The recent Botswana Sectors of Trade Union (BOSETU) Special Congress was held under a very important theme:Meaningful Social Dialogue: A Remedy to Challenges in the Education Sector. BOSETU strongly believes in meaningful social dialogue. This is embodied in the Setswana culture "Ntwa Kgolo Ke Ya Molomo" (It is better to jaw-jaw than war-war), which the first President, Sir Seretse Khama promoted. The current challenges faced by the Ministry of Education and Skills Development (MOES&D), teachers and public sector unions require meaningful social dialogue. This is why it was disappointing to note that the whole MOES&D recently failed to attend the BOSETU Special Congress on 6 August 2013 in Francistown under the pretext that they had a more important appointment with the President, His Excellency Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama. The whole Ministry relocated to the Office of the President on the day they were to dialogue with the teachers on a BOSETU platform. Not a single official was sent to the BOSETU Special Congress. While it is important to regularly update His Excellency on educational issues, it is equally important for the Ministry to attend important stakeholder activities.
The Minister could have attended or sent her Assistant Minister or even the Permanent Secretary (PS) (she has 4 deputy PS) if she could not afford to miss meeting the President on that day. In addition, there are several Directors in the Ministry that could have been sent to the BOSETU congress. The BOSETU Special Congress provided the Ministry with an important and rare platform to share critical education policy issues, programmes and anticipated changes. There are many pieces of education legislation that are under review, formulation or even anticipated to be changed. For instance, the Education Act; Public Service Act; BCA; BOCODOL; Tertiary Education; BQA; HRDC to mention some. General curriculum issues, hours of work, levels of operation, accommodation, and so on are still glaring issues that need feedback from the Ministry regarding their progress.It is however clear why the whole MOES&D preferred meeting Office of the President than attending BOSETU Special Congress. The Ministry of Education and Skills Development officials know the view of President Khama regarding trade unions in Botswana.
This therefore hypothetically explains why the Ministry of Education officials could not 'risk' attending the BOSETU Special Congress in Francistown and miss Office of President. In fact, the other officials did not have any significant role to play during the Presidential presentations. One therefore, cannot fathom the snub to the BOSETU Special Congress which provided fertile grounds for meaningful interaction. There could have been fear of possible reprisals especially that the President is feared. One cannot over-emphasise the importance of education in the socio, economic and political development of this country, but the move by the Ministry officials was a gross exaggeration of that importance. It is well known that President Khama is strategically planning hard to shut down unions or completely destroy them. The President could have easily instructed the MOESD to ensure that there would be representation at the BOSETU Congress.He could have even postponed his one day meeting if he is really a proponent of meaningful dialogue. But President Khama loathes unions and if things were done his own way, he would have them closed down with immediate effect.
The unions and their members should stand up and be very vigilant as the President with known military background, will never forgive the unions. In the army, there is no social dialogue as one has to take orders as they come, and not negotiate.One cannot negotiate in the battlefield. The President should therefore come to terms with the civilian folk, where social dialogue is the daily bread. Before the commencement of the public sector strike in 2011, BOFEPUSU begged to have a meeting with the state President, but he declined to meet them and the strike commenced the following week. During the strike, President Khama dismissed the effects of the strike and even told off employees. The June 2011 Mail and Guardian newspaper states that Khama, in one of his Kgotla meetings, told the workers to strike for another five years and they will still not get any money.By this, he was also closing out prospects of meaningful social dialogue. Now everyone knows the devastating effects of that strike, which was a failure of social dialogue.
After the 2011 public sector strike, the President at the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) July 2011 Mahalapye congress called public sector unionised employees unpatriotic, indisciplined and selfish after the activists took more than a month in a regime change threatening legal public sector strike. The strike revealed the power of the employees as they were on the verge of collapsing the government. This shocked President Khama and he has not forgiven them. Out of fury and anger, his government then dismissed hundreds of striking employees in a very uncharacteristic and unprocedural manner, violating their labour rights.The Industrial court, which is now viewed with skepticism due to its previous judgments and questionable appointments, interestingly confirmed his decision of dismissing the employees.
The President enjoys a number of constitutional prerogatives, including pardon and he has pardoned several prisoners who committed serious heinous crimes, including murder. But he could not pardon dismissed public sector employees who engaged in the 2011 strike. Maybe he will pardon them on independence day.In his November 2011 State of the Nation address, President Khama continued his union attacks, by restraining unions against engaging in politics.Fortunately, Member of Parliament for Molepolole South, Daniel Kwelagobe responded stating that "When one wants water, road, food, talk of privatisation and economy, whether they are members of unions or not, it is politics", Mmegi, 17 November 2011. It is factually correct that unions cannot be divorced from politics and a meaningful way of engaging unions is the only way out. Kwelagobe further explained that "Botswana has committed itself to International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions and even its own laws which emphasise consultation between employer and trade unions", ibid. Still in the November 2011 Parliament sitting, Kwelagobe was quoted as saying he recently attended a court hearing where the unions won an interdiction, and the reason was that there was no consultation. Kwelagobe then blamed the government for not facilitating the platform for dialogue.
In no short time, the President also pushed for the Trade Disputes Act schedule to be amended so that teachers are made essential and restrain them from industrial action (which Minister Venson-Moitoi affectionately called 'go khiina'- tying the front legs like is done with donkeys to restrain movement). This was despite ILO legislation that is against this.The Parliament however rejected the proposals and at the Mahalapye2011 July Congress, the President instructed the BDP Members of Parliament to endorse it in Parliament as it was to be brought back. The amendments were brought for the second time to Parliament and this time around they went through and teachers were made essential. The unions however took the matter to court and it is still there. Again, social dialogue was not exploited.Within the same burst of anger, the President withdrew public sector organisational rights. This was meant to completely vanquish and annihilate the public sector unions. This was despite the rights being provided for by the labour legislation.
