Benjamin (Ben) Ulenga was born in Owamboland. His father was a labourer, who from age 16 or 17 had to leave Owamboland to work on various English, Dutch, Scottish and German-owned farms. His father provided a political education and instilled in him a concern for workers rights.
As a teenager, he joined the South West African Peoples Organization (SWAPO), which became the preeminent liberation organisation fighting for Namibia’s independence. In 1974, because of Angola's independence, Namibia's northern border was open for the first time since South African mandate had begun. A massive wave of Namibians, many of them teenagers and young adults, left the country. Ulenga was among them.
Ulenga received military training in the Soviet Union, where he learned more about labour rights and gained a global perspective on politics and workers movements. An important moment came when, watching television (which was banned in Namibia until 1976), he saw American helicopters leaving Saigon near the end of the Vietnam War. He has said about this moment, “As soon as I learned about America the superpower, I also learned about America the vulnerable.” While in the Soviet Union, he saw a disconnect between SWAPO rhetoric and action. On paper, SWAPO claimed great friendship with their allies in the Soviet Union, but SWAPO leaders would tell him to be wary and not get too involved in their ideology or in their focus on workers. Ulenga would later comment that though it was founded by workers protesting the contract labour system, SWAPO was not a Communist, Socialist or a otherwise worker-centric organisation.
After his training, Ulenga joined an advanced unit of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), SWAPO's armed wing. For two years, he served in PLAN until he was seriously injured during a mission into northern Namibia and captured by South African forces in Etosha.
Ulenga was charged under the Terrorism Act in 1977 alongside other SWAPO members and was sentenced to 15 years on Robben Island. While in prison, he wrote poetry, including this poem originally written in Windhoek Central Prison in 1977 and rewritten in 1987 in Katutura.
He was released after 9 years, in 1985. Immediately after his release, Ulenga became involved in Namibia's labour movement. He explains his involvement by saying
“Especially among some of us who came from prison it was of great concern that there should be greater organisation among the working people. That is why we proceeded to persuade some colleagues on the political side to embark on a project to start workers’ committees and so on.
Initially, we did not contact anybody. We did not ask for assistance. Very soon it came out that the work was being done and, of course, we linked up with the so-called leadership outside and also with the international trade union movement as far as we could.”
Part of this work involved making international connections, particularly in Nordic countries. A trip to Sweden in 1987 marked the first connections between Swedish trade unions and unions based in Namibia (rather than with Namibian unions based in Angola). These connections later proved useful, as the Chairman of the Swedish Mineworkers Union and the President of the Miners International Federation (the same person) provided financial assistance to the Mineworkers Union of Namibia (MUN), even when they were not supposed to do so.
Ulenga was a founding member of the Steering Committee of the National Union of Namibian Workers and was elected the first Secretary General of the MUN, which was founded in November 1986. One month earlier, John Pandeni, who had also spent time on Robben Island, founded the Namibian Food and Allied Union. These were two major events which characterized the upsurge in trade union activity in the 1980s. Among other activities, they organised May Day celebrations and founded the Newsletter
. On July 27 1987, 4600 MUN members went on strike against Tsumeb Corporation Limited (TCL). Strikers' demands included an end to the contract labour system and pay increase. A pamphlet published by the Episcopal Churchpeople for a Free Southern Africa described the strike this way:
“Over 4600 members of the Mineworkers Union of Namibia – in a move recalling the great strike of 1971-72 - went on strike on 27 July. TCL management issued an ultimatum for them to return to work. The miners refused. TCL declared them to be fired.
This strike is the first major test for the MUN which was launched only on 23 November 1986. MUN's lawer is Pieter Koep. He and MUN face TCL's lawyers, Namibia's most prestigious firm of Lorenz & Bone.”
The same pamphlet included a telex by Ben Ulenga outlining the reason for the strike and a list of workers' demands.
The increase in labour activity was in part made possible by a political climate loosened enough for labour groups to push its limits. Labour activists still faced persecution, as they were arrested under charges of terrorism and union offices were raided.
Ben Ulenga is also an accomplished poet. In 1989, a collection of his poetry was published by the Mibagus Collective, edited by Annemarie Heywood. It included photographs by John Liebenberg. This poem, entitled Wapota, was written in 1987, and includes this note: “Frans Wapota, a Windhoek worker, was murdered by the SA occupationist army in 1985. The poem is about the face of war.”
That same year, Ulenga was selected by SWAPO President Sam Nujoma to run for office in 1990, which would be Namibia's first democratic elections. He was elected, and in 1991 also became part of SWAPO's Central Committee. Over the following seven years, he would serve as Deputy Minister of Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism, Deputy Minister of Local Government and Housing and the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. He held this last position until August 27 1998.
In 1998, Ulenga left SWAPO. He stated that he did so because the party had not meaningfully changed class relations and was not interested in workers’ rights; because it appealed to ethnic affiliations and excluded central and southern Namibians from positions of power within the party; and because of “the failure of SWAPO to transform itself from a secretive and exiled armed nationalist movement to a mass-based governing party.” His resignation was catalyzed by Sam Nujoma's unconstitutional decision to run for a third term as President, and the lack of dissenting voices about that decision.
In 1999, Ulenga founded an opposition party, the Congress of Democrats (CoD). In the 1999 election, the CoD got 10.5% of votes, or 7 seats; in 2004 it got 7.3%, or 5 seats. In both cases, it earned the highest percentage of votes after SWAPO. In 2009, the CoD won one seat, which it lost in the 2014 election. In January 2015, Ulenga tendered his resignation from the CoD, which came into effect in July 2015.
• Dobell, L., (1998) 'The Ulenga Moment: SWAPO and Dissent' in Southern Africa Report, Vol 14 No 1 December 1998. Available https://www.africafiles.org/article.asp?ID=3774 [Accessed September 8 2015].
• Episcopal Churchpeople for a Free Southern Africa (1987). Namibian Mine Workers On Strike. New York: ECSA Bulletin, pp 1-2. Available https://kora.matrix.msu.edu/files/50/304/32-130-1ABC-84-ECSA%20Bulletin%208-6-87%20opt.pdf [Accessed September 8 2015].
• Haidula, T., (2015). Ulenga resigns as CoD president, from The Namibian, 21 July 2015 [online]. Available at https://www.namibian.com.na/indexx.php?archive_id=139636&page_type=archive_story_detail&page=1 [Accessed 8 September 2015].
• Sellström T. & Ben Ulenga, (1995) 'Ben Ulenga'. Nordic Documentation on the Liberation Struggle in Southern Africa. March 16 1995. Available https://www.liberationafrica.se/intervstories/interviews/ulenga/?by-name=1 [Accessed February 11 2013].
• Ulenga, B. (1989) Seeds, Windhoek: Mibagus Collective, pp 5, 11
• Wallace, M. (2013). A History of Namibia: From the Beginning to 1990, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 303, 311