At their congress in Palapye last week, the Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) resolved to walk out of its marriage with the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU). However, in a one-on-one interview with Mmegi, the BOFEPUSU Labour Secretary, Johnson Motshwarakgole is adamant that it is only BOPEU president Andrew Motsamai who has walked out on BOFEPUSU writes BAME PIET
On this hot Thursday mid-morning, Motshwarakgole is reporting for duty for the first time after a week-long sick leave, which was probably interrupted by reports of the BOPEU congress that resolved to ‘dissolve’ their marriage with BOFEPUSU.
With his huge body structure, Motshwarakgole does not show any signs of sickness, except that he is not his usual jolly self. But the departure of BOPEU is a serious source of concern for Motshwarakgole who states that: “When your brother or sister leaves your family to stand alone, it is a painful thing.”
At the time of this interview, the Botswana Teachers Union (BTU) was simultaneously addressing journalists to respond to the congress.
“What is happening is just a clash of personalities (bochekwane); some are power seekers, others are opportunists but this will not deter the labour movement in Botswana. No individual can take workers for a ride, nobody, not even myself.”
Motshwarakgole states that Botswana is faced with serious problems of unemployment, water and electricity shortage, and poverty, and adds that it is inconceivable for an individual to accuse those who complain about these things of being political.
“You cannot stand on the sideline and keep quite. These problems need the intervention of the labour movement. Some of these poor people were former workers and we should talk about these things without fear.”
Motshwarakgole says the four reasons for departure as stated at the Palapye congress are lack of accountability, poor relations between BOPEU and BOFEPUSU, political affiliation and BOFEPUSU as a one centre federation status.
He states that Motsamai was the inaugural secretary general of BOFEPUSU at its establishment in 2007.
“He has never issued any audited books or financial statement. He was earning P31,000. Now he is telling BOPEU membership that BOFEPUSU has never issued financial statements…He only signed the last cheque as recently as mid 2015, as a signatory”.
The parties are also at loggerheads over a conference hosted by BOFEPUSU, where BOPEU felt unwelcome.
“As we speak there are three vacant positions at BOFEPUSU – vice president, secretary of publicity and secretary of health. Motsamai was demanding three positions of president, secretary general, and publicity and we told him that he has to lobby for those posts and not demand them.”
Political affiliation – he says the BOFEPUSU position is very clear.
“We do not belong to any political organisation, but because opposition parties are complaining about the same things that we are complaining about, we are working with them. It is only a naïve fool who will not work with a person or organisation that holds the same view as him.”
“As individuals we are free to support any political party of our choice. BOFEPUSU does not belong to any political party. What we have agreed is to request our members to vote for a party that speaks the same language as us on issues of national interest. We have never said we were joining any party, but requested workers to vote as a block.”
He says that when BOFEPUSU was established, the COSATU secretary general, Zwelinzima Vavi, was against the idea “accusing us of trying to create positions for ourselves. As we speak he is a founding member of the fifth federation in South Africa. Now he is speaking in support of what we were proposing when we established BOFEPUSU - not to belong to any political party.”
Our union as Manual Workers Union has accommodated all political parties. BOPEU claims to be the biggest union in BOFEPUSU.
“The issue is not big brother, but the workers rights. Infact, BOPEU is the second biggest union in the country after the Manual Workers Union. What I can assure you is that members of BOPEU are members of BOFEPUSU and will never leave after knowing the truth.
Excepts from the interview
Mmegi: Did you see the BOPEU departure coming?
Motshwarakgole: We knew that it was coming, but we had hoped that the people would refuse as there was nothing for them to agree to leave BOFEPUSU. That is why they were fed lies.
When Motsamai was secretary general he believed in running things unilaterally, but that is not how the labour movement operates. During the 2011 civil servants strike, the executive held a meeting, but Motsamai secretly met with President Khama. Intelligence operatives informed us about this meeting, but we withheld that information from our membership because it was a dangerous move. Had we revealed this, BOFEPUSU was going to split.
