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Since independence, Namibian trade unions have failed to mount a coherent challenge to the market-driven economic policies embraced by the ruling party despite its socialist rhetoric. The labour movement needs to build a counter-hegemony, which requires a new form of social movement unionism through which working-class interests could be articulated beyond the point of production, in alliance with other socially excluded groups.

Despite its small population of just over two million people, Namibia has almost 40 trade unions split into three federations. The largest trade union federation is the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), which represents an estimated 60 000–70 000 workers. The NUNW played a key role during Namibia’s liberation struggle, and continues to be affiliated to the South West Africa People’s Organisation (swapo), which is the ruling party since independence. Namibia’s second trade union federation is the Trade Union Congress of Namibia (TUCNA), which represents an estimated 40 000 to 50 000 workers, and was formed in 2002 by unions that rejected the nunw’s party political link (Jauch 2004).  The third trade union federation, the Namibia National Labour Organisation (NANLO), is much smaller with just a few thousand members, and emerged in 2014 following the dismissal of the former NUNW general secretary, who then established a new federation.

These three union federations differ substantially in terms of their historical backgrounds, as the NUNW was always closely linked with SWAPO, while TUCNA represents most of those unions which want to operate independently from political parties. NANLO is essentially a break-away from the NUNW, and is currently not linked to a political party.  In ideological terms, the three federations are fairly similar beyond the question of the union-party linkage.  They focus predominantly on “bread and butter” issues and generally operate within a social-democratic framework. At present, none of them advocates for a more radical break with the existing socio-economic order.

The issue of trade unions and politics has been central in the history of the Namibian labour movement, and thus will feature prominently in this article.  Other aspects that are briefly outlined are the internal divisions, ideological contradictions and the unions’ attempts to overcome racism and patriarchy.

The link between labour and politics from a historic perspective

In order to contextualise the issue of unions and politics, it is necessary to briefly reflect on the historic roles played by workers in Namibia’s liberation struggle. The nunw’s history is closely linked to that of swapo, as contract workers formed a central component of the party in its formative years. The plight of contract workers – mostly from northern Namibia – was first taken up by the Ovamboland People’s Congress (opc), which was founded in Cape Town in 1957 mainly by students and intellectuals. Migrant workers in the Namibian compounds responded enthusiastically to the opc, which expressed their aspirations. In 1958 the opc became the Ovamboland People’s Organisation (opo), its central aim being to abolish the contract labour system. The opo’s demands for “political, social and economic emancipation of the people” reflected the aspiration of the workers in the compounds. Its message was also spread to the rural areas through returning migrant workers. In 1960 the opo was transformed into a national liberation movement – swapo. Its aim was to establish a unified, independent and democratic Namibia, free from colonial exploitation and oppression (see Katjavivi 1988; Moleah 1983; Peltola 1995).

Following swapo’s consultative congress in Tanga, Tanzania, in 1969/70, several new departments were established within the party, including a labour department whose function was primarily to represent Namibian workers at international fora such as the International Labour Organisation (ilo). Another aspect of its work in exile was to train trade unionists under the name of the nunw in the Soviet Union and Angola (Peltola 1995).

For Namibian workers inside the country, the class struggle was intertwined with the struggle against racial discrimination and white minority domination. The class struggle waged by workers was seen as one and the same as the liberation struggle waged by swapo (Peltola 1995). Thus class differences were blurred and trade unions (membership and leadership alike) regarded themselves less as representing a particular class, than as an integral part of a broader national liberation movement opposed to apartheid colonialism. 

A particularly important act of workers’ defiance under colonial rule was the general strike of 1971-72.  Despite the absence of trade unions at the time, it lasted for more than 5 weeks, with over 13 000 migrant workers from northern Namibia participating, bringing the mining industry to a halt, and affecting fishing, farming, communications and transport. The strike was politically motivated and expressed long-standing grievances against the contract labour system. It showed the growing militancy amongst black workers, and although they lacked the organisational capacity to win all their demands in the face of oppression by employers and the colonial state, they had sent a powerful signal that they were no longer willing to accept the colonial status quo (Bauer 1998, Peltola 1995; LaRRI 2010).

The nunw unions were formally established from 1986 onwards, and provided workers with an organisational vehicle through which they could take up workplace grievances, as well as broader political issues, which were always seen as linked to the economic struggle. This occurred firmly within the swapo fold as the nunw unions openly declared their allegiance to the liberation struggle and to swapo as the leading organisation in the fight for independence. The exiled and internal wings of the nunw were merged during a consolidation congress held in Windhoek in 1989.

