The Nordic Africa Institute

Ben Ulenga

SWAPO—Secretary General of the Mineworkers Union of Namibia Deputy Minister of Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism

The interview was held by Tor Sellström on 16 March 1995.

Tor Sellström: As a Namibian trade union leader, when did you come into contact with the Nordic countries?

Ben Ulenga: In 1977, I was tried and sentenced to prison. I spent the prison term mostly in South Africa, but I used to hear about what was happening. Very sketchily of course. There was a certain Paul Carlsson, who came to Namibia from Sweden to work with the trade unions. Sometimes he had to disguise himself as a cleric, feigning pastoral work. The title of reverend was attached to his name. However, Carlsson had to leave Namibia in a hurry.

Tor Sellström: It seems that the South Africans knew all the time what he was doing. He cannot have been very successful?

Ben Ulenga: No, he does not seem to have been.

Tor Sellström: When did you start to work with the trade unions?

Ben Ulenga: I was captured in the war in 1977. It was close to Etosha, in the area of Tsumeb. But that had nothing to do with trade unions. At the end of 1985, we were released. Especially among some of us who came from prison it was of great concern that there should be greater organization 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. It did not take long before we were in contact with the trade union movement in Sweden, Norway and Finland.

Only about three or four months after the setting up of the first two unions of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) I went for a visit to these three countries. In Sweden, I was invited by LO/TCO. It was the first time that we established a direct relationship between the trade unions in Namibia—not from Luanda—and the trade unions in Sweden. That was in February 1987. We had very good meetings with the LO/TCO joint council that dealt with international cooperation. I was working for the Mineworkers Union, but I was also involved with the general trade union organization. What we agreed was, basically, that they were going to give us assistance for the organization of part of the unions and also for mobilization.

Later, we got support from them for the setting up our offices, projects like the Newsletter, organizing May Day celebrations, acquiring vehicles and so on. I think that it was not always easy for them to approve assistance that went to certain sections where they actually could not give us the money openly.

Those were very interesting years. In the end, the chairman of the Swedish Mine-workers Union—who at the time was also the President of the Miners International Federation—was thoroughly on the side of the Namibian Mineworkers Union. I was also lucky to link up with a guy called Stig Blomqvist, who was in Zimbabwe. He was a person who was very much down to earth. He understood what was happening. He was the best as far as I am concerned. The President of the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa, James Motlatsi, and the General Secretary of ANC, Cyril Ramaphosa, worked with him. Actually, they worked out the whole support plan with Blomqvist. He did his own thing with the Swedes and pulled some strings here and there.

Tor Sellström: Was Blomqvist linked to the other Nordic countries through MIF?

Ben Ulenga: Yes, he was. Blomqvist co-ordinated with the Swedish Mineworkers Union, LO/TCO and, of course, with the people in Brussels, that is with MIF and—although maybe not directly—with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). This cooperation continued until independence. There was also another kind of assistance that this group helped us to get. That was during the strike we had in Tsumeb in 1987. They gave us some money to relieve the situation of the workers and we paid out quite a few thousand Rands to assist them.

Tor Sellström: When you visited Sweden in 1987 and met LO/TCO, did you encounter any problems regarding international affiliation?

Ben Ulenga: I must say that it was handled very nicely and very diplomatically. It was a problem, because everybody spoke about it. Not necessarily in Sweden. When I was with the officials from SWAPO in London, they really talked about it and said that it might be a problem. We also discussed it with other unions in London. Before coming to Sweden, I had a meeting with the people from MIF and it was a question that was nicely skirted round. You could see that it was quite an obstacle. It was there, but it was never bluntly made a condition of assistance. I have never faced a situation where it was.

We worked together with MIF, which— although an independent and autonomous international—was closely related to ICFTU. They gave us money. We did not have to state that we were not affiliated to the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), although we sometimes talked about it. It was essentially not a problem. There was no conditionality.

Tor Sellström: Do you have the impression that the people inside Namibia knew about the support that they were receiving from the Nordic countries?

Ben Ulenga: The mineworkers were the people to whom I reported. I reported everything. I did not travel to negotiate something on my own. Especially in the beginning, when I did not know how much the Nordic trade unions could do. I talked to them and then I related to my colleagues how matters were proposed to me, what we had discussed and what the understanding was. As far as that is concerned, the people knew what the involvement of the Nordic trade union movement was.

A very clear example is Stig Blomqvist, who was based in Zimbabwe. He represented the Miners International Federation, but he also very much represented the Swedish LO/TCO. And he was not just a Swedish comrade, trying to assist as a Swede. He was directly representing the trade unions, so it was known that the assistance was from the Nordic countries.

Another example is our relationship with the Norwegian trade union movement. We had direct links. We had people like Dr. Bertelsen, who came to Namibia as a representative of LO/TCO in Norway. She was not just a visitor from Europe or from Scandinavia. She was specifically representing her union body. There was another Bertelsen, an industrial physician, who also came here and did some work on behalf of the Mineworkers Union. The whole thing was sponsored by the trade union movement. There was some coordination between the Norwegians and the Swedes. The support was understood at the branch level of the union. Everybody knew. The people in the branch committees knew who was coming, on whose behalf and who was supporting us. If you got into the street, people were aware of the friendly relations, especially between Namibia and Sweden. But maybe they did not really know that there was something called SIDA.

If you go back into the history, looking at the first links between the Nordic countries and Namibia, I think that it is important that the first missionaries from Finland came here more than a hundred years ago. Many people in Namibia actually take these links as far back as that. There were also quite a few Swedes. My teachers were, for example.

There was a Finn, who was detained by the South African security at the time when SWAPO was rounded up at Omgulumbashe during the first military clash in 1966. He was very much involved with Toivo and the other SWAPO people around Ondangwa. He was tortured. I do not know whether he died due to causes having to do with his arrest, but he died about two weeks thereafter. Later, Mikko Ihamäki was the chief representative of the Finnish mission society. He died a few years ago. He was a strong SWAPO supporter and behind the scenes a mover of many things. He hated the South African regime and was kicked out of here. He was picked up one morning. The police came and said: ‘The sun must not set while you are here. You must leave today.’ It was terrible.