Just recently, when the Bargaining Council was negotiating better working conditions, he once again went to OP and agreed with government on a five percent increment. They threatened to walk out of the negotiations and we settled for a six percent increment. Later the cabinet secretly effected a 40 percent increment for themselves and Members of Parliament. That is not how to do things.
Our lawyers tried to reconcile us, the four unions, with BOPEU but he walked out and invited Marenga to walk out. He threatened to sack him if he did not follow suit.
We have tried to invite BOPEU for meetings but to no avail.
Mmegi: How will this affect you?
Motshwarakgole: We cannot say this thing will not affect us; when a family breaks apart, no person can say it is business as usual. Once they know the truth, the membership of BOPEU will not leave BOFEPUSU. I challenge BOPEU to be part of our January retreat, where we should set up an independent inquiry to investigate what went wrong, what led to BOPEU walking out of BOFEPUSU. This will set us free. They should support this. The nation should know what happened. If we are wrong we will apologise to the workers.
Mmegi: How will this departure affect you financially?
Motshwarakgole: BOPEU has not been paying subscriptions. However, the issue is not about finances. Our maximum subscription is P2/month whilst at BFTU it is P10.
We are not after money, we want to unite the workers of this country to speak in one voice about their working conditions. Workers working conditions are political and therefore anybody who accuses us of politicking can leave us with peace.
Mmegi: How does it affect your status as a recognised federation?
Motshwarakgole: It does not affect our status, but when your brother leaves your family to stand on the side, it is painful. We are not happy. This is betrayal of the struggle. But we will reach our destination. We will make sure that in 2019 we get the government we can influence be it BDP or UDC. What we are not sure about is whether we will be there as individuals. Nobody can reverse our tide. The party that will rule Botswana in 2019 will be speaking the same language as our movement. No amount of money can stop this movement. We have put structures in place that will take the workers to our destination.
In trade unionism there is rank and file. National centre refers to when national unions come together, it creates a federation and then the Ministry of Labour and Home Affairs recognises us as a national federation after BFTU. This means there are two federations and national centres. Under Botswana laws no federation can join the other, instead they merge to make a confederation or a congress, that is international practice.
Mmegi: Leadership declaration of political interests: is it a healthy thing?
Motshwarakgole: I have always declared my preferred political party but that has never been a problem. Even the founding president, the late Sir Seretse Khama stated that no union should belong to any political party, but individuals are free to belong to any political party. This has never been a problem with former presidents. We do not understand why it is a problem now. Manual workers have had councillors from the Botswana Democratic Party, the Botswana People’s Party, and the Botswana National Front. What is important is that individuals should respect other people’s beliefs. We cannot be accused of dividing the union if we call for declaration of our interests.
Mmegi: Some people view unions as a get-rich quick route wherein members establish companies to benefit from membership
Motshwarakgole: I dont have a company and even my colleagues here do not have companies. There are about 64 registered unions in Botswana but there are some elements who call themselves trade unions who collect money from people but later disappear without a trace. Yes, there are also incidents where some individuals establish companies to benefit from the membership, but it can be investigated. At Manual Workers, we have only two companies – one that has arranged a loan scheme with a local bank, that gets a commission, as a union, from loans from membership. There is another company that deals with Benefit Scheme that is not doing well.
Mmegi: Where do you see BOFEPUSU in two years, 2019?
Motshwarakgole: It will still be a big organisation, some people do not understand us. We do not belong to any political party. If the BDP addresses our concerns there is no problem with that.
Mmegi: So when are you allowing an audit of BOFEPUSU books?
Motshwarakgole: When you are a full time secretary general, you are an equivalent of the Chief Executive Officer of the company, so it is your duty to call for an audit. Like I said earlier, BOPEU was until recently signatory of our cheque books and therefore should have called for audit and financial statements.
I am not authorised to sign any financial transactions. The last time BOFEPUSU was audited was when Manual Workers Union was the treasurer.