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Content warning: This story contains references to suicide. 

Shoprite Holdings, the largest supermarket retail chain in Africa, is under fire from workers organizing against grueling work conditions. The current surge in organizing follows the suicide of Shoprite worker Fabiola Zondjembo, a Walvis Bay woman who ended her life by drowning after enduring constant abuse at her job. For workers and organizers confronting brutal conditions at the retail giant, the current struggle is also part of Namibia’s long history of colonialism and neocolonialism. Shoprite, a South African multinational, has more than 3,000 stores across the African continent. Originally founded during Apartheid, its founder, billionaire Christoffel Wiese, is now one of the world’s richest men. The Real News reports from Walvis Bay and Windhoek, Namibia. 

This story, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, is part of The Real News Network’s Workers of the World series, telling the stories of workers around the globe building collective power and redefining the future of work on their own terms.

Producer: Namupa Shivute
Videographer: Hildegard Titus
Video editor: Leo Erhardt


Inna Hengari, Namibian Member of Parliament, Popular Democratic Movement (speaking before crowd): Forward to the young people of Namibia, forward!

(With crowd response): Amandla, ngawethu!

Hildegard Titus (narrator): It is not easy to secure a job in Namibia where the youth unemployment rate is at almost 50%.

In 2022 Namibia’s government paper New Era reported that the demographic most affected by unemployment is young Black women.

In January, Walvis Bay resident, Fabiola Zondjembo ended her life by drowning. Just a few hours earlier, she had gotten fired from her job as a cashier.

Her local community in Walvis Bay, including her family and former colleagues, demand justice for Fabiola. They claim abuse and mistreatment at Shoprite — Africa’s largest retail chain — as a culprit in Fabiola’s death.

The majority of Shoprite workers are employed as casual workers, who the company refers to as PPPs — permanent part-timers. Most of them are women. 

1st Anonymous worker: Us workers go to work, but we work with fear because you know that any simple  mistake can land you behind office doors. When you come out of that office, its like you are confused and then you go to the till. We want to work smoothly, and smile with customers while we are assisting them at the till, but now I won’t be able to smile with the customer anymore because I was made upset in the office. “Smile with the customer!” How can I smile with the customer if I am angry, while it’s not fair? 

And you will be counting huge sums of money, more than you have ever seen in your life, but out of that money the cashier will only get weekly N$400 (U$D 27) or N$500 (U$D 35). It’s not easy. A cashier might not afford to eat that day while counting huge sums of money.

Hildegard Titus (narrator): Shoprite Holding is a multinational conglomerate made up of over 3000 stores in Africa. The Group’s history of worker exploitation, is just as extensive, as its spread across the continent.

Fabiola worked at a Shoprite supermarket for two years. Outside work, she often spent time with her sister Isabella, who remembers her by her traditional name Unomasa, meaning “God is powerful”. 

Isabella Zondjembo, Fabiola Zondjembo’s sister: In 2018, my mom passed away. Unomasa (Fabiola) was studying nursing at the time. That year she was the best learner in her class and school and was supposed to travel abroad for further studies (in 2020). But then Corona started and she got a job at Shoprite instead.

Hildegard Titus (narrator): The family has been seeking justice and clarity for the events that led to Fabiola’s demise.

Isabella Zondjembo, Fabiola Zondjembo’s sister: We were at home one day when Fabiola told: “My older sister, at Shoprite we work like slaves. There is no rest in that place, grown women cry tears. The managers shout at us. People cry real tears.”

Unomasa had her thing (name badge) which was written Fabiola and it was broken. When it broke, Fabiola reported it to the manager telling her it’s not holding and requested a new one. 

The woman (manager) chased her out of her office. Fabiola put the badge in her pocket and a few days later, the manager asked her where her badge was. Fabiola said it’s here and the manager 

asked why she wasn’t wearing it. Fabiola told her that she had been in her office to report that, which is why she keeps it in her pocket. The manager told her that she had to go for a disciplinary hearing.

Hildegard Titus (narrator): Even though a hearing was scheduled, the managers — whose job appears to be making workers’ lives hell —punished Fabiola until her last day.

1st Anonymous worker: Fabiola was our colleague. She used to work in front with us and if you would ask her  to help you with something like “Fabiola, please fetch me a trolley for the customer,” she would oblige without ever answering you badly.

Then we just started noticing, we don’t see Fabiola in front at all anymore. Fabiola is just kept at the back in the staff canteen. She had to clean the canteen, clean the outside toilets etc. Even when we clocked out, she had to stay behind. It was like someone who was being isolated from people.

Fabiola’s situation really shocked and frightened us in this shop. We are not free in this shop. If we just see one of us being placed to work in the staff canteen, we really get scared.

Isabella Zondjembo, Fabiola Zondjembo’s sister: Unomasa would be the last to leave the store. By the time she has to go home, it is dark, there are no taxis on the road, no people on the streets and she had to walk roads further down until she found a taxi. 

And then came the last day. Fabiola was called to sign her dismissal letter and clean out her space.That day is the day that Fabiola went and completed her last deed and ended her life.

What also hurts us is our loved one really walked from where she walked with no shoes and no clothes and into the ocean.We want to know what were the last words that were exchanged between the woman (manager) and my sibling, when they last encountered each other.

2nd Anonymous worker: We also pass blame onto the big bosses in South Africa that come to inspect the shop and see how workers are performing.

