Africa

Widespread strike rattles Namibia

John Grobler

Teachers have ignored a court order and they have joined forces with disgruntled nurses who were reined in by the state, writes John Grobler.

Teachers are frustrated by slow wage negotiations between government and their unions.  (Marlize Rautenbach)

A wildcat strike started last week largely by urban teachers is threatening to become a nationwide work stoppage by all Namibian civil servants.

This week, Prime Minister Nahas Angula warned the strikers that stern action would be taken and called on them to avoid a "Marikana scenario".

Despite a court order obtained on November 2 to force about a tenth of Namibia's 23 000 teachers back into the classrooms, they have vowed to increase the pressure on the government and some are now demanding salary increases of 40%.

The teachers, frustrated by the slow pace of wage negotiations between their two unions and the government that started last year, started picketing schools around the country on November 1.

The government could not say how many teachers had gone on strike.

Deputy Minister of Information and Communication Technology Stanley Simataa this week warned at a press conference that continued defiance of the court order "has the potential to yield undesirable consequences", but he would not spell out what those would be.

The teachers have now made common cause with equally disaffected state nurses, who threatened to go on an indefinite strike about two months ago if their demands for better pay and improved working conditions were not met.

Right to strike
In response, the government had the health sector declared an essential service, like the police or army, thereby basically outlawing their right to strike.

At the heart of the matter is growing distrust between teachers, nurses and the civil service in general and the leadership of their respective unions.

It should also come as no surprise that the disaffected elements in Namibia's 85 000-strong civil service are receiving strong support from firebrand unionist Evilastus Kaaronda, who was summarily dismissed last week from his position as general secretary of the National Union of Namibian Workers, the umbrella union affiliated to the ruling Swapo party.

Kaaronda and the union's president, Elias Manga, were both fired without any notice or due process being followed by the union's central executive committee at an emergency meeting at the end of last month. It is a telling sign of the extent to which Swapo's political embrace has transcended the ideals and aims of Namibia's equivalent of Cosatu in South Africa.

But unlike Cosatu, the union's apparatchiks are very clear about where their true loyalties lie and were willing to get rid of troublesome people like Kaaronda, who has been leading the charge to have those who stole R550-million from the civil servants' pension fund between 1999 and 2001 prosecuted.

The timing of the teachers' strike coincides with an internal Swapo power struggle over the nomination of the party's presidential candidate for the 2014 elections – when President Hifikepunye Pohamba will retire – and appears to have raised official hackles. Simataa warned about "groups of individuals" canvassing civil servants to support a general strike.

Ironically, the apparent presidential frontrunner, Regional and Local Government and Housing Minister Jerry Ekandjo, is himself a former unionist. But his well-known homophobia and hardline views on any political opposition suggest he will have little sympathy for the teachers' fight for better pay.

So, should Ekandjo clinch the presidential nomination at the end of this month, which he seems likely to do, a widespread strike could well escalate into Namibia's own Marikana moment.

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