During the 1930s and 1940s, there were few black workers organisations in Namibia (then known as South West Africa). However, there were a number of workers’ strikes during this period. Poor wages, bad working conditions and the contract system had been a perpetual focus of industrial actions in Namibia. An attempt to organise workers in Namibia into trade unions was met with severe reprisals from the South African regime. Luderitz, a harbour town in southwest Namibia lying on one of the least hospitable coasts in Africa, was an important centre for early trade union activity, although the workers knew very little about trade union work. In 1924, the South African administrator stated that there were several trade unions in Luderitz. The main union was the Universal Negro Improvement Association and a Cape Coloured Institution known as the International and Commercial workers Union.
Trade union movements were created exclusively for whites. The colonial ruler, the South African government, opposed the emancipation of the black labour force. The apartheid government felt that the role of black workers should be kept to a minimum. The first initiative for the establishment of a national organisation of Namibian workers took place in South Africa in 1957, when the Ovamboland People's Congress (OPO) was founded, renamed the Ovamboland People's Organisation in 1958, in order to abolish contract-labour.
However, the leaders of the OPO such as Sam Nujoma, Andimba Toiva ya Toivo and Lucas Haleinge Nepela decided to expand their demands into a national liberation movement. In 1960, they created the South-West African People's Organisation (SWAPO), which had since gained international acceptance and recognition as the authentic representative of the Namibian people. During the course of the relationship between workers and other strata of the colonised majority in their efforts for independence and freedom, different meetings took place so that the anti-colonial movement not only represented the interests of the workers but was also influenced by them. Most employed blacks felt little need for their own separate organisations outside of SWAPO before the end of the 1970s.
In December 1971 to January 1972, 15 000 to 20 000 contract-workers all over Namibia went on indefinite strike. The countrywide strike, although linked with SWAPO, took place spontaneously as a result of the effective brotherhood network. The demands of the strikers included: free choice in location of employment, better wages according to qualifications and abilities; the right to terminate an unwanted and too-low paid contract, as well as freedom to search for a new assignment without action by the police; permission to take family members to the place of work, and the unconditional right to visit or be visited. The strike forced the South African government to reorganise the contract-labour system by integrating the local power structures of apartheid in the Reserves, homelands, into the recruitment process as agencies with partial control, thereby conceding access to a bigger slice of the profits.
In the mid 1970s, partly as a result of the strike, the establishment of a specific organisation closely associated with SWAPO, but representing the particular interests of the workers, was discussed and realised. The necessity for a separate trade union organisation, sharing the aims and content of the national liberation movement, and operating in close relation with the broader struggle for independence, led to the formation of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) on 24 April 1971. The programme of the NUNW demonstrated the dominant general political goals, which by far transcended an improvement of labour conditions under the apartheid system.
The NUNW’s functions included the following: protection of workers from exploitation; creation of unity and solidarity; preparation for involvement in the government of an independent Namibia; participation in the complete transformation of existing social, economic, and political conditions; resistance against tribalism and ethnic particularism, as well as any kind of discrimination; and the abolition of all mechanisms of alienation.
Membership to the NUNW was open to all workers in Namibia, independent of their professional position and occupation, race, religion, or sex. The practical organisation at the place of work was guaranteed through the creation of grass-root groups in firms, farms, and mines, unified under regional branches, through which a central executive committee operated and co-ordinated activities.
Since its formation, the NUNW has played a prominent role in the Namibian’s liberation struggle, and the labour movement is still the strongest organised force among Namibia’s civil society organisations.