At that time, the nunw unions inside Namibia had already established themselves and were a formidable force among grassroots organisations. They enjoyed huge support even beyond their membership, and played a critical role in ensuring swapo’s victory in the elections of 1989 (Bauer 1997, Jauch 2007). They linked exploitation at the workplace to the broader struggle against racial and political oppression. Thus the trend in Namibia conformed to that observed in many African states, where trade unions played a key role in the democratisation process. Sidibe and Venturi (1998) attribute this to three major factors which enabled trade unions to play that role: firstly, their long history of struggle; secondly, their massive potential for organisation and action; and thirdly, their expectation that democracy would benefit workers and trade unions.

Changes after independence

The nunw maintained its links with swapo after independence through its continued affiliation to the ruling party, but the political role played by trade unions diminished significantly. Namibian trade unionists are aware that the question of the nunw’s political affiliation to swapo lies at the heart of the current divisions within the Namibian labour movement. Trade unions outside the NUNW charge that a labour movement cannot act independently and play the role of a watchdog over government as long as it is linked to the ruling party. There is also a growing public perception that the nunw is merely a workers’ wing of the ruling party, although the nunw and its affiliates have on several occasions been vocal critics of government policies (Jauch 2007).

Prospects for a mass workers’ party?

Historically, swapo has claimed to play the vanguard role in the liberation struggle of the oppressed and exploited people of Namibia. Swapo’s political programme of 1976 was characterised by socialist rhetoric, inspired by the newly won independence of Mozambique and Angola and by the support rendered by the Soviet Union to Namibia’s liberation struggle. It stated that one of swapo’s key tasks was, “to unite all Namibian people, particularly the working class, the peasantry and progressive intellectuals, into a vanguard party capable of safeguarding national independence and of building a classless, non-exploitative society based on the ideals and principles of scientific socialism” (swapo 1981: 275).

However, as the crisis in the Soviet Union deepened in the 1980s, coupled with the counter-revolutionary wars in Angola and Mozambique, and attempts to gain Western support for Namibia’s independence, SWAPO increasingly shifted towards an acceptance of market-driven economic policies.  This was clearly reflected in the party’s policy proposals for an independent Namibia in the late 1980s as well as the election manifesto of 1989.

Thus the achievement of independence in 1990 did not lead to structural transformation and systematic redistribution, but rather to the maintenance of a capitalist economy with emphasis on the protection of private property under a liberal constitution. At the time, there was a widespread expectation among workers that the swapo government would be a “workers’ government,” but revolutionary working-class politics were simply dropped and instead the notion of social partnership was introduced into labour relations. The SWAPO government expected trade unions to define a new role within this framework, and although the nunw had previously called for more radical change, it accepted the new framework with little resistance.

Since independence, trade unions have failed to mount a coherent challenge to the market-driven economic policies, and they were unable to alter what Gramsci termed “bourgeois hegemony” (Simon 1991). The Namibian labour movement (as a whole, not just the NUNW) failed to build a counter-hegemony which would have required a new form of social movement unionism through which working-class interests could be articulated beyond the point of production, in alliance with other socially excluded groups. Such a strategy had been implemented with some success during the second half of the 1980s, when a broad alliance of trade unions, churches, students’ and women’s organisations opposed the colonial apartheid regime. However, with the attainment of independence, the leading civil society organisations were demobilised and decision-making power shifted decisively towards party and government structures.

As the leaders of the liberation movement entered the corridors of state power, they aligned themselves with the interests of both local and international capital, and encountered little resistance to their chartered course of establishing a stable environment for non-racial capitalism in an independent Namibia. The secondary role allocated to trade unions and working-class interests was reflected in the way tripartism and social partnership became the cornerstone of labour relations after independence.

Despite conservative economic policies such as the introduction of Export Processing Zones (EPZs) and the ongoing power imbalance between business and labour, Namibia’s trade unions have not contemplated the formation of a mass workers’ party or any other organisational vehicle to drive working class interests more forcefully in the political arena.  This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future as SWAPO continues to enjoy strong popular support, with the NUNW remaining a political ally, although weakened and characterised by internal divisions.

Ideological contradictions

Overall, Namibia’s trade unions are characterised by a lack of ideological clarity, and statements by various union leaders point to ideological contradictions. Sentiments of radical nationalism and liberation, for example, on the land issue, have been combined with an acceptance of neoliberalism as the ideology of the “free market”. As trade union leaders entered company boards as part of a poorly defined union investment strategy, their views (and interests) increasingly converged with those of government and business. Also, some trade union leaders are now occupying management positions in the public and private sectors, which contradicts the principle of worker control within unions. These developments point to a lack of clarity regarding the working-class base of the labour movement, and whose interests it is meant to serve. 

