Topias Marenga is not only a towering figure in physical stature but also a towering figure in the country’s labour movement. Marenga is one of the architects of Botswana’s historic 2011 and longest public servants’ strike dubbed the “Mother of all strikes”. As a precursor to the commemorations of the Labour Day on Saturday and 10th anniversary of 2011 strike, Mmegi Correspondent LEBOGANG MOSIKARE asks this union luminary a number of questions
Mmegi: You were of the main architects of Botswana’s historic 2011 public servants’ strike, how do you think that strike has shaped or influenced labour relations between government and unions in Botswana?
Marenga: Notable achievements happened following that historic downing of tools/labour by public servants. You will recall that before that strike, the Public Service Act only allowed workers in the private sector to strike. The prerogative to strike changed after that strike. Government started to hear the voices of various public workers unions and allowed them to unionise as per the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention. That on its own is a huge achievement since it paved way for the formation of the Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC). This a vital structure were the employer and unions sit around the table to discuss various issues concerning the welfare of workers.
Mmegi: When President Mokgweetsi Masisi assumed power, he promised to resuscitate the PSBC for smooth labour relations with unions. However, the PSBC later dissipated during his reign and up to now it is still non-existent. Do you think Masisi has honoured his promise of making the PSBC a permanent structure that the state and unions can explore to solve pertinent labour issues during his presidency?
Marenga: The PSBC is a creature of the ILO Convention 151. This Convention, first adopted in 1978 protects public employees against anti-union discrimination and undue interference and guarantees public employees’ organisations appropriate facilities to enable them to carry out their functions promptly and efficiently. So it is of utmost importance that the PSBC should be always be in existence for smooth labour relations between the employer and unions. In this regard, Masisi still owes unions a permanent PSBC. He should make sure it is in existence as like yesterday. Unions are saying this cognisant of the fact that negotiations between government and unions are a process.
Mmegi: Most leadership positions in the country’s labour organisations are still being held by men while women hold ‘less influential positions’. What do you think is causing that and how can this be rectified?
Marenga: Your observation is spot on. Women just like their male counterparts in trade unionism and other sectors of society are capable of performing and achieving great results. That is why at the Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU), we took a deliberate decision of creating a position of Second Deputy President which is the preserve of women. We did this because deliberately because we know that women can perform wonders and take BOPEU’s ambition to greater heights.
Mmegi: When just giving a general overview of the landscape of unions in Botswana, what do you think is the cause of incessant fights over
Marenga: In my view, there is nothing wrong when unionists contest for various positions within their respective unions. Competition for positions is very healthy not only in unions but in other spheres. The membership of unions in Botswana consists of various cadres. Therefore, this means that this various specialists are bound to hold different views concerning how unions should be run. As I have already stated, it is how unions handle these diversity of opinions from these different cadres that may lead to disputes concerning how unions should be run. But, unions should have measures in place to manage this competition of ideas so that they don’t to escalate to into needless factionalism and court fights. There is nothing wrong with lobby groups within unions but they should be managed properly and maturely in order not to destabilise unions.
Mmegi: What do you think are the implications of these incessant disputes over leadership positions?
Marenga: These disputes over leadership positions have the potential to scare away non-unionised workers from joining unions. When unionisation started in Botswana around 2007, unions were mostly associated with blue collar workers. Some working people especially white collar employees associated unions with blue collar workers who were wrongly perceived as rowdy, uneducated as compared to white collar employees and other ills. But there has been a paradigm shift around that thinking as people of various education credentials have now joined unions in large numbers.
Mmegi: Today unions are operating under tough working conditions which were induced by the advent of COVID-19, what role do you think unions have played to convince government to safeguard workers’ safety?
Marenga (Laughs) As you may be aware that I am no longer active in BOPEU because of some labour disputes that are currently before court, I cannot answer that question authoritatively. But the little that I know is that comrades from various unions in Botswana were invited by the Presidential Task Team to air their views about the safety of their members. I also know that unions were crying that their safety is at stake because their members were not given enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). It is a well known fact that some workers succumbed to the COVID-19 pandemic due to lack of PPEs and other safety related issues.
Mmegi: Lastly, what is your advice to your fellow unionists and Batswana at large during the times of COVID-19 scourge?
Marenga: My message to my comrades and the nation at large is that there is no denial that COVID-19 exists. So, I encourage them to at all times observe the COVID-19 protocols to safe their lives.