Following the historic 2011 public servants’ strike, public sector unions affiliated to Botswana Federation of Public, Private and Parastatal Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) still loathe former President Ian Khama’s administration with a passion. With the commemoration of 10 years since the 2011 just around the corner, the unions say that Khama reversed the gains that could have catapulted labour relations in Botswana to greater heights. Mmegi Staff Writer CHAKALISA DUBE and Correspondent LEBOGANG MOSIKARE report
FRANCISTOWN: Masego Mogwera, the embattled Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) president still reminisces how Khama, aided and abetted by President Mokgweetsi Masisi, then a senior minister in Khama’s administration, halted the progressive growth of unions in Botswana.
Mogwera says despite the treatment unions in Botswana experienced during the Khama regime, most if not all trade unions and their members in Botswana especially those in the public sector understand their roles and rights.
“They know that as part of the civil society they provide checks and balances in the way government is run, how policies are formulated and their implications.
They ensure that all laws that affect them are done with their input or else they challenge that through the right forums,” she said.
Mogwera says BOFEPUSU members are highly sensitised about labour issues to the extent that government no longer dismiss employees without following proper channels. “Trade unions now readily take government to court to seek redress and even to international bodies like the International Labour Organisation (ILO) if there is violation of any statute or convention,” Mogwera explained.
Asked how the Khama regime treated trade unions in the aftermath of the 2011 strike, Mogwera responded: “Immediately after the strike and until April 2018, the government became very hostile and had no mercy to trade unions. The Khama administration became very angry and was characterised by brutality, intimidation and some kind of intolerance.”
Mogwera added: “Then, unionists strongly understood labour procedures and processes but unfortunately they were met by government administrators who were lagging behind in appreciating and understanding the processes and procedures.”
While government took stern action against employees and their unions, Mogwera explained, it lost many cases against both workers and their unions at the courts of law.
Mogwera says that post the Khama administration in April 2018, there was change and a new breather on how the State was working with unions.
“There are consultations and dialogue with the current regime although nothing positive is still coming out of these consultations. The 2019 salary negotiations was the best negotiation process since the the promulgation of Public Service Act in 2010. The negotiations were held under a cordial atmosphere and the agreements implemented as agreed upon.”
She added: “Even though there was the delay last year in implementing the salary increase due to the pandemic, government still kept her promise. On the negative side, the Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC) is still to be resuscitated and there is a lot of blame game. Generally, I would say that government’s attitude has changed for the better. It needs robust union leaders to engage and present well researched position
Mogwera, who some describe as woman of steel in local labour issues, says workers decided to strike because it was in the best interest of the country.
“We also wanted to protect the jobs of our members especially essential services providers and the non-skilled workers because it was apparently clear that the employer wanted to dismiss them forever. Indeed many people lost jobs. A total of 2,808 workers were dismissed from work but after that many were re-employed and not reinstated, 500 of those who lost their jobs are still jobless,” Mogwera revealed.
Asked about the memories she still cherishes following the 2011 strike, Mogwera answered: “The day we were in court dressed in black in solidarity with our dismissed comrades. I even still remember the day employees across the country got very angry and literally forced ministers to flee from Kgotla meetings.”
Mogwera added: “I still remember a special Parliament session that was convened to try to repeal an existing statutory instrument following a BDP (Botswana Democratic Party) special congress in Mahalapye that resolved to repeal it. The memories are many. Another such memory is when Parliament was surrounded by armoured cars some of which were said to be filled with hot water. The creativity and energy of striking employees coupled with the songs they sang were also marvellous.”
Since Masisi became President, Mogwera opined, the relationship between government and unions has improved. “The parties know each other well and don’t undermine the strength of each other. The government is very much aware that trade unions can influence the political leadership of the country. The political landscape in Botswana changed a lot from 2011.
She added: “It is a fact that all political parties want to have the trade unions on their side during elections. No party takes another for granted, but I must say that there are some pockets of disrespect between unions and government which I think are caused by personalities and egos.”
Quizzed about her opinion whether public servants may strike again in future, Mogwera said: “I would never say never. If the government doesn’t treat employees with respect, a strike may erupt any time.
The employees’ rights are now are highly respected and I will personally not advise government to allow that to happen. With current high unemployment rate, the unemployed in society may join the strike and the whole situation will become very untidy.”
Asked about what lessons the trade unions have learnt following the 2011 strike, Mogwera said: “The year 2011 was an eye opener. The ground has been prepared and is fertile.”