The National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW)


Following the South West Africa People’s Organisation’s (SWAPO) consultative congress in 1969-70 in Tanzania, SWAPO wanted to establish a unified, independent and democratic Namibia, free from colonial exploitation and oppression. Several new departments were established within the party, including a Labour Department. However, the congress documents did not mention the formation of trade unions, but a decision to establish the labour movement was taken in exile on 24 April 1970.

The National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) was established in Dar Salaam, Tanzania, by Solomon Mwifila in 1970. In 1978, the SWAPO Central Executive Committee decided to affiliate the NUNW to the World Federation of Trade Union (WTFU). The WTFU provided a link between the NUNW and socialist countries.

In 1979, the NUNW set up its headquarters in Angola, under the leadership of John Ya Otto who served as SWAPO secretary of labour and NUNW secretary-general respectively. Ya Otto prepared the constitution for the NUNW for adoption by SWAPO’s National Executive Committee (NEC), but it was never approved. Some party leaders even responded negatively to the union initiative, fearing a strong and independent labour movement after independence.

The NUNW was revived inside Namibia in 1976 by SWAPO leaders. However, it was forced to work underground until it could be legally active in 1986. It functioned as the labour arm of SWAPO, and its general secretary at independence, John Ya Otto, was a long-time SWAPO activist and leader. It had offices in Katutura and it served as a union federation. NUNWU’s affiliated unions include the Namibian Food and Allied Workers union (NFAWU), the Namibian National Teachers Union (NNTU), the Namibian Public Workers Union (NPWU), the Namibian Transport and Allied Workers Union (NTAWU), the Metal and Allied Namibian Workers Union (MANWU), and the Mineworkers Union of Namibian (MUN).

In mid 1987, security police harassed the NUNW, raiding its offices and the national treasurer, Anton Lubowski. The NUNW enjoyed huge support even beyond their membership and played a critical role in ensuring SWAPO’s victory in the elections of 1989. SWAPO won control of the government in the 1989 elections, and both Ya Otto and Den Ulenga of the Mineworkers Union of Namibian won seats in the National Assembly of Namibia. The NUNW became more influential in the political matters of Namibia.

In 1992, the NUNW, led by its general secretary, Barnard Esau, pushed for the strengthening of the new Labour Act in order to protect the interest of Namibian workers. It continues to be the dominant labour federation in Namibia, though its leaders have been frequently absorbed into government and parliament which sometimes weakens the federation’s role. NUNWU together with its affiliates remain formally affiliated to the ruling party.

There have been intra-union leadership battles, as well as falling attendance at May Day celebrations which have raised concerns about the union’s effectiveness. The tensions over the government Institution Pension Fund scandal in 2010-2011 created a new power struggle among union leaders and affiliates. Conflicts between government and NUNW have also caused leadership disagreement. Other unions have remained unaffiliated to political parties but have fewer members than NUNW.

The NUNW, being the largest federation trade union with a membership of about 80, 000 people, is still dominant in Namibia. It has a close affiliation with the ruling party, SWAPO. The federation is the only one in the Nambia that has political ties. However, there have been concerns about NUNW’s relationship with SWAPO where other people argue that its political link is affecting the federation’s effectiveness in dealing with labour issues. NUNW leadership believe that the federation is still effective, and what has changed is the way they approach certain labour issues. 

• Southern Africa Trade Union Co-ordination Council (2015), National Union of Namibian Workers, from Southern Africa trade Union Co-ordination Council [online] available at [Accessed: 5 May 2015]
• Acronym Finder (2014), National Union of Namibian Workers, from Acronym Finder [online] available at [Accessed: 5 May 2015]
• Bergene, C., Endresen, S., & Knutsen, H (2010), Missing Links in Labour Geography: the dynamics of economic space. Ashgate publishing limited: England. 

Last updated : 29-May-2015

This article was produced by South African History Online on 29-May-2015

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