Storm clouds gather for BOPEU's May Day celebrations


FRANCISTOWN: A storm is reportedly brewing at the country’s largest public sector trade union, Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) ahead of the main Labour Day commemorations pencilled for Francistown.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi is billed to address about 36,000-strong BOPEU members alongside his opposite number, Leader of Opposition in Parliament and Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) president, Duma Boko and other invited dignitaries on May 1, 2019. The stealth battle for the soul of the single and most powerful trade union has been a low-key affair until recently when some of the backers of the deposed former BOPEU leader, Andrew Motsamai waged a strong comeback war.

To those in the know, the latest manifestations of trouble within the BOPEU structures are in fact the culmination of a comeback bid by the staunch supporters of Motsamai. Although BOPEU leadership emerged from a tumultuous congress in Kasane last year convinced that after taxing court battles, peace had finally returned to the trade union led by Masego Mogwera, it seems more trouble is on the cards.

Mmegi is privy to the details that the Motsamai backers aggrieved by their former leader’s court cases with the current leadership have come up with attempts to take over the movement and possibly rescue their man from prosecution on allegations of embezzlement of union funds.

Matters came to a head recently when BOPEU’s national executive committee (NEC) member and Botswana Unified Revenue Services (BURS) chairperson based in Kasane, Mosalagae Tlhako wrote two letters to BOPEU secretary general, Topias Marenga and his deputy Ketlhapeleng Karabo challenging their stay in office. “This serves to remind the leadership of the union that since the contract of Marenga and Karabo are coming to an end this year, it will be worthwhile to follow the best international practice whereby the sitting CEO of an entity and his/her deputy start serving notice six months before expiry of their contracts,” reads in part a letter authored by Tlhako on April, 15 2019 and passed on to this publication. The letter is addressed to Marenga in his capacity as BOPEU secretary general.

In another follow-up letter, Tlhako wrote to the union secretariat: “Since I wrote and transmitted my letter to the national office bearers and NEC on April 15, 2019, I have since received information that completely alters the character of my letter.  I have been made aware that the offer of employment of Marenga and Karabo effected on February 1, 2012 and was for a period of five years, which means it expired on the February 28, 2017 or thereabouts”. As per his letter, Tlhako, who apparently represents the views of many, would like the issue of ‘questionable contracts’ to be part of the agenda items already submitted by his colleague, Modise Ramaretlwa in his April 22, 2019 letter.

An impression has been created across the union structures that Marenga and his deputy were in the union offices illegally. Contacted to verify his two letters and their motives, Tlhako was Wednesday this week cagey to comment safe to say, “such issues are strictly internal and not for external parties”. He, however, emphasised that, “BOPEU NEC is meeting today (Friday) to come up with a direction on matters on the table and we shall see how the meeting pans out”.

Tlhako also promised that it is only after the Friday meeting that they will be able to chart the way forward. The questioning of the contracts of the secretary general and his deputy is just one of the many steps that those sympathetic to Motsamai could take in their endeavour to make a comeback, an insider pointed out this week.

Apparently, this group is reported to be in control of the majority of the union regions as they control eight of the 14 regions across the country. In the union’s national appeals board, they have four out of five members. They are reportedly taking advantage of their strength.

Removing the secretariat loyal to the current president Mogwera could be a powerful stepping stone to removing Mogwera herself as that will leave her vulnerable. Numbers are apparently skewed in favour of the pro-Motsamai supporters across the 14 regions. Mmegi is also in possession of  leaked WhatsApp communication in which a list of proposed replacement names for both Marenga and Karabo is being sold by their opposite numbers. In equal vein, the WhatsApp group is selling proposals to fill other important positions within the union structures and the business section of BOPEU.  A insider confided to Mmegi this week that BOPEU members are going to travel to Francistown for the May Day commemorations troubled by the latest developments, which the union executive leadership can only ignore at its own peril.

Quizzed about the latest exchange of letters and developments within BOPEU ranks, secretary general, Marenga feigned ignorance.

“That’s news to me as we have not received anything from the union structures or individuals to that effect,” was all Marenga could muster.

His deputy, Karabo confirmed that whilst he may not be the one directly dealing with the matter, “it seems there will be an issue relating to the contracts of the secretary general and the deputy”. He acknowledged that there is more than meets the eye to the contractual issue.

Explaining the duration of his contract, Karabo indicated that he exited the civil service in 2015 and his contract with BOPEU effected August 1, 2015 and therefore, it expires on August 1, 2020.

“It’s a shock that our contractual issues have become subject of speculation when we still have a year before they expire.

I suspect that those making noise about our contracts do have issues with us,” said Karabo highlighting that he has always viewed a contract to be a matter between the employer and employee.

Karabo further conceded that when BOPEU went to Kasane for its congress last year there were many issues on the table.

He said the next meeting of the BOPEU national office bearers will give a report on what will be done going forward on a proposed effort of reconciliation of members. “We expect the entire leadership of BOPEU to come together and find an amicable solution to issues on the table,” Karabo declared with optimism.

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