Botswana: Public sector strike wave brings on blues

Beata Kasale

A public sector workers’ strike has taken just a little of the shine off Botswana’s reputation for peace and a healthy democracy, when an issue that seemed easy to resolve soon turned into a test of survival for the government


It wasn’t a pretty sight that ended the eightweek ‘mother of all strikes’ in Botswana in mid-June. A disgruntled public service worker summarised the termination of the walkout in one sentence: “They chased us out like dogs.” She felt betrayed that the unions had instructed the police to disperse those workers who had decided to continue with the strike. “Armoured vehicles descended upon us like locusts and asked us to disband. This is so unfair. Why did the unions let us continue with the strike when they knew they would retreat?” asked the disappointed worker.

“Due to the strike I am in debt and I can’t imagine how I will survive. I won’t be paid for the month of May to add to my current misery of losing part of my April salary,” she added. “We were aware that this was a ‘no work, no pay’ strike but the reality is not as sweet as the revolution songs we sang. My family asked me to go back to work at the peak of the strike but I refused because I thought I was fighting for a good cause. What cause? Now I am left holding an empty salary slip while the union leaders are sitting pretty in their offices, with a 3 percent increment. We were taken for a ride.”

Now it’s back to work and the historic strike, which took Botswana the brink of chaos, is already just a bad memory – albeit one that leaves a bitter taste. The across the board pay rise eventually accepted by the government will benefit senior levels in the public service significantly more than the lowest-paid workers who braved the chilly Botswana winter without pay for nearly two months.

Long the envy of Africa for its tradition of peace and political stability, Botswana has in recent months been through severely testing times as what was supposed to be a two-week peaceful public service strike in April soon split the nation and threatened a breakdown of the usual sense of order.

Workers held firm to their demand for a 16 percent pay rise and defied the union leaders who had agreed to a 3 percent increase. Helpless union leaders had no say as the strikers barricaded roads in Gaborone and Francistown, smashed cars and went into a frenzy, claiming only the leaders stood to benefit from the 3 percent rise while the strikers, many of whom earn as little as BP11,000 ($1,666) a year, would lose out. Workers in the lowest paid salary band felt they would gain very little having already braved the winter weather and lost income.

The government finally insisted that the unions convince strikers to go back to work and promised to consider the reinstatement of workers who had been sacked and the back-payment of earnings lost during the walkout. The government also encouraged dismissed workers – especially those from the essential services such as nurses and doctors – to reapply for their jobs. Some of these employees did return to work, but others defied court orders, causing considerable suffering in a number of hospitals.

Amid the uncertainty, President Seretse Khama Ian Khama stood his ground, insisting that the country could not give what it does not have, and refusing to increase the budget deficit brought on by the recent global financial crisis. But his handling of the strike was questioned by many, especially by those who had been critical since the ex-army officer took charge in 2008, as the chosen successor to the former president, Festus Gontebanye Mogae.

“The people have become more militant in their demand for accountability from government. They want a government which is responsive to their immediate issues and concerns,” said the opposition’s Duma Boko

Before the latest elections in 2009, Khama stunned the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) by expelling several members, including sitting parliamentarians, whom he called “trouble-makers”.

This resulted in the formation in 2010 of the breakaway Botswana Movement of Democracy (BMD).

Dubbed by some as the “iron man with the heart of a lion”, Khama was adamant that he would not buy votes by giving in to the demands of the unions and public services by promising money Botswana does not have. “It is precisely for the greater good of the nation that we cannot now afford to buy short-term popularity by burdening the country with unsustainable deficits into the future,” said Khama in an interview at a point when the strike seemed to be escalating (see page 43).

The President’s hard-line stand stirred mixed feelings among the people. On the one hand, he was accused of bringing disorder to a once peaceful country and on the other, he was hailed as a true and honest leader who refuses to secure votes by plunging the country into debt. Those in the business community, and financial commentators abroad, certainly tended towards the latter view.

Leaders of the minority parties seized on the opportunity to knock the government. Botswana National Front (BNF) leader, Duma Boko, told Global: “The people have become more militant in their demand for accountability from government. They want a government which is responsive to their immediate issues and concerns.” He added that Khama’s administration should make it a priority to offer a more transparent and open process in which the unions and civil society in general can play a more active and prominent role.

Dumelang Saleshando of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) said: “If we were in power, we would significantly cut the expenditure on defence and channel the money to better things. In a nutshell, [the] money is never enough but if spent properly there would not be any problems.”

For his part, the BMD president, Gomolemo Motswaledi, said the president should not deny union officials, civil society members, spiritual leaders and even heads of the opposition a meeting to deal with the issues of national concern surrounding the strike.

Government spokesman Jeffress Ramsay took the line that the president was a true democrat who did not wish for his country to go belly-up by buying political support. “If he was a populist he would have forgone the commitments for the government to pay for much-needed anti-retrovirals… and would have offered a short-term solution detrimental to the economy of the country,” he asserted.

Ramsay rubbished claims of excessive military and intelligence spending and said that Botswana was ill-equipped in an era of transnational threats, cyber crime, and human and drug trafficking. He cited one case where a member of al-Qaeda became a teacher in Botswana and was only intercepted when he started a riot in Kenya.

On the issue of democracy versus the automatic presidential succession in which the president is not initially appointed by the people, as regularly happens in Botswana, Ramsay asserted the legitimacy of the process, saying that the president had to have a constituency and be elected by parliament as per the country’s constitution.

Some say that Botswana’s new round of confrontation, and public questioning of politicians, started after ex-president, Festus Mogae, pushed for an investigation into the affairs of the former managing director of the Debswana (De Beers Botswana), Louis Goodwill Nchindo. The diamond magnate was charged with corruption but mysteriously died early in 2010 before his case went to trial – his headless body was found in the Kasane area. It soon seemed that skeletons that had lain hidden for over two decades were beginning to tumble out of the closet.

Over the past three years, Botswana’s long-standing reputation for good governance has received some substantial knocks, as even high-ranking officials have been answering charges of corruption.

Following the latest resignations of ministers and other senior officials and the ‘strike of all strikes’, the widely admired ‘jewel and shining star of Africa’ may be starting to lose its sheen.

About the author:

Beata Kasale is Publisher of The Voice, the leading weekly newspaper in Gaborone.


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