Voices from the Kavango: A study of the contract labour system in Namibia, 1925-1972
Likuwa, Kletus Muhena
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This thesis seeks to explore how the life histories and the voices of the contract labourers from the Kavango contribute to our understanding of the contract labour system in Namibia. In particular, it seek to ask what light do they shed on migration and on new living and working experiences, their experiences with recruiting organizations and local recruiting agents and the effect of the contract labour system on them? Is it possible to view the migration of the Kavango . workers as a progressive step or does the paradigm of exploitation and suppression remains dominant? Oral interviews were carried out among the former contract labourers and their narratives were used empirically for information about their experiences. Yet this thesis also pays attention to analyzing these narratives for meaning. Archival sources further provided insight into the colonial views about contract labourers and the operation of the system itself. This thesis points to the slow inclusion of the Kavango in the contract labour system. It also draws attention to how there is a silencing of the Kavango in the contract labour system due to the colonial counting of contract labourers earlier where they were often included under the 'Ovambo' label. During the South African colonial rule, traditional chiefs sided with South Africa for continued survival and they supported the colonialists in labour recruitment. Although contract labourers made their own decision to leave home to get recruited they did so because of the compelling social and economic hardships that resulted from the activities of the colonial officials. Labour narratives point to many journeys both within and outside Namibia. Contract labourers aimed to purchase clothing which they lacked locally, as a result of the stringent colonial laws. The 1923 Kavango workers' protest against being sent to the diamond mines in the south, where they heard workers were dying in high numbers, played a role in shaping their labour recruitment and distribution to the copper mines such as Tsumeb, Otavi, and Grootfontein according to their wishes. From the perspective of workers, the contract labour system was nothing but slavery. They felt treated like property to be sold. The naming of employers became a way to deal emotionally with this mistreatment. The memory of the 'missus' lingers on centrally because workers related to their home experience of the submissive role of women and, therefore, they could have found it traumatizing to be shouted at by a woman. The labourers adapted to new colonial times and a new rhythm of labour such as bells and whistles. They developed good inter-ethnic relations among them. Contrary to the literature, the workers' relation with the location residents was not always bad. The impact of the labour system was that there were but small benefits and these were not long lasting and necessitated a return to contract. The thesis points to this cycle of entrapment which led to the mobilizing of workers. The workers' mobilization extended to the Kavango and resulted in rebelliousness against SWANLA and its institutions. While this thesis hopes to contribute to ending silences about the Kavango's engagement within the contract labour system, it points also to the need for future research highlighting women's narratives about life in the Kavango as well as postcolonial labour migration to the charcoal and grape farms which, as narratives of the former Kavango contract labourers show, continues.