6. The MUN: Building a Future in Namibia

Chapter 6: Brazil and Namibia
Part 2: Namibia’s Uranium Mines

During our stay in Namibia we went along to observe a MUN meeting at Arandis. Five hundred mine workers had gathered in the town hall, and the topic under discussion was the proposed return to work of one of the union officials who had been involved in SWAPO (South West African People's Organization) activities. After a three-hour debate it was decided to take action to force the company to reinstate the man and the meeting ended with a rousing cheer in support of the decision.

The MUN has been in existence for over four years, despite efforts by the South African government and the mine management to suppress its activities. When first established, it had a mere twenty members; the union is now supported by over 70% of the workforce with a membership of over fifteen hundred workers, including twenty whites. A vocal supporter of SWAPO, the MUN has not been daunted by four years of harassment and imprisonment and is committed to continuing the fight against the company and the South African government. Gruenewald sees the MUN's struggle as "a fight to make the authorities realize that whites are not the only humans."

The union's original demands for improved working and general living conditions were consistent with the wider aim of abolishing apartheid and directing the country toward independence, SWAPO's principal goal. However, since SWAPO gained the greatest number of votes in the Constitutional Assembly elections in November 1989, the MUN has begun to direct its efforts toward matters closer to home.

Of the many issues vying for the union's attention, the most urgent is that of its members' health. Not only the increasing incidence of respiratory ailments but also the possibility of exposure to radiation during the various stages of the mining and refining process pose a great threat to the workers' well-being. MUN officials themselves have only a sparse knowledge of radiation, and most of the ordinary workers have none at all. The company has never given out any basic information on the subject, and even if the men want to find out for themselves, there are no books available on the topic, even in the capital of Windhoek.

Each time we met with mine workers during our investigation, we were questioned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about nuclear testing and weapons factories, and about accidents at nuclear power plants. Without exception the men would fire anxious questions at us about their futures and plead with us to tell them anything we knew about the situation at other uranium mines. Fourteen years after the establishment of Namibia's most vital industry at the Rossing Mine, there is still an almost complete dearth of information on radiation levels there, caused in part by the apartheid policies of the South African government. Independence will without a doubt bring radical changes to this state of affairs. Workers will have access to information about radiation that may make them more fearful for their health than they are now. They will also discover that the demand for uranium has decreased since the accident at Chernobyl.

Namibia relies on its natural resources for eighty percent of its income from exports, and after independence uranium will continue to be the mainstay of the nation's economy. How the new nation fares on its own will be influenced by demand for the ore. For the miners, and for the new government, the aftereffects of the monopoly held on information by the South African government and the British multinational mining corporation will continue to loom large in any discussion on Namibia's future.