26 February 2013

Namibia: The Trouble With So-Called Revolutionaries


IN The Namibian of February 15 2013, Cuana Angula, a leading Namibian unionist, acknowledged "some valid points" I had made in my article of February 8 2013. Unfortunately he misunderstood some of my statements. As a result, some of his statements are wrongly premised.

For example, he understood I had meant that MUN [Mineworkers Union of Namibia] closed down after the TCL [Tsumeb Corporation Limited] debacle, while what I meant was that union leaders left the workers in the lurch after the closure of the mine.

But Angula revealed a lot of ideas that require broader attention. He found the article at some parts "grossly misinformed, prejudiced, and hypocritical". These are terms usually used by so-called revolutionary groups of which our unions happened to be. These expressions are usually repeated and over-repeated to become parrot songs and their meanings become a blur even to the singers.

Unemployment is a big problem, though it may not be the number one crisis, in Namibia. To a health worker HIV-AIDS might be the number one crisis. However, and in line with Angula's emphasis, the work of our unions has been to improve the conditions of those already in employment, usually at the expense of the job seekers, or job losers.

Minimum wages and the labour-hire system are cases in point here. To bring about the desired improvements (something nice), our "revolutionary" unions took uncalculated or unintelligent risks that usually led to mass unemployment (TCL, Rhino, Ramatex etc). Apparently, according to Angula, the duty of the unions is to move the employed workers from "atypical jobs: sub-contracting and casualisation" upwards. Once an employee is out of a job, he or she no longer matters to the unions, explaining why unions vanish after the workers lose their jobs.

Angula showed how the unions, at least, learned something from the TCL crisis. According to him, when the copper price declined in 2006, Weatherly closed all of its mining operations (retrenching workers) without any noise from MUN. We must, before jumping into action, all learn to accept and consider that external forces can determine local activities!

Yes, Rhino and Ramatex moved to Namibia after closing factories in South Africa where they had been paying monthly salaries of $950 per person. To survive in the market they had to lower their product prices. To do this they required to cut production costs, including direct labour costs. The Namibian government understood this very well, through the invisible hand of economics, and took a calculated decision, and made jobs available.

Lacking similar understanding, the unions, as Angula implicitly indicates, wanted the N$950 as a minimum. They also wanted the workers to join and pay membership fees. They took uncalculated or ill-informed actions that led to the closure and moving of the two employers out of Namibia. Ramatex did not leave because of environmental or health factors, as Angula may want to suggest!

The unions may have copies of the presidential commission of inquiry report, but no commission called for strikes or violation of the agreement between the government and Ramatex. In fact, the former president was angry that the unions had created chaos at the two companies.

It might be correct to state that "the role of the trade unions to their members includes economic emancipation, social welfare, political, psychological benefits, and opportunity to participate in managerial functions..." What do all these mean? Emancipation: delinking salary from labour? Welfare: who pays? Political benefits: a stepping stone to Parliament? Psychological benefits: a belief in non-existent protection? Managerial participation: as they did in Venezuela, causing economic collapse?!

Most of these are parrot song words of "revolutionaries". Even the term revolutionary was inherited from the liberation struggle era when we had thought we would destroy capitalism and replace it with socialism. There was and still there is no revolution in Namibia. Where and how will the unions carry out their revolution - a sudden radical transformation, usually through overthrowing a government? Parrot songs will only help us move into unrealistic directions for undefined destinations!

Angula wants to know why I am a member of Nangof [Namibia Non-governmental Organisations Forum] if I am questioning the role of civil society. The question would be more correct if it was directed at someone with a background that does not tolerate views other than the prescribed ones. Nangof is an umbrella body of free civil society organisations. Nangof members appreciate divergent views, though perhaps still with insufficient interrogation - a change I am pushing for. I am there because I believe we can only build this country when we are truly open to one another.

Finally, I salute Angula for allowing himself to disagree with me on some views. I request him to allow and respect different opinions even in the unions so that the labour bodies embrace the philosophy of calculated decisions and actions. The results of our actions are the same irrespective of our perspectives. Creation, presentation, and tolerance of different views will fuel our intelligence that, in turn, will help us make informed decisions and take well interrogated actions. This remains my premise.

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

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