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Shaun Whittaker

It was the first significant strike by working people since Namibia’s political independence. The strike threw the government into a panic, showing clearly that resistance still exists among the working people. But poor organization, fragmentation of the union movement and a self-interested leadership were major setbacks.

The Namibian national teachers’ strike that lasted almost two weeks from the 29 October until 8 November 2012 represents the most significant political challenge to the SWAPO-led government since political independence. That political action was a watershed moment in Namibian history as it signaled the end of the political honeymoon for the neo-colonial elite. Pambazuka News (PN) conducted an interview with some members of the Marxist Group of Namibia – Harry Boesak, Imelda Whittaker and Mitchell Van Wyk - who played a noteworthy role during the strike.

PN: There is an interesting story about your group publicizing the salary scales of South African teachers in order to show how underpaid the Namibian teachers are given the economic links between these two countries. And this apparently contributed to the call for a national strike?

IMELDA WHITTAKER: The 2012 teachers’ strike in Namibia should be seen against the background of an upswing of militancy throughout the sub-region due to the Marikana massacre in South Africa. Incidentally, the Marxist Group of Namibia organised the largest protest outside South Africa against that massacre, in front of the South African High Commission in Windhoek. We also held our first socialist conference around that time and were surprised by the good turnout. Subsequently I was invited by the Khomas Region of the Namibian National Teachers’ Union (NANTU) on the 24 October that year to be a speaker at an event to determine the way forward for teachers in terms of their struggle for a decent salary. I took with me a pamphlet about a Sunday Times article that showed the salary scales of South African teachers, and the Namibian teachers were greatly angered by the huge differences.  

PN: What were the main reasons why teachers went out on strike?

HARRY BOESAK: Neo-liberalism had arrived at the Ministry of Education. Teachers have not had an increase in salaries since at least 2010, and were demanding a 40% salary raise, and monthly allowances for accommodation and transport, and so forth. They were generally becoming fed-up with the ineffective teachers’ union that had lost its militancy and that had a trade union leadership only focused on their self-interest. That leadership was dreaming about a top job in government for themselves and was not drawn to any struggle for a better salary or better working conditions. The last straw for teachers was when they discovered that the NANTU leadership was only negotiating with government regarding issues that should have been completed in December 2011, but that salary increases were not even discussed. Teachers had also not received the 14% increase that was promised in October 2011.

PN: Where did the strike start or was it a national strike from the beginning?

MITCHELL VAN WYK: The strike started in the Khomas Region, where the capital city Windhoek is located, but eventually spread throughout the country to all 13 regions. Khomas teachers were dissatisfied with the NANTU leadership, and petitioned them and passed a motion of no confidence in them. Ultimately, it became a national strike and was therefore truly remarkable as the first significant strike by working people since political independence. It showed that combativeness still exists among working people and that teachers represent a crucial layer in terms of the ongoing struggles in an undernourished country. The last teachers’ strike in Namibia was in 1976 during the colonial era.

PN: How successful was the strike in terms of salary increases?

HARRY BOESAK: Unfortunately not very effective. But poor working conditions of teachers were revealed. They also appeared to have been radicalized by the strike as teachers marched proudly with the socialist banner of the Marxist Group and were eager to read our different pamphlets daily.

PN: What were the setbacks of the strike?

MITCHELL VAN WYK: There was fragmentation in the workers’ movement. The secretary general of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW), Evilastus Kaaronda, was unceremoniously suspended on the 1st of November for instigating workers to strike, despite the fact that the NUNW is in an alliance with the ruling SWAPO party. The suspension eventually led to the formation of another trade union federation, the Namibia National Labour Organisation (NANLO). Divisions also surfaced among teachers, for example, when the Teachers’ Union of Namibia (TUN), without proper consultation, decided to legally represent teachers. In fact, all opposition political parties opportunistically tried to hijack the strike for their own purposes, but teachers would have none of it. 

PN: On Friday, 2 November 2012, about 2 000 teachers marched down the main street of the capital city to the High Court when the case about the legality of the strike was heard. Was that the Namibian version of the Arab Spring moment?

