Workers give Nevonga, Iilonga the boot on May Day

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The scene at the 2015 May Day celebrations at the Kuisebmond Stadium in Walvis Bay. Photo source NamibianSun

Reports seeping out of the NUNW Congress in Swakopmund suggest that the former MP Petrus Iilonga was knocked out of the race for the top post of President of Namibia’s largest union federation on Thursday.

According to credible sources, former MP Iilonga — who also headed the Namibia Public Workers Union before leapfrogging into parliament in the mid-1990s — had to be warned that he would be forcibly removed from the building when he refused to leave. The police were reportedly called in.

Keen political observer, Phil ya Nangoloh, the Director of NamRights said

“…the NUNW congress went ahead without much problem last night after Police finally succeeded to eject Ekanda therefrom. Ekanda, as former deputy minister [of defense], Cde Petrus Ilonga is also known, was given five minutes to leave or face being removed through the use of minimum force by Police.”

News reports confirmed that the leader of the Mineworkers Union (MUN) Ismael Kasuto was elected as the new NUNW president.

Nevonga ejected from the race

Ya Nangoloh said the embattled Secretary General of Namibia Public Workers Union (NAPWU), Petrus Nevonga was also “forcibly removed from congress by workers themselves last night.” Nevonga reportedly also ran for the top seat in the NUNW, but was shown the door.

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NAPWU workers protest against the union bosses in November 2014.

The battle within NAPWU (the main representative of civil servants in government negotiations) has been raging on for years. In recent months hundreds of workers, particularly in the lower ranks, have protested against the leadership and left NAPWU in large numbers to join rival unions.

With the rejection of Nevonga’s ambitions by the congress on Thursday, it seems matters have now come to a head. The workers feel, if not for ideological reasons, then intuitively, that we can no longer postpone the fight which lies ahead.

The inner contradiction at the heart of the NUNW — which is tearing it apart — is most clearly expressed in the problem faced by NAPWU, who must represent its members’ interests in the negotiations with central government, while being in strategic alliance with the governing party.

The recent teachers’ strike brought to the fore all the problems contained in this threesome, the tripartheid relationship, between the union bosses, the government and big business. When it comes to a bare-knuckle fight, the union bureaucrats tend to side with the bosses.

This is how the former Secretary General of the NUNW Evilastus Kaaronda came to fall on his sword when he went head to head with the government over the missing pension funds of the GIPF. He was dismissed from the NUNW.

The ambivalence of its position and its relationship with the ruling Swapo Party brings into question the extent to which NAPWU, and indeed the NUNW, can truly represent the interest of the workers, when they are tied politically and umbillically to the policy of the government, i.e. the largest employer in the country.

The union as a stepping stone

Leadership positions in the union are seen as means to access the higher rungs of power, to get cushy parliamentary seats and to climb the ladder to personal wealth and opulence. By firmly shutting the door in Iilonga’s face, the workers made it clear that this is not a revolving door: ‘We have learnt our lesson.’

In South Africa, this fight against the tripartheid alliance has played out slightly differently, inasmuch as the rupture between COSATU and NUMSA, created a very different dynamic, in which the forces aligned to NUMSA are moving very determinedly towards their own independent political formation, a workers’ party: not a party for the workers, but a party of the workers.

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Marine construction workers in Walvis Bay protest against labour conditions at China Harbour Engineering Company in Sept 2014. Photo NamibianSun.

In Namibia, there are three rival union federations vying for the leadership of the class, two of which are independent of the ruling party, TUCNA and NANLO.

Despite limited resources and restricted access to the corridors of power, all indications are that the independent unions are on the ascendance and that the NUNW affiliates like NAPWU, are losing members to the independent unions as steadily as sand seeps through one’s fingers.

It is my view that many of the problems we face, such as high unemployment, deteriorating and dangerous working conditions, low wages and high inflation, mass homelessness and extreme poverty among workers and the retired, must largely be ascribed to the role and treachery of the union leadership, who failed to address these issues.

The union bosses pretended as if water and electricity prices, evictions, water cut-offs, poor housing conditions and high unemployment were not their concern. They only dealt with fee-paying members, and even then, not very well it would appear. The union leadership failed to build unity between the struggles of the workers on the shop-floor and those in the community.

Even in the popular struggle for better state pensions over the past few months, the unions said not a single word.

The rise of racism, xenophobia, tribalism and reactionary nationalism in the working class is also due largely to the failure of the union leadership to use the workers’ resources for widespread civic education and to build relationships based on mutual solidarity. No, they closed their eyes to these problems.

The discredited union leaders, in the eyes of many workers, are on the side of the employers and were corrupted by the allure of power and wealth, so how could they truly represent the union members? That is why they have to go.

The outcome of the NUNW congress represents a sea-change in the mood of the workers and a shift in their understanding what they have to do to defend their union.

The challenge facing Namibian workers on May Day 2015 is complex, but it can perhaps be summed up in this: how do we take back our unions?

By rejecting their former leaders, Nevonga and Iilonga, NUNW members demonstrated that the fight to reclaim the unions, to bring them under the democratic control of the workers, can only proceed through a direct struggle against the old and discredited leadership.

Written by

Writer, reporter, activist

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