Those unions that oppose the nunw’s link to swapo do not base their position on an explicit working-class ideology, but claim allegiance to a “non-political” trade union independence, which essentially amounts to confining labour’s role narrowly to the economic sphere without challenging capital’s hegemony through ideological and political struggles. However, in 2014-2015, TUCNA developed its own policy proposals on a wide range of issues, such as economic transformation, participatory democracy, redistribution of resources and social development.  Although the document does not constitute a radical socialist declaration, its existence indicates an intention to move beyond the narrow confines of tripartism and to engage in broader policy issues in the years to come.  TUCNA has also proposed a move towards joint decision-making by the tripartite Labour Advisory Council (LAC) to strengthen labour’s voice beyond mere consultations.

The crisis of representation

Like trade unions elsewhere, the Namibian labour movement was confronted with the threat of a dwindling membership base due to the increasing “casualization” of work, the increase in “flexible” forms of employment and a growing informalisation of the economy. In an attempt to cut labour costs and to curb trade union influence, employers in various economic sectors, including retail, fishing, mining, hospitality and manufacturing, resorted to temporary and casual work contracts for low-skilled workers.

The emergence of labour hire companies (labour brokers), in the late 1990s in particular, highlighted the threat of “casualization” to workers’ incomes, job security and benefits. Due to the insecurity of their contracts, trade unions found it very difficult to recruit and represent “casual” workers and thus trade union membership has become increasingly narrow in focus, covering permanent workers in “traditional” sectors such as the public service, mining, fishing, construction and retail, while unions were unable to reach tens of thousands of workers in precarious working conditions on farms, in private households, at labour hire companies and in the informal economy.

Namibia’s labour market essentially consists of four distinct layers:

1. a small elite enjoying a standard of living comparable to that in “First World” countries;

2. a significant group of formal sector workers with permanent jobs and low to middle incomes;

3. a growing group of casual workers and labour hire workers who are the victims of a labour market that virtually forces them to accept any job under any conditions; and

4. unemployed workers who turned to the informal economy, to sex work or to crime as a last resort (Jauch 2007).

Namibia’s trade unions essentially organise amongst the second group of workers, and thus represent only a section of the working class. However, TUCNA plans to focus on the recruitment of vulnerable workers in the years to come, including farm workers, domestic workers, petrol station workers, security guards, workers at subcontractors and those in the informal economy. This indicates a realisation that unions need to move beyond their traditional membership base to remain relevant for the majority of working people.

Internal divisions

Namibia’s labour movement is characterised by deep divisions, and failed to live up to the proclaimed ideal of “one country, one federation” and “one industry, one union”. A multitude of trade unions grouped into three federations compete with each other for membership, for example, in the fishing, construction and security industries. Due to the political divisions, unions find it difficult to cooperate with each other, even on matters of common interests, and this has often detrimental effects on workers. 

At Shoprite, for example, three unions compete with each other, but none managed to obtain an outright majority.  As a result, the company does not recognise any trade union as the “bargaining agent” and determines conditions of employment unilaterally.  When workers protested against their poor working conditions in 2015 and 2016, they were subjected to disciplinary action, and many of them were dismissed with none of the three unions able to protect them.

A more successful example of “unity of purpose” was provided by Namibian teachers and their unions.  In 2012, a teachers’ strike occurred in protest against low salary increases, and the role played by the officially recognised union (NANTU) in accepting the wage deal without obtaining an explicit mandate from teachers.  A few years later (2016), following protracted negotiations, NANTU rejected government’s wage offer, declared a dispute and pointed to wasteful elite projects that were implemented while social expenditure was cut.  NANTU then called a strike ballot amongst teachers and 95% supported a national strike.  The second teachers’ union (TUN) came out in full support of the strike and after just two days of strike action, the teachers’ key demands were met.

Thus the teachers’ strike has provided an important example of how a kind of “unity of purpose” around the common concerns of union members can be built.  However, in order to address the broader issues affecting the working class (including unemployment, poverty, joblessness, landlessness), trade unions need to explore ways of becoming social movement unions that express themselves on socio-economic and political issues from a working class perspective.  This type of unionism involves forging strategic alliances with organisations that represent excluded and marginalised Namibians, such as shack dwellers and those in the informal economy.

