Menial pay far from home

Often described as one of the cruellest features of apartheid, migrant labour was for many, the only way to bring some money, into their households.

22 March 2017 | Local News

The work was backbreaking and the pay of 15 cents or N$2 a day, was next to nothing whether on a mine or a farm. But, they kept trekking in droves to seek work.

This was migrant labour in Namibia, a system that lasted for close to 50 years, from 1925 to 1972. For many it was a journey to becoming a man, to stand on one's feet and earn a living. While some died, others were maimed both physically and in mind.

To tell the story of their experiences as migrant labourers, with the backdrop of Namibia's 27th independence celebrations, were 94-year-old Frans Weyulu from Okandi-Oshivanda Shanghatanga village in the Ohangwena Region and Sadrag Kamati, who now reside in Ohongo village in the Ohangwena Region.

Although unable to recall the exact years the events happened, Weyulu says the treks, sleepless nights and fear of being sent back home because of a lack of work, are still fresh in his mind.

He was about 18 in 1941 when he decided to be a grown man by going to seek work in the south.

Weyulu says some of his friends started working on farms when they first went to the south, but later secured jobs in the mine where they crushed rocks in search of copper; Tsumeb.

“As much as I wished to work at the mine in Oranjemund, they told me I could not as I was as thin as a stick. They needed men with big calves,” he chuckles.

He describes how he was hardworking and always did extra jobs on the side, as he wanted to save-up.

“I did not like being at the compound doing nothing on weekends, so I always went out and looked for work in the white people's homes where I would rake the yard or sweep and polish their houses for N$2 per day.”

Weyulu worked in the mine for eight years, earning not more than 15 cents per day, which could buy him a loaf of brown bread, one kg of sugar for five cents and a packet of coffee. This angered the black workers at some point, forcing them to strike.

“We once questioned the bosses why our salaries were so low compared to those of the white people and they told us we were not important as we were just contract labourers.

“They also told us that we would not get more money because they provided us with accommodation and food.”

Weyulu was diagnosed with Tuberculosis during his employment in the mine and was advised to stop working for a while. He was sent to the kitchen as a cook, where the salary was slightly lower than what he got at the mine.

He later moved to Windhoek where he got a job filing scraper machines at the then power utility, Swawek.

He returned to Tsumeb but only managed to get a housekeeping job for about four months, before they were told they could no longer do that work, as it was a woman's job.

He was then sent back to the smelter, where the work was tough. It is here that he witnessed the most horrific mining accident in his life.

“I remember a friend of mine losing his arm when he threw a rock in one of the crushing machines. It was the worst sight ever.”

The pensioner, who spent most of his life in these jobs, describes the experiences as difficult but a lifelong learning journey.

He says in his last year of work, he received N$100, but laments that he was cheated out of his deserving pension package.

“I was shocked but they betrayed me with my pension package because the years they claim I worked at the mine were decreased.”

Weyulu today lives with one of his five children in a house he shared with his late wife, who died more than 10 years ago. He still works in his mahangu field, although he walks with the aid of a golf club that he uses as a walking stick.

Seventy nine-year-old Kamati recalls that contract labourers, who were mainly from the northern parts of Namibia, were paid low wages that were not in proportion to the amount of work they did.

They endured psychological hardships, which included leaving families behind to live in single-sex compounds.

Although most men walked for an entire day from their homes to Ondangwa, where the job-seeking process began, it was not an easy 24 hours. Only the strong survived the distance, especially those with water and food.

Kamati recounts that he endured the contract labour system from 1954-1985, and only exited five years before Namibia gained independence.

He says at the age of 16, he left home in 1954 to find work in a land where a black person needed permission to enter.

Jobs were allocated at Grootfontein, according to a man's physique, Kamati explains, adding that if a person was slender, the only job available was herding sheep.

Since he was of medium size, Kamati landed a job on a farm a few kilometres from Okahandja, where he milked cows and helped his boss' wife in the kitchen. Black women were not allowed that side of the red line until only years later because it was against the law. The line was used to control the movement of livestock and people from the northern parts of the country to the central and southern parts.

“He was a very bad boss and I wanted to leave that place as soon as the contract came to an end, but he told us that we needed to wait, as his new employees were only arriving after two months.”

This did not sit well with Kamati, who decided to use force to leave. This meant he would not receive his salary either.

“He beat me up for not obeying him but I had my mind made up so I fought back and he let me go. I had to walk about 60 km to Okahandja, where I sought help after a day's walking.”

He recalls that a kind German man came along and drove him to the police station where he reported his boss.

Kamati managed to get his last salary and made his way back home with about 12 pounds or N$160, which he had saved up over the past 18 months.

He described how some people tried to escape from the farms before the end of their contracts, but failed as they were quickly tracked down, beaten up and taken back to the farms.

“We got no leave. The employers did not care if your mother died and you needed to attend the funeral or not. They needed their work done and we had to do it.”

Kamati found another job on farm Grünau after two years of unemployment, but described his new boss as a kind one.

He says he had the same job description here too. However, the treatment was better and he was happy to work there for another 18 months, after which he decided to go to Windhoek and become an illegal migrant.

The employers regulated the compounds in which the employees lived and a person without a job was not allowed to stay there, as they did not have a reason to.

“It was not easy. I had to sneak around because unemployed people were not allowed to stay in the provided accommodation. So, I had to make another plan before I got into trouble.”

In 1959, Kamati's friend who was employed as a housekeeper offered him his old job as he had found another one, which got him arrested because of a lack of the right documentation.

“I got caught when my new boss tried to get me the right papers and the law authorities found out I was there illegally. I spent the whole month in prison, but it did not end there as I still went on to look for another job immediately after I was released, landing me in more trouble.”

Kamati was forced to lie about his tribe in court as it was the only way he could get a lenient sentence. He told the prosecutor his mother was Damara and he was born in Okahandja.

Kamati described his second and last job, a packer at a shop in Windhoek, as the best 25 years of his working life.

“I learnt so much with my new bosses. I learnt how to drive and in no time, I was driving trucks and got a promotion.”

With his new pay cheque, Kamati was able to save and marry the love of his life on 6 December in 1966.

He says although he reached retirement before independence and could not benefit from the greater things which came afterwards, he is happy that Namibia is finally independent because the treatment of workers is much better than before. - Nampa

Isabel Bento

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