An interview with John Ya Otto, General Secretary of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW).
In 1959, Sam Nujoma, then the leader of the Ovamboland People’s Organisation, asked a young man to act as an interpreter at a meeting he was having with Baster leaders in Rehoboth. The young man’s name was John Ya Otto.
For Ya Otto, the meeting was to be the beginning of a life dedicated to the struggle of the Namibian people, and to the workers in particular. From 1961-66, he was SWAPO’s Chief Organiser in Namibia when he travelled around Namibia with other SWAPO leaders in SWAPO’s car — an old Ford named “Bluebird.”
After many narrow escapes, he was finally arrested with other SWAPO leaders and detained in Pretoria. He was released in 1968 and banished to Ovambo in northern Namibia. He continued his political work but was eventually forced to flee into exile in 1974, where he was later appointed SWAPO’s Secretary of Labour.
In 1977 SWAPO’s Labour Department formed the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW). The NUNW actively began organising workers in Namibia the next year. It organised workers everywhere — in the hostels, compounds and townships. There were many successful strikes on the mines, like the big one at the mine in Tsumeb. At the end of 1978, the NUNW called for a national strike after 26 workers were shot dead at a demonstration.
It was not long before the government changed the law to make it almost impossible for the NUNW to organise. They also detained NUNW leaders, took its vehicles and funds and eventually closed down its office. The NUNW was forced to go underground. But things changed in 1986, after a SWAPO Youth League rally in Katutura. Many SWAPO members were detained — and it was while they were in detention that plans were made to start organising workers again. In September, the Namibian Food and Allied Workers Union (NAFAWU) was launched — and in November, the Mineworkers Union of Namibia (MUN).
In the following years, other unions sprang up — the Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union (MANWU), the Namibian Public Workers Union (NAPWU), the Namibian Transport and Allied Workers Union (NATAWU), and in March 1989, the Namibian National Teachers Union (NANTU).
In June this year, the six affiliates, representing over 50 000 workers, came together in a National Congress to consolidate the NUNW. At the congress, John Ya Otto, who at that time was still in exile, was elected General Secretary of the NUNW. He returned to Windhoek in June — and it was here that Learn and Teach met and spoke to him.
Learn and Teach: You went into exile in 1974. Can you please tell us about your life in exile and the work you did there?
Ya Otto: Before I left for exile I was acting Secretary General of SWAPO. In exile I held that position until I was elected to the position of Secretary of Labour. That was in August, 1976. I also became the General Secretary of NUNW after it was formed in 1977.
By and large my work in this period was to mobilise world opinion about the harsh working conditions of workers in our country by attending international conferences that dealt with workers’ issues. This led to the recognition of NUNW throughout all the corners of the world. Inside Namibia the federation grew and industrial unions in Namibia sprang up from 1986.
Could you please tell us about the contribution workers have made to the liberation struggle?
I think workers have made a tremendous contribution to the liberation struggle. It began with the establishment of the Ovamboland People’s Organisation (OPO). Workers formed OPO in order to fight against the exploitative conditions and for an end to the notorious contract system that was in existence since the South African regime took over Namibia in the 1920’s. The President of the OPO (Sam Nujoma) was himself a worker on the South African Railways.
From that point of view the workers have played a great role in the liberation struggle of our country. When you look at the armed wing of SWAPO, the members of this army were workers who put down their tools and took up arms to fight oppression in Namibia. In this way workers have played a tremendous role… they will continue to do so in the future.
You are Secretary of Labour in the Politburo. However at the NUNW Consolidation Congress in June you were elected General Secretary of NUNW. It is not yet clear whether you accepted the post. What is the position?
I have confirmed my election. This is a position I have held in the past — the only difference is that it was a position I held outside the country. My role was unique in exile. As General Secretary I was responsible for the building up of the NUNW. As Secretary of Labour I helped to prepare the ground for the Ministry of Labour.
In this regard we trained factory inspectors, industrial relations officers and service officers to ensure that a future Ministry of Labour will be manned by the indigenous people themselves. That was my role as Secretary of Labour.