The struggle against racism and patriarchy

Both Namibia’s national liberation struggle, as well as workers’ struggles at the workplace, placed the focus on racism which had shaped Namibia throughout the colonial period. Institutionalised racism during the apartheid era led to workers experiencing racism and exploitation as two sides of the same coin.  Thus workers welcomed the introduction of affirmative action after independence, and frequently fought against incidents of racism at the workplace. 

By their very nature, trade unions are well placed to play a critical role in overcoming racism and tribalism.  Organising at various workplaces provides them with an opportunity to unite workers of various ethnic or “racial” backgrounds around common goals, and in the process overcoming historical divisions.  Unions by and large are determined to fight racism, but the lack of fundamental social and economic transformation since independence has enabled the colonial power structures to survive, and to still shape the distribution of wealth today.  A clear racial, gender and even tribal pattern is apparent in the distribution of Namibia’s wealth and income.  Thus the labour movement will have to operate with a two-pronged strategy: firstly, on the one hand uniting workers from various backgrounds as part of a conscious anti-racism approach.  Secondly, to focus on the structural causes that uphold the skewed distribution of wealth and income.  This will be essential to overcome the colonial legacies that still shape the country.

Namibian unions tend to be less vocal on the question of patriarchy and sexism, and most unions are still male dominated. Several unions (including NUNW, TUCNA and some of their affiliates) have developed their own gender policies which aim to attract more women into unions, and to achieve greater gender balance in union structures. Some unions have set up particular structures for women (such as a “women’s desk”), but indications are that this does not necessarily translate into a change of institutional cultures away from patriarchal practices.  Experiences with gender awareness programmes, such as the one implemented by the Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union (MANWU), reveal deep-seated gender stereotypes and patriarchal attitudes amongst union members.  Thus, taking up gender issues, and achieving substantial gender equality within trade unions, are work in progress.


Namibia’s labour movement faces a host of organisational and political challenges in the years to come.  Unions have not yet managed to address the country’s enormous levels of inequality in a comprehensive way.  They have to deal with poverty, inequality and the clash of interests in a capitalist society, and they need to debate what kind of society they want to build.  In organisational terms, the continuous fragmentation of the labour movement into more and more splinter unions that fight each other, rather than building substantive working class unity and strong bargaining units at workplaces across the country, is certainly not going to benefit Namibian workers.  Attempts by unions to co-operate with each other in order to build a kind of “unity of purpose” are still tentative, but will need to be broadened to avoid a repeat of the ”Shoprite scenario” outlined earlier.

Notions of worker democracy, worker control and social transformation that had just emerged in the late 1980s were not developed into a coherent concept within the labour movement, and were gradually replaced by more hierarchical and bureaucratic forms of organisation in the post-independence era. Given the perpetual high levels of inequality and marginalisation that still characterise Namibia today, the labour movement will have to develop a strategy of how to become an engine of social change, how to deepen its roots in Namibia’s working-class constituency (beyond just those in permanent employment), and how to articulate workers’ interests beyond the workplace. This will require a dedicated cadre of activists and worker leaders who can develop effective strategies to build a counter-hegemonic bloc against capital’s dominant influence in the economic, political and ideological arenas.

Labour’s task of influencing broader socio-economic policies in favour of its working class base is extremely difficult in the face of an onslaught by the neoliberal ideology that both business and to some extent the Namibian government portrayed as the only practical policy option for Namibia. Trade unions on their own might not be able to chart a radical course as they are often preoccupied with short-term achievements around “bread and butter” issues. However, Namibian unions have long experience of struggle and significant potential for organisation and action. They have structures (although sometimes weak) all over the country and a significant membership base. Thus they still have the potential to become an effective pressure group for more fundamental socio-economic change, such as the redistribution of resources towards the poor, and overcoming racist and patriarchal structures and practices.  This, however, will require trade unions to strengthen their internal capacity to engage in economic, political and ideological struggles.  They will have to free themselves from conservative political influences and form alliances with progressive organisations with a view to building a new social bloc to advance working-class interests.

This paper draws substantially from the author’s publication “Serving workers or serving the party? Trade unions and politics in Namibia”, published in “African Trade Unions and Party Politics”, edited by Bjorn Beckham, Sakhela Buhlungu and Lloyd Sachikonye, HSRC, South Africa, 2010.

* Herbert Jauch has served Namibian trade unions in various capacities.  For the past nineteen years, he worked as a labour researcher, carrying out research projects for various Namibian and Southern African unions. Herbert was instrumental in developing a labour studies course for Namibian unions and worked for the trade union-based Labour Resource and Research Institute (LaRRI) in Katutura from 1998 until 2010. He now works as a labour researcher and educator, and heads the education centre of the Metal and Allied Namibian Workers’ Union (MANWU).


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