Apartheid's labour shame

Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah has called on Ondangwa to ensure the story of the contract labour system of yesteryear is told.

11 April 2018 | History

International relations minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah has called on the Ondangwa town council to turn an old mining recruitment office, which was the scene of dehumanising activities linked to the hated contract labour system, into a museum.

Speaking at the Ondangwa Trade and Industrial Exhibition (OTIE) fundraising dinner held at the weekend, Nandi-Ndaitwah said the story of the old Consolidated Diamond Mines (CDM) recruitment office needed to be told, so the younger generation can understand and appreciate why there had been a fight for the country's independence.

The underlying dehumanising actions of contract labour can be traced to the organisation of living and working conditions, which in turn influenced the lives of Ovambo and Kavango contract labourers. The living conditions were extremely dire, with contract labourers living in virtual prisons or compounds.

Contract workers, according to historical records, laboured under the disadvantages, restrictions and weakened bargaining position of pass laws, indenture and migrancy, enforced by criminal law.

In the face of contracted work, each worker received a blanket, a shirt, sometimes a pair of khaki shorts, which were supposed to last the worker the whole period of his contract period. The cost of provisions such as, food and sundries, a medical exam and a recruiting fee, was all paid by the employer. And for the duration of the contract, migrant workers were confined to the property of the employer, could not visit home, could not accept visits from family, ate only what their employer was willing to feed them and suffered whatever punishment an employer thought appropriate for any suspected offences.

The Okaholo recruitment centre, as it was known at that time, was the property of the Oranjemund town council until it was handed over to the Ondangwa town council in 2015, after the two towns entered into a partnership agreement.

Nandi-Ndaitwah said Ondangwa has a rich history, adding when she was growing up the only town she knew was Ondangwa.

CDM started recruiting its contract workers from the Ondangwa centre in 1929 and it was the only external recruitment centre apart from the one in Oranjemund.

“Ondangwa was not only the seat of the apartheid colonial regime of South Africa, where dehumanising activities such as the process of sorting out men who went into contract labour took place, it was the centre of all activities.

“As I was growing up at Onamutai, which is not far from Ondangwa, the only shopping place we knew was Ondjondjo in Ondangwa. To a high extent Ondangwa continues to be a getaway from the south to the north of the country, by road or by air,” Nandi-Ndaitwah said.

She said everybody has a historical and moral responsibility to see to it that Ondangwa is developed to become a town of choice and establishing the Okaholo museum is one of the strategies.

“I am hoping that photos are available. We have to think of reconstructing the Okaholo centre to become a museum that enables our people to understand and appreciate why we had to fight for our independence. Such a historic museum will obviously attract both national and international tourists,” she said.

The Oranjemund town council took control of Okaholo centre and other Namdeb properties when it became an independent town in 2012. Oranjemund and Ondangwa entered into partnership agreements in 2013, and the two towns decided that the old recruitment office should be handed over to the Ondangwa town council to strengthen their agreement.

Ondangwa town council CEO Ismael Namgongo said that Nandi-Ndaitwah's call came at the right time, as the town's 2017/18 financial year is coming to an end and the establishment of the museum would be crucial issue in its 2018/19 financial year plans. “It is only a building that was handed over to us. The Oranjemund town council has done some renovation to the building, but there are no artefacts for us to use it as a museum. This is now an instruction that we will take seriously into consideration. We have to institute a feasibility study before we start collecting materials to be displayed,” Namgongo said.

He said the council's management committee chairperson is one of those who underwent labour recruitment process during apartheid.

“We will invite those who were recruited through the centre to tell their stories and we will also engage the Museum Association of Namibia and the National Archives of Namibia to assist us with photos and other materials to be displayed,” he said. During the handing over ceremony of the recruitment office between the two councils in August 2015 was witnessed by former CDM employees.

Lazarus (Kappies) Kapolo said former CDM/Namdeb employees have fond memories about the place which gave them their future, although it was not easy.

“Being selected as a mine worker at this building was a prestigious honour for us, because in order to get recruited you had to be fit and strong, because you had to go through the 'harsh reality'. Once you succeed it is a pride. If you succeed you were issued with brass and copper tags (Okaholo) as social rewarding. At home we were regarded as 'Omulange', which enhanced our status in the community,” Kapolo said.

ILENI NANDJATO

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