no fund for unemployed workers — like the UIF in South Africa. There is also no law about unfair dismissals. So bosses can fire workers for the smallest reason — like just talking about joining a union.
THE OLD COMPOUND
Back in Windhoek, Samora took us to the township of Katutura, eight kilometres out of town. The NUNW has set up its offices in an old broken down compound in the township — a building that workers once called “prison”. There we met some of the union organisers. Many of them were walking around in Cosatu T-shirts and track suits.
The organisers told us that the NUNW works closely with its South African brothers and sisters in Cosatu. Some of them went to Cosatu’s big congress in July, where the workers of South Africa promised to fight hand in hand with the members of the NUNW.
The walls of the union office were covered in posters. One of the poster was a picture of an umbrella. Underneath it, standing close together, was a crowd of workers taking shelter from the blazing sun. Such is the new spirit of unity that’s sweeping through the deserts of Namibia!