FRANCISTOWN: May 1, 2021 will mark exactly 10 years since the public servants led by the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) embarked on a massive strike, which widely came to be known as the mother of all strikes.
The strike was, amongst others, precipitated by former president Ian Khama’s antipathy towards trade unions. The history of Khama’s days in office is littered with tales of how he made several attempts to suppress trade unions. Khama’s regime did not even comply with the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) conventions that the country is a signatory to.
The delivery of public service across all government sectors were negatively affected by the month-long strike. This angered citizens who felt that the government was unreasonable in its failure to negotiate and resolve the impasse with the leadership of trade unions. Some members of the public sector trade unions were fired from work as a result of Khama’s disdain for trade unions. Just after the strike, the government appeared before the ILO where Botswana’s case with regards to contravening certain conventions of the latter was heard. Many also believed that the 2011 public sector strike was a historic one because it shocked the socio-economic and political establishments. Prior to the strike, civil society activism had been downplayed in Botswana.
The government had always exploited the weaknesses of civil society organisations including labour unions. There is also a swelling view that the strike awakened the political consciousness of the working class, both in government and the private sector. Furthermore, the industrial action also triggered political activism across the length and breadth of Botswana. The ruling Botswana Democratic Party’s (BDP) worst performance at the 2014 General Election was attributed to the party’s laws and regulations that were anti-workers. The 2011 strike did not achieve the 16% wage increment, but pundits believe that it raised political consciousness, not only within the workers but also within the public, which is amongst factors that dented the popularity of the BDP as evidenced at the 2014 General Election. At the height of the 2014 election campaign, BOFEPUSU, which is the country’s leading federation openly mobilised the workers to vote for a united opposition, the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). The federation argued that it was protecting the interests of its members and the tenets of democracy, which is why it wanted the BDP out of power. At the 2014 General Election, the UDC had crafted a manifesto that was pro-workers. BOFEPUSU also openly backed the UDC financially at the 2014 General Election. In most by-elections held post-2014, the federation also backed the UDC.
Additionally, in 2017 the BDP shunned the idea to work closely with labour movements. The idea came as a recommendation from the then party secretary-general, who was deeply worried by the waning relationship between workers and the party.
When President Mokgweetsi Masisi took office after Khama’s tenure in 2018, he changed tack. During the early days of his presidency, he seemed to favour the idea to work to favour honesty and transparency when dealing with trade unions. He regularly invited them for consultative meetings on issues of national concern. Masisi’s attitude towards trade unions when he took over was widely celebrated by some stakeholders including workers and political pundits. The BDP’s victory at the 2019 General Elections was also partly attributed to the support of the
This week politics and administrative lecturer at the University of Botswana (UB), Adam Mfundisi reflected on the events of the 2011 strike and how they have helped shape the political landscape of the country over the last decade.
He said that since the 2011 strike, trade unions have taken a centre stage in shaping the socio-economic and political space.
“They do not only influence politics in favour of labour, but also promote the interests of society. They have also participated in mass mobilisation of people to motivate them to engage fully in the socio-economic and political development of Botswana. These are some of the key benefits that came as a result of the 2011 strike,” he said. He added that recently, trade unions have been engaged in the agitation for constitutional reforms to strengthen the country’s democratic system.
The UB academic stated that as a result of the events of the 2011 strike, all political formations in the country know the critical role of trade unions (in the socio-political landscape of the country) and are wooing them with the promises of improving the living conditions of their members. “All in all democratic consolidation requires independent and autonomous bodies promoting socio-economic and political development. Trade unions have ensured that there is democratic consolidation in Botswana over the last ten years,” he observed.
Another political analyst, Dr Kebapetse Lotshwao who is also a political science lecture at UB, noted that one of the key highlights that came as a result of the 2011 strike is that it helped show that it is possible for opposition parties to unite and remove the ruling party, which has been accused of not serving the interest of Batswana. “The 2011 workers strike was especially important because it influenced the formation of the Umbrella for Democratic Change, which was the first successful effort to unite opposition parties in Botswana since independence. As a result of the agitation by workers and opposition parties, the ruling party was damaged as evidenced by retention of power by less than 50% vote in 2014,” he explained. He went on to say that it is unfortunate that what was achieved in 2014 was not consolidated as evidenced by new divisions within the opposition bloc. “The main beneficiary of this state of affairs is the ruling party which whilst able to retain power, fails to meet public expectations such as job creation and containment of corruption amongst others.” He added, “Whether unions continue playing an important role in the political landscape of the country depends largely on whether the government addresses the needs and their members. If not, they (unions) may still try to align with opposition, hoping the opposition leadership has learnt a lesson from past mistakes.”