8 February 2013

Namibian Civil Society and the Economic Rationale


COMPRISING labour unions, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations (CBOs), religious bodies, and vocal individuals, among others, Namibian civil society has always fought for progressive policies and actions such as better salaries and benefits, asset redistribution, nationalisation of industries, minimum wages, and so on.

(Rarely did they call for the beneficiary's responsibility, though.) When successful in their efforts and/or when things go bad, civil society disappears into thin air, leaving the intended beneficiaries stranded, as the following cases indicate.

In 1996 the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) led a six-week strike for higher salaries at Tsumeb Corporation Ltd (TCL). They pushed the management beyond economic limits. Dividends fell, and investors withdrew. The mine closed down. All workers lost jobs. The union vanished. NUNW took over the mine and quickly learned that Tsumeb could not be run on uneconomic principles, and abandoned it!

At the coast, unions instigated workers to strike "till salary demands are met". Many companies closed down. Union leaders retreated to their offices as workers went home.

In 2005 in Windhoek, unions and other NGOs made customers of Rhino Garments boycott the company's products. Rhino closed down. Over 1 600 workers went home. Civil society denied responsibility and disappeared. Next, they mobilised some 8 000 workers at Ramatex into striking. Having income, women employees had begun building their own shacks at Otjomuise, and brought their children to live with them. Civil society pushed Ramatex and the government into a corner. Ramatex closed down and left, leaving 8 000, mostly young single women, jobless. The unions and their allies disappeared. Katutura, Khomasdal and Otjomuise lost a monthly income of about 8 000 x N$800 (N$76.8 million per year).

Sections of civil society successfully pushed for a minimum wage for farm workers. Result: mass unemployment in the agricultural sector. Civil society stepped away as retrenched workers packed for home and farm corridors. The retained workers lost the non-cash benefits.

Unions wanted to enrich employees by impoverishing their employers.

Research by LARRi (the Labour Resource and Research Institute) showed that, generally, white farmers adhered to the minimum wage, but hardly any black farmers - including lawmakers and ministers - did. Again, civil society left and started new noises on another front - this time domestic workers.

Some parts of civil society supported Mugabe's farm invasions in Zimbabwe. They called for similar policies in Namibia. After the Zimbabwean demise, they kept quiet on Mugabe but were subtly vocal on Namibia, trying to feed the consumer by destroying the producer.

Civil society, particularly the unions, had pushed enough to shape the labour law that made it very difficult for an employer to fire an incompetent or lazy worker. Employers turned to labour-hire companies that had long lists of hungry job seekers. Workers posted to a company in need demanded the death of their employer - the labour-hire company. Backed by unions, they succeeded and condemned their hungry colleagues, who had no organised voice, into unemployment.

A few years ago, part of Namibian civil society hailed Hugo Chavez for nationalising oil and other companies in Venezuela. They praised the workers for taking over businesses and setting 'favourable' (but uneconomic) prices. Other parts argued that such measures were unsustainable, and would lead to economic collapse as goods would become scarce. On January 29, 2013, The Namibian reported that Venezuelan food shelves were almost empty - no sugar, meal, wheat flour, rice, cooking oil, butter, or chicken, among others. Hoarding began and prices rose. Nobody in Namibia reacted as the Venezuelans starved.

The changes civil society advocated were nice: higher wages, low prices, permanent jobs, nationalisation, and asset redistribution. Such changes would not automatically bear the intended fruits when they were up against the natural laws of economics.

What we wish to have (nice) may differ from what we can have (rational). Two good examples by our finance minister, an economist: summoned by President Pohamba to give money to Minister Erkki Nghimtina for Air Namibia - something 'nice' to do - she argued rationally and helped the president appreciate why she would not make such money available. Then, the Cabinet directed her to impose extra taxes on mining companies. The Chamber of Mines argued that by international regulations they were required to report such changes to the international stock exchanges where the mines had been listed. The result would be - similar to Tsumeb - withdrawal of investment, closing down of the mines, and mass unemployment. The chamber gave her three days to withdraw. She worked rationally and persuaded the Cabinet to reverse the directive. Loud voices against the reverse followed, but, knowing they were 'nice' but economically irrational, she ignored them.

To make meaningful decisions and provide workable solutions and help society to succeed, we, in civil society and government, need to open ourselves up to one another, look each other in the eyes, discuss issues intelligently, and interrogate our decisions before we carry them out.

Jackson Mwalundange is the head of the Economic Justice Programme at the Forum For the Future and an active member of both Social & Economic and Democracy & Human Rights sectors of NANGOF Trust - Namibia's civil society umbrella body.

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