Last Updated
Monday 12 October 2015, 17:45 pm.
Public service strike a major turning point

For the third week running, public servants have maintained their demonstrations as they call for a salary hike.
By Staff Writer Tue 13 Oct 2015, 10:54 am (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: Public service strike a major turning point

With the law somewhat on the employer's side, frustrations are mounting and the strike is evolving into a different object altogether - a nationwide struggle, the "Tahrir Square" type that threatens to introduce a new, frightening chapter in the country's history. 

While initially the strike appeared to be only in major towns and villages, it now has spread to smaller villages.Solidarity messages and actions have taken place around the country and continue to erupt sporadically, albeit with ever-increasing tempo. The statements made by the main opposition parties at the onset of the strike, their plan to demonstrate and now, the seething anger and uncertainty in schools are cases in point.

In fact the word 'revolution' has been breathed several times after the workers lost the key case in which the Industrial Court ruled that essential services personnel should go back to work. While there have been suggestions that the strike could end, indications are that the three-week walkout might just be the beginning - a new chapter, an important turning point in Botswana's history - a herald of the class struggle where the workers could soon be calling the shots. The great zest with which the workers have approached the matter owes its source to the revolutionary events in North Africa and the Middle East.

From the time Tunisia's Mohammed Al Bouazizi doused himself in petrol and lit a match in front of a government building after a policeman shut down his innovative but illegal attempts to sell fruit on the street a new,determined consciousness has been ignited among workers and youth around the world.

That little match flicker has become a worldwide bonfire amid shouts of  'change!'  It's a call for change of the current political order and ideologies that have left the unemployed and working classes exasperated. And Botswana, splendidly connected to the global village, finds itself with a workforce that shares the same interests as the workers in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria. And closer home, South Africa and Swaziland.

Calls for a revolution have always been a possibility. In fact union leaders warned days before the strike that they would not be able to control the direction of events once the strike started.  The issue of union leaders and their unity is an intriguing one and one that points to a bigger paradigm shift in the politics of the nation.

Here we have people who ordinarily are sympathetic to different political parties - including the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). Here common political enemies bed and dine together in the spirit of labour. They have become one determined front that wants the country's political leadership to notice it. With every added day the strength of this front is growing. Already it has put government and the Dikgosi at loggerheads.

While government wanted the traditional leaders to bar the unions from addressing their tribes and explaining their gripe with the employer, the Dikgosi, in open defiance, disregarded the instruction.

The anger by the Dikgosi is the same bottled up in a number of BDP Members of Parliament (MPs). These are the ones who wanted government to award the workers a salary increment and who will be offended at government's seeming disregard for their advice.

These will be men and

women angry at the fact that government's refusal to listen could cost them votes and jobs as legislators in the 2014 general election. 

But no government would want its workers to be the ones setting the agenda, President Khama would surely be thinking along these lines. But it is a difficult game. A man who stands precariously on a thin ledge while no one - not even from among the political family - offers a hand for support has great odds stacked against him. Some of the odds include an exodus by working class members of the ruling party. It could even include an exodus of the ruling party legislators themselves.

The whole thing just became a whole lot trickier with the Dikgosi appearing to defy government. One word from the Dikgosi would be enough to give direction to coming events. History has shown that traditional leader's bias towards a given political ideology is often imparted upon his people.

The Bangwaketse and Bakgatla, who, for a long time followed the opposition because their Dikgosi were pro-opposition or had simply shown disapproval for some government policy, are cases in point. And not only would it be the BDP government that will be alive to the unfolding events.

The opposition too are aware that a major by-product of the strike could be a situation where the labour movement will now determine their agenda. Thus union leaders may find themselves under tremendous pressure from the thousands of their rank and file to come up with demands that could alter government policy and direction.

This is a great possibility in a country where no one party - not even the main opposition could claim to fully represent the working class majority. The very lack of a mass labour party could present the opportunity for the labour movement to call the shots.

The opposition parties, while claiming solidarity with the workers, have been accused by the ruling BDP of having a different agenda - that of manipulating the labour movement.

Needless to say, the opposition will have to devise a way of maintaining the relationship, assuming that it one day becomes the government of the day, and how easy or difficult that will be is anybody's guess.Meanwhile,frustrations are mounting. Schools could close as early as next week as students break out with their own demonstrations: they want lessons to start. Already Form Four pupils have lost a quarter of the syllabus.

Standard Seven, Forms Five and Two students will be sitting their examinations in less than two months and others have started their final examination projects without any supervision.And so the children in schools across the country are taking up placards.

By noon yesterday it was pupils in Lobatse, Molepolole Moeng and Lotsane. Refusal by the police to grant opposition parties permission to stage demonstrations has added to the frustrations of the politicians and the unions alike.

A unionist was heard this week as he howled: "Since the law will not support us, we will revert to violence".  Is there a possibility that the workers could resort to extra-legal means?

It is a question that government would have pondered many times, a question that is becoming urgent by the minute, as government gets besieged from all ends.

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