1971 Strike: Power of the working class in Namibia

By By Dr. S V V Nambala
October 2010
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EUROPEANS’ knowledge of Namibia in the first half of the 19th Century was restricted to the southern and central communities of the country.

The first European visit to Ovamboland on June 7, 1851, by Charles John Andersson and Francis Galton heightened the European knowledge of the northern regions.

In his book, Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa (1889:140), Galton describes the inhabitants of Ovamboland (Ondonga) saying “they evidently have strong local and personal attachments; they are also very national, and proud of their country…. It would be a crying shame to enslave the Ovampo (sic)…They are a kind-hearted, cheerful people, and very domestic. I saw no pauperism in the country; everybody seemed well to do; and the few very old people that I saw were treated with particular respect and care.” Andersson also conceded with Galton that the Ovambo people were wealthy and hospitable.

The 1851 European visit to the north opened the future trade route and colonial interest in the region. Until the 1890s, the colonial government’s trade was restricted to the coastal harbours, but slowly colonial administration gained enough power into the interior. Germans established military bases at Outjo and Grootfontein in 1896 to control trade and other traffic from the north. Trade led to the development of migrant labour.

Salaried or wage labour in today’s sense was not known by most Namibian communities until their contact with the Europeans. The colonial projects of the 1890s such as the copper mine in Tsumeb, the Swakopmund-Windhoek railway line and the Swakopmund harbour necessitated recruitment of indigenous people to work on the projects. The process eventually led to the infamous Contract Labour System. It is against this contract background that workers’ strikes later emerged.

South Africa’s active control over Namibia started on July 9, 1915. In my book, History of the Church in Namibia (1994:137), I have listed about 24 workers’ strikes in Namibia from 1915 to 1972. The earliest workers’ strike took place in December 1893, when workers at South West Africa Company went on strike at Gross Otavi. This strike preceded other notable workers’ strikes in the country. The reasons of these strikes varied from one another.

They included demand for better working conditions, overtime payments during nightshifts, pass laws, well placed workers’ annual leaves, short term contracts, migratory labour system itself, and recruitment practices through South West Africa Native Labour Association (SWANLA) recruitment centres. Political activism, due to colonial occupation, was not always excluded from these strikes.

The 1971/2 workers’ strike is the most notable one when over 14 000 migrant workers downed tools. The background of the strike and related events thereof, is very interesting to note. In the strike, politics played a major role in triggering the move.

To mention just but a few, the preceding events were: The continual occupation of Namibia by South Africa; the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that South Africa was illegally occupying Namibia of June 21, 1971; the churches’ Open Letter to Mr. J. B. Vorster, the then Prime Minister of South Africa, on June 30, 1971 in support of the ICJ declaration. Church leaders met with Vorster on August 18, 1971 where the Prime Minister tried to defend the apartheid system on Christian grounds, a stance that was rejected by church leaders.

There was a statement by Jan de Wet, the Bantu Commissioner, denying the stand of the churches and maintained that the contract labour system was a voluntary exercise. It provoked many by stating that: “Contract workers are under no obligation to re-engage, and that Ovambos are quite happy with Namibia’s labour system”. It is also worth noting the racial laws and regulations, and the students strike on August 2, 1971 in affirmation of the ICJ aggravated the tensions.

Several weeks before August 1971, students at Oshigambo High School, St. Mary’s School (Odibo) and Ongwediva College and High School had been planning to carry out a big students’ strike that had never before happened in Namibian history.

Organizers were some selected students in corroboration with other non-students off campuses such as teachers and other politically minded persons.

Students wanted to show their support to the ICJ ruling and the churches’ stand against the illegal occupation. The plan included the submission of the students’ petition to the Ovambo Homeland Minister, King Wilbard Uushona Shaningwa Shiimi and to Jan de Wet, the Bantu Commissioner (Komufala) stationed at Ondangwa.