IMELDA WHITTAKER: Absolutely. Teachers had marched to the Ministry of Education first to hand over a petition of demands to the minister. Although the strike was declared illegal, the march expressed the unity of teachers from all over the country and the number who showed up for the mass action is substantial in a country with only two million people. That direct action brought Windhoek to a standstill for an hour or so. It represented the highpoint of post-colonial discontent so far. Teachers also booed the leadership of NANTU as they entered the court building.

PN: Teachers met daily at the Khomasdal Sports Stadium, which one could say became their Tahrir Square. The Windhoek municipality eventually refused them entry to this stadium. What happened?

MITCHELL VAN WYK: Teachers had initially picketed in front of the Government Office Park where the Ministry of Education is located, but were removed from there through a government court interdict, which they tore up when they received it. Teachers paid for the Khomasdal Sports Stadium and it became the regular meeting place, but the government was determined to break the strike.

PN: Teachers were harassed and followed by the Namibian security police. Cellphone interference was widespread. The laptop of a strike leader was stolen from her office. A member of the Marxist Group was also pursued. Please tell us what transpired.

HARRY BOESAK: The harassment of teachers started almost immediately after the strike began and the SWAPO government applied tremendous pressure on teachers. Government did not initially know who the members of the interim strike committee were. Some teachers were arrested in northern Namibia and later released without any charges. There were constant attempts to disrupt the strike and cellular phones were monitored, while the laptop of a leader was stolen from inside her classroom at a Windhoek school. Only after a front page article in The Namibian newspaper did they return the laptop. Security police arrived at the former secondary school where I used to teach and I was eventually questioned by them. After threatening to bring a legal representative with me the next time, they left me alone.

PN: What eventually happened to members of the strike committee?

HARRY BOESAK: Some were moved out of Windhoek through promotions. The leader whose laptop was stolen was promoted to a higher position at some rural school, while another strike leader became the advisor of a regional governor far from the capital city.

PN: The teachers’ strike moved towards a general strike and the elite must obviously have panicked?

IMELDA WHITTAKER: Yes, as we said already there was a militant mood in the country and many workers were discussing the possibility of striking, i.e. the nurses, the pilots, the rail and transport workers, the communication workers, the power utility workers, the pension fund workers, the Coca-Cola workers, etc. The taxi drivers offered to transport teachers for free and a message of support came from Marikana workers. Around that time we and some teachers also picketed at the SWAPO Congress and at a World Bank education conference in Windhoek. There was a real Gramscian moment in the country. The logical action was to move all that political energy towards a general strike, but this unfortunately did not materialise.

PN: The Marxist Group was also active in distributing various pamphlets. What did they focus on and what were you trying to achieve? What were the political lessons for your group?

IMELDA WHITTAKER: Pamphlets focused on neoliberal education, neoliberal health, social housing, ownership of mineral wealth, etc. We tried to politically educate on a different topic every day of the strike. But there were many crucial lessons for us. Good preparation for a strike is always necessary. The entire leadership should be carefully scrutinized. Careerists and political opportunists should be excluded, while greater accountability from leaders should be demanded. Negotiations should take place in the open and no secret discussions should be allowed. There should be regular updates when negotiations take place, but a militant network should always be maintained – especially as teachers have been compelled to stay in NANTU. Teachers should be informed about their labour rights and a serious effort at political education should be undertaken. Our teachers should initiate their own newsletter or effective means of communication and be less reliant on cellular phones or conservative media. 

MITCHELL VAN WYK: Consideration should be given to include all school workers in the teachers’ union, namely, to involve secretaries, janitors, students, parents, etc. This would make it easier to involve broader layers of society when a strike happens. Nationwide consultation with all the teachers in the Namibian regions should always occur. Besides joint committees with parents, students and the rest of the community, workers’ committees with other public sector workers and the rest of the working class should be set up. Maximum unity is always vital. Greater solidarity with teachers’ organizations in the southern African sub-region should be established. In the final analysis, teachers should realise that the most effective political direction to move towards is always a general strike.

PN: What was the lasting effect of the strike?

MITCHELL VAN WYK: Most teachers canceled their stop orders for union membership as they wished to resign, but the Ministry of Education refused to accept that. So, against their will, teachers have been forced to remain in NANTU. This is significant because NANTU is the biggest union in the NUNW. Another strike occurred in 2016, but seemed to have been stage managed by the ineffective NANTU leadership. Next time the NANTU leaders might not be able to contain teachers. The struggle is far from over.