Will it be possible to hold both positions?
No, it will not be possible to hold both positions — but I prefer the position of General Secretary of NUNW. Leading the workers is something that is very important to me.
Could you please talk about the role of the workers in SWAPO’s election campaign?
It is the desire of the unions that SWAPO comes to power as the political party that will ensure the end of exploitation and bring freedom to our country — a country that has been languishing for over a century under colonialism.
The unions are ensuring that all workers register so they can vote. The unions will also play a role in monitoring the elections to see that they are free and fair. We will see to it that workers will participate fully with a clear view that they should vote for SWAPO. We aren’t forcing workers to vote for SWAPO — it is up to them. But we, the leadership, are of the view that SWAPO is the only party to bring freedom to the workers.
SWAPO has promised sweeping reforms to the laws governing workers. What will be its priorities?
Presently the system is one of exploitation of workers, especially by multinational companies. Low wages, bad working conditions, being forced to live in homelands and only being allowed to leave to work — all these discriminatory laws that workers suffer under just because they have a black skin will immediately be done away with by a SWAPO government.
A new system will be set up in accordance with ILO (International Labour Organisation) conventions and resolutions, with particular reference to Convention 87 which provides for freedom of association, freedom of speech and so on. All these basic human rights denied to workers will be restored by a SWAPO government.
Workers will be paid according to their skills and have a right to stay where they want, together with their families. These are the things that will bring back the integrity of African workers.
At the NUNW Congress in June, an ad hoc committee was elected to look at possible conflict that could arise between the trade unions and a SWAPO government. Do you see a conflict of interests between the unions and a SWAPO government?
I do not really see a conflict of interests. The media was the first to pick up on the conflict that may arise. We have always worked together. The tradition of working together has been very much part of the struggle. We (SWAPO) share the aspirations of the workers. We are one.
Nevertheless, NUNW is an autonomous labour movement, run by workers and controlled by workers — so the NUNW will be controlled by workers, and not by any other person. NUNW is aware of the main objectives of SWAPO and we support those objectives — SWAPO will create a unitary state and a non-exploitative system in which apartheid will not be tolerated.
In no way will the political party be dominant. We have our own rules, our own constitution and leadership — and workers will continue to fight against exploitative conditions and wages. We will fight against multinationals if they cling to the system of exploiting workers. SWAPO will abolish discriminatory laws that employers and multinationals have enjoyed in the past. We hope they cease their old ways and adapt to new realities.
Will there be the right to strike under a SWAPO government?
The right to strike is fundamental — it is the only weapon that workers have to better their conditions. The right to strike will be there — but we will avoid unnecessary strikes. It won’t be the aim of workers to engage in strike action. So workers will have the right to strike — but we believe that our political organisation will create conditions that will avoid the need to strike. We believe that we have a lot of challenges in the task of reconstructing our country, politically and economically. Workers will follow the political organisation in this task.
Can you comment on the relationship between the NUNW and COSATU?
The working relationship between NUNW and COSATU is excellent and we are indebted to COSATU for strengthening the relationship between the two sister movements. They have shared their rich experience in trade unionism and this has enabled us to mobilise workers and to establish in a period of three years six industrial unions. We are confident that the relationship between NUNW and COSATU will grow from strength to strength.
We sent a high-powered delegation to the last COSATU Congress. They came back with very encouraging experiences they gained at the congress and this is one of the ways that has cemented the working relationship between COSATU and NUNW. As we gain independence, NUNW pledges to support COSATU to the bitter end in the struggle against apartheid — a system that can’t be reformed but that has to be destroyed completely. We will fight for that principle at all international forums and in any other way we can. And we will call in a loud, loud voice for the immediate and unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners.
NEW WORDS convention – an official agreement between countries or groups of people notorious – well known for something that is bad or evil consolidation – to consolidate means to strengthen something so that it works better indigenous people – the people who are born in the country where they live a multinational company – a large company with branches in many countries integrity — honest and firm in your principles conflict of interests — when there is a difference in needs and aims between people or groups autonomous – independent