The students’ strike was carried out on August 2,1971. Unfortunately most of Oshigambo students did not join. There was an information leakage to the Oshigambo school authority, and students were then prevented from joining others. Odibo and Ongwediva students managed to participate and reached Ondangwa on foot in the semblance of the night, with few exceptions of those who dogged the event through fear of arrest or other reasons. The strike was a success, although the strikers on their return to school were harshly dispersed by armed police. Several students were detained and arrested by the “Security Police.”

The aftermath was that many students fell out of their schools. These joined the contract workers in Windhoek, Walvis Bay and other towns. Some did not join the workers to work, but to politically mobilize the workers to strike. The students spearheaded the workers in the absence of workers unions.

It did not take long for the workers to understand the message. On 13 December 1971, the strike started in Windhoek. Thousands of workers in Windhoek’s Katutura compound refused to go to work and presented their demands. Three days later, workers in Walvis Bay joined the strike.

Then like wild fire the strike spread country wide with an estimated number of between 14 000 and 20 000 workers participating. Many mines and workplaces went on stand still. This was the largest workers strike ever in the history of Namibia. The earlier larger strikes were that of Tsumeb Mine in September 1948 when about 2 000 workers downed tools, and at Walvis Bay Fish cannery in 1968 when over 1 000 workers participated for over three weeks.

After the December strike, many workers were deported to Ovambo or Kavango. The workers in Ovamboland decided to set up various mechanisms to fight back. One was to establish a “Contract Committee” with J. J. Nangutuala as its chairperson. Under the chairmanship of Nangutuala a mass meeting was organized and adopted among others the following demands:

Abolition of the contract labour system;
Freedom for workers to choose own employment without police interference;
Right to live with their families;
Salaries be paid according to merit and work done regardless of the person’s colour;
Abolition of pass laws;
Enough salaries to buy food and transport;
Establishment of labour offices in the homelands and all towns advertising vacancies to enable workers to look for a job of their choice; and
Creation of more jobs by government.

At the same time deported workers decided to take the law in their own hands cutting off the border fence of about 80 km long between Namibia and Angola.

The government responded by arresting the key players in this mass action. These included, Jimmy Amupala, Tomas Kamati, Keshi Pelao Natanael, Ndaxu Hivelua, among others. A state of emergency was declared and imposed in Ovamboland under the Emergency Proclamation R17 of 1972, on February 4, 1972. Additional police force was brought in from South Africa to suppress the strike.

Workers’ compounds were under siege, detention camps were set up in Ovambo, the detained were harshly tortured. Thirteen of the detained workers were brought to court in Windhoek on January 25, 1972. They were charged with contravening the “Masters and Servants” laws (Proc. No. 2 of 1916). One of them was Kleopas Kapapu.

Racial identification cards (ID) were introduced early 1972. Repression from state machinery was increased from 1972. Many friends of Namibia were denied visas and or expelled from the country.

However, in spite of the negative response from the state, something positive also happened. SWANLA was abolished and replaced by labour offices (bureaus) in both Ovambo and Kavango. Minimum wage was designed, working hours were fixed, overtime payment was designed, free food, accommodation, and medical treatment was offered. Workers had no right to paid and unpaid leave. Either party could now terminate the contract unlike before. Some working conditions were bettered.

Yet, pass laws and compound accommodation were not abolished. Employers were no longer responsible to transport workers from recruitment centres to place of work. The situation was militarized and tougher security laws were put in place that were extended from Ovamboland to Kavango and Caprivi by 1976.

The National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) was established in 1977. Unions played a vital role in political consciousness of the nation. Due to the militarized situation at home, many workers decided to join PLAN of SWAPO through Angola in 1974. The two months workers’ strike (December 1971 - January 1972) showed the power of the working class. It shook the colonial political and economic foundations and establishment. PF


1. Galton, F. 1889. Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa. London, Waerd, Lock and Co.
2. Hishongwa, Ndeutala. 1992. The Contract Labour System and its Effects on Family and Social Life in Namibia. Windhoek, Gamsberg Macmillan.
3. “Industrial Action” in Namibia: The Facts. 1980. London, IDAF.
4. Nambala, S. 1994. History of the Church in Namibia. Lutheran Quarterly, USA.