As a young reporter during the conflict era of Namibia, I travelled the length and breadth of this country covering political and labour related issues. I recall attending numerous political and workers’ rallies. I recall the Bernhardt Esaus, the Peter Ilongas, the Ben Ulengas, Loide Kasingos and many others addressing packed May Day rallies and leading marches of thousands of workers – the last march being on April 1, 1989. Of course this was the time when the workers’ struggle was intrinsically linked to the political liberation of the country. So, independence dawned and the Esaus, Ilongas, Ulengas and the Kasingos joined the Swapo government as deputy ministers, but have never graduated to the grade of full Cabinet ministers. These are leaders who could keep tired workers on their feet for up to five hours with militant speeches. Although they were not in the mould of Lenin and Castro, they were ideologically motivated and could clearly articulate issues that were close to the heart of the working class. But lately, questions are asked whether trade union leaders who ascended to government are really articulating and representing the interest of those who have made it possible for them to sit in parliament. Occasionally, I hear the lone voice of Peter Ilonga coming in defence of workers’ rights and condemning capitalism. Obviously, the Swapo government has a responsibility to care for the entire nation, which happens to represent conflicting and contradicting interests especially capital and the working class. The first post-independence victory for the workers came in the form of entrenched rights of freedom of assembly and association and of course the Labour Act of 1990, which gave workers some form of dignity and required employers to follow specific procedures in disciplining workers. These developments closed the chapter of random hiring and firing of workers. But then the issue of investors complaining about strikes and workers yielding too much power reared its head. And government, needing investment that would create much needed jobs, succumbed to the pressure of capital and introduced the Export Processing Zones law, where some of the rights provided for in the Labour Act would not be applicable, such as trade union activity and strikes. This was certainly a victory for capital, where workers’ rights were compromised in favour of the rich and powerful. During the parliamentary debate on this act, the voices of labour were conspicuous by their silence. And ironically the bill was introduced by the Ministry of Trade and Industry, whose deputy minister came from the ranks of the trade union movement. And on the eve of the National Union of Namibian Workers’ (NUNW) congress this weekend and also the Workers Day on May 1, the federation has seen unprecedented infighting within its leadership. But, do these infightings have anything to do with workers’ issues? No! – By admission of some of the leaders, who appear to be on the losing side of the battle. As an outside observer, I sense that the fight is about which Swapo camp controls the industrial unions and ultimately the NUNW. The conflicts currently unfolding in the trade union movement are no different from what we saw in the run-up and the eventual Extra Ordinary Swapo Congress in 2004. In the same year, a May Day rally that was to be addressed by the former Minister of Foreign Affairs Hidipo Hamutenya at the construction site of the northern railway line was boycotted. Does this tell us something about the political who is who within Swapo and the trade unions? The weekend congress should accord the leaders the opportunity to reflect on whether they are really focusing on the very issues that justify their existence. The workers should ask their leaders whether or not they use the trade unions as a launching pad for their political ambitions. I salute the workers and call on them to celebrate May Day in the same fashion as before independence. Long Live the Working Class Struggle.
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