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Johnson Motshwarakgole: Botswana’s grandfather of unionism

The history of unions in Botswana will not be complete without mentioning the name Motshwarakgole. A shrewd unionist, Motshwarakgole was also a major player in Botswana’s historic and longest strike by public workers in 2011. Mmegi Correspondents LESEDI MKHUTSHWA and LEBOGANG MOSIKARE asked him about that historic moment

Mmegi: You were one of the main architects of Botswana’s historic 2011 public servants’ strike, how do you think that strike had shaped or influenced labour relations between government and unions in the country?

Motshwarakgole: When the new leader took over from former president, Ian Khama, they understood that civil servants can go on strike. The current government understands the implications and damage that can be caused by a national strike. Therefore, they take decisions regarding labour relations cautiously and have now started hearing the voices of public servants through their respective unions to avoid history repeating itself.

Mmegi: When President Mokgweetsi Masisi assumed power, he promised to resuscitate the PSBC (Public Service Bargaining Council) 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 resolve pertinent labour issues during his presidency?

Motshwarakgole:  It is very disappointing that until now, the PSBC is not fully operational due to some disagreements between the government and unions. For the PSBC to be functional, unions should be admitted in the bargaining council through a proportional representation. Furthermore, for a union to be part of the PSBC it should be based on numbers. But the government wanted all members of the nine public unions to be represented which is not acceptable. This is what is causing the delay for the PSBC to be operational.

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?

Motshwarakgole: That is very true but should not be entertained because there is a need for this to be corrected so that there is a proportional balance between all the genders. It is something that Manual Workers Union wants to change. I do not know why this is happening and action should be taken as soon as possible. So, I apologise for that. This is very unfortunate because it is against the principles or conventions of Public Service International Trade Union. This is why for example if they have a convention and four delegates are to attend, they expect the same union to send a balanced ratio of both men and women.

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 leadership positions that sometimes land in our courts of laws?

Motshwarakgole: Even if it is very healthy to differ as unionist for

the development of the trade union, there is a need for knowledge to be shared amongst the unionist about running a trade union. Many unionist do not understand a lot of things and sometimes are misguided. Some of these issues are caused by speculation on some issues such as prolonged leadership which some people feel like other certain leaders are clinging to power. Running a trade union is a calling and when some people leave office, some unionists want the positions to be advertised... These fights are just caused by people who just want to cling to certain positions or posts.

Mmegi: What do you think are the implications of these incessant disputes over leadership positions?

Motshwarakgole: The implications of fights over leadership positions cannot be entertained at all. They can even destabilise the unions and scare off non-unionised members from joining the union. Some of the union members can even quit due to the headaches caused by the disputes. Moreover, labour movements should be the most democratic places where democracy is well practised. Manual Workers Union is a leading example where democracy is practised. For example, historically we host congresses every three years. Last year because of COVID-19,  we could not host the congress because 3,000 delegates are needed for such congresses to be held. However, COVID-19 does not allow that as only 50 people are permitted to gather.

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?

Motshwarakgole: We spoke to the government about issues relating to the working conditions of our public servants. We addressed issues as offering Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to their members, but a lot of things are still lagging behind. The government declared COVID-19 a deadly disease without taking  into consideration a lot of things. They did not consider how the families of workers, who had succumbed to COVID-19 related illness whilst  on duty, would be compensated. At least as Manual Workers Union we have insured our members so that they are able to get four annual salaries if they have died due to COVID-9 complications.

Mmegi: Lastly, what is your advice to your fellow unionists and Batswana at large during the period of COVID-19 scourge?

Motshwarakgole: My advice to my fellow unionist is that they should adhere to all the COVID-19 protocols at all times. There is only one commander and during these difficult times, hence we should follow what our health professionals are saying. Let’s all wash our hands frequently sanitise, avoid gatherings and practise social distancing so that we can conquer COVID-19.


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