LEADERS of trade unions affiliated to Swapo have always used workers as a stepping stone to getting a seat in Parliament.The illegal strike by teachers was another opportunity which some wanted to use to raise their stakes but it all went horribly wrong.
After the National Union of Namibian Workers affiliated to Swapo, many union leaders walked over to full-time politics on the party’s ticket after making loud noise about one of other workers’ issue.
Among the first to do so was former secretary general Bernhardt Esau. In 1994 he announced that the NUNW was considering forming its own political party, causing major discomfort between the party and the unions. He was quickly summoned to Swapo headquarters and made to retract his statement.
Also in 1994, Esau, John Shaetonhodi and late Walter Kemba, were listed on former President Sam Nujoma’s choice of 32 of Swapo candidates for the 1994 parliamentary elections.
Fast-forward five years and the late Gabes Shihepo organised the biggest demonstration of communal farmers calling for land reform to be speeded up. Within a month he was appointed as Deputy Minister of Information, even though the demonstration was held under the Namibia National Farmers’ Union banner.
A year later, Shihepo was followed into Parliament by the late Ponhele ya France who, as NUNW President, had made threats of a Zimbabwe-style land grab during a May Day rally, accusing “Namibians of European origin” of being unwilling to co-operate in redressing the discrepancies brought about by colonialism.
Among the more recent unionists to follow a similar path were former NUNW president Alphäus Muheua and the Namibia Public Workers Union’s Eliphas Dingara.
So many union leaders seen as firebrands fighting for the rights of the masses have, in a way, deserted them for seats in Parliament.
So it was no surprise that cheap politicking, at the expense of union business, was the order of the day when it came to the illegal mass strike of teachers.
The union leaders knew the channels to follow within their unions but because of personal fights with others at their leadership level they opted to use the masses to fight their case.
But even in using the masses they could have followed a different route – to organise them towards a mass recall of union leaders who purportedly failed them instead of directing their anger at the Government, pupils and parents.
And when they had the teachers on their side, they failed to lead them in the right direction when they opted for an illegal strike.
This was done especially because some leaders had, by then, been suspended and it was inevitable that they would face consequences at workplace level.
So they decided to create chaos and make Nantu ungovernable. It was self-interest. They feared being pinpointed as culprits and facing the wrath of the law alone.
In opting to take teachers along the route they did, union leaders knew very well that it would be very difficult for the Public Service Commission, as the employer, to take action against a mass of teachers. It was go big, or go home, for the leaders.
They had one thing in mind. If it reached the stage that it did, they would use the well-known slogan of ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’, and make sure that if Government did not discipline the teachers, a condition would be added that they also be reinstated in their positions.
For those leaders, the levels the strike reached had nothing to do with the inequality and hardships experienced by a normal teacher in the village, and which fuelled their discord.
These are the people who have made the unions powerless in their negotiations with, for example, the Government.
Because of the self-interest of some union leaders, the workers continue to suffer with low wages, unreasonable dismissals, unabated retrenchments and a general disregard for basic human rights.
For those unionists it is all about their political future; there is nothing in it for the workers.