The stop order codes are the mainstay of trade unions and their withdrawal were a serious blow to the trade unions and President Khama knows this very well. The organisational rights also included secondment to offices; days off for members; use of employer resources; and so on. This is the real lifeline of the organisations and the President wanted all these stopped as a way of fixing them. The unions were only saved by the recent High court judgments which reversed his decision. This however, does not mean that the President has given up.The State President also undermines the Bargaining Council. The role of the council among other things, is to promote good industrial relations at the work place.The council members from government and union party engage in bargaining, which should be respected by both parties. Several times the President has announced in kgotla meetings in Natale (Central District), Siviya (North East), Metsibotlhoko (North West) that there was no money and that his government was not going to increase public service employees salaries as there are many citizens who are unemployed. He made these public announcements when the Bargaining Council was on and pre-empted the negotiations. He made trade unions appear bad before the eyes of the unemployed, a very divisive strategy from the state President. This also meant that the government was negotiating in bad faith, a strong antithesis to meaningful social dialogue.
As if his divisive strategies were not enough, he invited some teachers to the State House for lunch and then made some announcements there regarding their working and living conditions, which announcements were part of the Bargaining Council mandate. Should the President however succeed in his bid to divide the working and unemployed class, we will see a nation torn asunder by its President.During the BDP Maun Congress in July this year, the President claimed that the union leadership was abusing and plundering union resources for personal gains, that they did not even respect the rule of law and were accused of personal attacks against the Court of Appeal. The President's strategy is to pit the general members against their leadership. The BOFEPUSU leadership has instead taken a stance to declare their interests while the BDP dominated Parliament is refusing to declare theirs.
The President is however not done yet with the unions and this should be a reminder to them to remain united and foster strategic partnerships as a way of surviving, in the event that meaningful dialogue with the President fails.The President's dislike of unions also increased during the Letlhakeng West by elections. The public sector unions, under BOFEPUSU supported the opposition candidate. This infuriated the State President as he let loose the dogs of war. The national and BDP resources were mobilised to teach both the opposition and trade unions a lesson. And as he wanted it, he got it.BOFEPUSU has dared again this week to make public announcements regarding voting styles in the forthcoming national elections. BOFEPUSU will have to brace for the coming storm, which will blow them to kingdom come if there is no strong strategic pillar. In February this year, President Khama took his dislike over trade unions across neighbouring South Africa where he told Business Day that the unions there were too militant and they disappointed him. This was apparently after some South African ports had experienced industrial action, resulting in goods being grounded at the ports and not arriving in Botswana in time.
The public sector unions should therefore know that President Khama is currently working on how to destroy the Frankenstein he advertently assembled through the Public Service Act.When he signed the Public Service Act into law in 2008, he did not pay much attention to the sections that deal with bargaining and industrial action. Hence his desire to have the act revised urgently and those offending sections removed. BOSETU applauds BOFEPUSU for opening up its membership to the private sector unions. This is a welcome development especially that the federation has been dealing with the public sector employees only. Progressive unions in the private sector should hasten to join BOFEPUSU. By so doing, the workers will be empowered to provide credible checks and balances to the employer. In fact BOFEPUSU should step up the recruitment campaigns in order to attract the private sector trade unions.
The private sector employees have had their share of exploitation by their capitalist employers especially those in mining, hotel, banking and retail sectors. BOFEPUSU should also strengthen and use its manpower and other resources to provide the checks and balances to the government in the social, economic and political landscape of this country.Otherwise the workers of this country will forever remain in the poverty cycle while a select few plunder the national resources alone. There is so much talk that those who support the ruling party and the President enjoy exclusively the resources of this country.The unions should come out clear and provide the checks and balances, otherwise the alleged plunder will not stop. Workers of Botswana should unite and move in unison. In fact BOFEPUSU has proved that it is a power to reckon with when they brought stability to the banking sector. There were a number of banks which ill-treated its public sector clients after the 2011 public sector strike. Under BOFEPUSU, the workers deserted the so called traditional banks and identified one friendly bank and moved there. BOFEPUSU and its affiliates should not hesitate to replicate this action to all sectors of the business community that ill-treat workers and are gleefully dancing behind the President to see to the demise of trade unions.
BOFEPUSU should not hesitate to assume its rightful position especially that the courts recently confirmed its legitimate existence. BOFEPUSU should strategise and have a hand in the running and management of the social, political and economic sectors of this country. The federation action will not only promote good governance, but will also help control the crazy prices of goods and services provided by the business community which at times unreasonably go through the roof. Karl Marx's call is now more relevant today: Workers of the World Unite. You have got nothing to lose but your chains!The words of the High Court Judge Lot Moroka in his recent judgment on May 2013 strike the right chord as BOSETU uses this theme (Social dialogue) for two successive years. Moroka said "a stable and productive public service shall never be attained by victories in the court rooms, but by fairness in the boardroom in the true spirit of collective bargaining. Fairness in the boardroom will prevent these disruptive court skirmishes and restore trust between the employer and employees". The words of Martin Niemoller also reverberate an important message to all of us."Then they came for the trade unionists...
"First they came for the communists," he wrote, "and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me." "They are coming for you, and they are relentless. Stand up. For your country, for your family, for yourself. Stand up. Be heard". The unions will be out soon for consultation with their members, and everyone should support them as they dialogue for an improvement in the working and living conditions of their members. Meaningful social dialogue will bring everlasting social harmony. We all need peace and the state President should lead in bringing social harmony.
* JUSTIN HUNYEPA is Executive Secretary of BOSETU