In the impending commemorations of the 10th anniversary of the public sector trade unions’ 2011 strike dubbed ‘the mother of all strikes’ and billed for May this year, The Monitor Staffer Chakalisa Dube looks at some of the key characters who featured prominently in the historic industrial action
FRANCISTOWN: May 1, 2021, will mark exactly 10 years since the historic civil servants’ industrial action, which attracted over 90,000 workers around the country. It was initially thought that the industrial action will last for 10 days but was prolonged to eight weeks as the government would not entertain the 16% increment demanded by workers. The government instead offered a five percent salary increment, which figure was revised to three percent and finally government got its way. Below, we look at the contributions of individuals from both government and the trade unions during the eight-week long industrial action.
While Botswana Federation of Public, Private and Parastatal Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) leaders were busy with demonstrations then president Ian Khama engaged in a countrywide public relations exercise. During his trips that mainly targeted rural areas, Khama described workers’ demands as unreasonable based on the prevailing economic conditions. Although he prevailed and there was no increment, many believe that Khama’s perceived bad attitude towards workers shaped the relationship between government and trade unions moving forward. Since the 2011 strike, the relationship between unions and the government has been toxic.
Now President, Masisi was the then Minister of Presidential Affairs during the strike. He is probably the man who defended the strike more than any senior government official. He was often in the limelight both in the media and public gatherings protecting Khama and the government. During the strike, Masisi used every opportunity he got to dismiss the workers’ demands as unreasonable. Masisi’s hard-line stance towards the workers made him the number one public enemy. Surprisingly, Masisi who pundits believe rose to political prominence during the civil servants strike changed his tune and warmed up to the workers during the initial days of his presidency. He even increased the salaries of civil servants. There is, however, still the opinion that Masisi is yet to do better to earn the full respect of civil servants.
The success of the strike can be attributed to Motshwarakgole, who was then BOFEPUSU labour secretary. He gave the strike political direction. Motshwarakgole, an experienced trade unionist, is someone who wields much power and is often listened to. He was influential in the strategic planning of the strike and provided wise counsel to the likes of Tobokani Rari and Ketlhalefile Motshegwa who were still relatively new in trade unionism. Motshwarakgole with his militancy and good oratory skills was able to deal with the government’s often intimidating and intensive public relations exercise.Some are of the view that under his influence during the strike, the federation members became political players and still are. Some pundits even believe the Botswana Democratic Party’s (BDP) poor performance at the 2014 General Election was a result of the high political awareness of civil servants. During the strike, BOFEPUSU made it clear that it will lobby its members not to vote for the ruling BDP at the 2014 elections. Motshwarakgole wielded so much power that he was able to influence workers to stop the strike although some critics felt that the government had bought him together with BOFEPUSU president Masego Mogwera.
Just like Motshwarakgole, the then president of BOFEPUSU was influential in the
The then Directorate of Public Service Management (DPSM) director, Bakwena was at the centre of the government’s decision to fire about 3,000 health workers. The essential service workers had ignored a court order to return to work. Unions later demanded their reinstatement, but the government said that it will only consider them if they applied for their jobs again. A majority of them have since been reinstated.
Motsamai, who was BOFEPUSU secretary-general at the time, played a critical role in the administrative marshalling of the strike. By then BOFEPUSU was still a relatively new body and was not as wealthy as present times. It was also the first time that the country’s trade unions had engaged in a prolonged strike. He was able to bring the workers together to rally behind the strike as well as frequently attend court proceedings against the government. Motsamai also became a regular feature in the private media as he sought to diffuse the government’s intensive public relations exercise.
Justice Tebogo Maruping
A few days after the strike Maruping made a provisional court order declaring that it was illegal for essential service workers to strike. The order would later be made final. Maruping’s ruling heightened the already strained relationship between the government and BOFEPUSU. The federation dismissed the order saying that the strike was a matter of labour, not morals.
Rari was among those who traversed the length and breadth of the country communicating important messages about the strike and trying to build its momentum. Rari, who had just ascended to the position of Botswana Secondary Teachers Union (BOSETU a strong affiliate of BOFEPUSU) secretary-general was among those who defied calls that government trade union leaders and workers should not take part in political activism. He attended several opposition rallies and was among those who influenced the striking workers to shift their focus from demanding the 16% pay hike to a regime change (removing the BDP at the 2014 General Election).
The then BOFEPUSU publicity secretary operated like a well-oiled propaganda machine during the strike. He was instrumental in the union’s information against the government. This helped maintain the momentum of the strike.
John SeakgosingSeakgosing was the then Minister of Health and Wellness. He was among the key government officials who traversed the length and breadth of the country defending the government’s position not to increase salaries of public sector trade unionists. Often he lambasted essential service workers for being unreasonable by taking part in the strike. He was the first person to issue a warning saying that doctors and nurses who have traded their stethoscopes for placards will be dismissed if they do not return to work.