That is why we have now handed in a petition asking for the removal of the current managers, but they do not want to remove them. Instead they want to transfer them to other shops like Checkers etc. but that is not our demand. The people they would be working with there are people just like us.

3rd Anonymous worker: Even if you have a problem at work, who will you consult if your manager has issues with you, not even allowing you to speak or giving you a chance. Who will you talk to?

Hildegard Titus (narrator): The Shoprite Group was founded in 1979 during the Apartheid years in South Africa. In 2016 Forbes counted Christo Wiese, the man who stayed at its helm for 41 years amongst the world’s wealthiest people; with a mass fortune of USD 5.8 billion.

Inna Hengari, Namibian Member of Parliament, Popular Democratic Movement (addressing crowd): We celebrated independence from what we call the Apartheid regime. We thought as young people of this country, the fruits of independence would be jobs. We thought the fruits of this country would not be poverty, but prosperity. We thought as young people of this country, we would have access to free quality education. 33 years after independence, none of us can say we have any of those things.

Hildegard Titus (narrator):

The tracks for racist labor exploitation on Namibian soil were laid before South African Apartheid. Before that, Namibia was a German colony where the Germans enforced settler colonial rule through a genocide. The Germans placed thousands of Nama and Ovaherero in concentration camps and condemned them to racist and sexist slave labor, amidst atrocious human rights violations. It was those tracks that facilitated white South African settler rule in Namibia which helped cement modern day injustices across racial lines. Today, Namibia, as a direct result 

of colonialism and Apartheid trails right behind South Africa as one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Namibia also has the fourth highest suicide rate in Africa, a factor, significantly impacted 

by the country’s economic situation.

Isabella Zondjembo, Fabiola Zondjembos sister: The Shoprite woman (manager) would say that these children smell of Vaseline and they don’t wear make up. They don’t look beautiful.

4th Anonymous worker: Apparently, I must make myself beautiful first before I can become a permanent employee.

But the problem is, me I don’t like make-up.This is why they used to force me to put make-up. But make-up is not my favorite.

Hildegard Titus (narrator): Shoprite’s labor violations are not restricted to Walvis Bay.Over the years, workers across the country have resisted them. Also scoring significant victories, with the assistance of the Nixon Marcus public law firm.

In Windhoek, we caught up with Elsie Ashipala, a labor activist who has supported the worker’s struggle in the capital.

Elsie Ashipala, Labor activist: So, I don’t really see that Shoprite has really changed. In today’s world they are just using the term “independent” but then they are still being colonized. But this time actually it’s not only the whites. The whites are colonizing us indirectly; using our own people to colonize us.

Inna Hengari, Namibian Member of Parliament, Popular Democratic Movement (addressing crowd): Hage Geingob [President of Namibia] comes to parliament and tells us he is going to send 2800 unemployed young people to the correctional sector so that they can be employed as security officials, so that they can be employed as police officers. What about those that studied to be lawyers? What about those that have studied to be educators in this country? What about those? What about those who studied to be nurses in this country? What about those young people?

Isabella Zondjembo, Fabiola Zondjembos sister: On Tuesday we are celebrating Namibia’s independence day. I am asking for whom  was this land freed? Was the land freed for us while we are crying? While we have not  received a solution/help, yet we are celebrating that the land of our mothers is free.

Fabiola left behind her brothers and sisters in Shoprite. This freedom has not yet reached  her brothers and sisters while they are being taken to hearings, while others are being fired. How do we work with this situation? How do we get help so that these things end for those who are still in Shoprite? How will we be helped?

Hildegard Titus (narrator): A peaceful youth protest against unemployment that was scheduled for Namibia’s 33rd independence was shut down by the police who also jailed the organizers.

Police Commissioner (addressing crowd): You have to disperse. Should you not disperse, we as the law enforcement agents, we are going to take necessary steps to make sure that this demonstration does not go ahead. Yes, so having said that, yes, we will only give you 5 minutes.

Hildegard Titus (narrator): Yet, at Walvis Bay Shoprite, it has, been business as usual since Fabiola’s death and the demonstration that followed. We accompanied Isabella to Shoprite to get some answers, but the branch manager who had Fabiola fired, threatened to call the police on us before shop security arrived to escort us out.

Isabella Zondjembo, Fabiola Zondjembos sister: When we go to the woman to ask her something, she runs without giving feedback, wanting to call the police instead. When are we going to talk? When will we know what she spoke about with Fabiola?

What we want to know as a family is until when? Shoprite said they would need two weeks to make a decision about what to do with that manager. Until now, we have not 

received any feedback. The police said they sent an inspector to investigate what happened and who will get back to us. We have not received any feedback. So, we are asking until when? Our family is hurting.

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Namupa Shivute is a storyteller, researcher and freelance journalist from Namibia.

Navigating through history, arts and education, Namupa explores Blackness and Queerness in the sociopolitics of Africa and its diaspora. They tell marginalised stories through various media e.g. literature, film, music, community-based arts and workshops. As a thinker, Namupa’s provides a political and spiritual blend of insights gathered through personal Pan-africanist and socialist experiences, the 90s Hip Hop era, with influences from Afrofeminism, Black Consciousness, and the Queer and Abolitionist movements.

Their work has been featured in local, continental and international media outlets like Sister Namibia, Observer Connect, Southern Times, Sweden’s Ottar magazine (with Swedish translation), Germany-based Unbiasthenews and the USA’s BlackWomenRadicals.