Numerous studies have demonstrated that civil society in Botswana is very weak.
The government has abetted this state of affairs; it appointed activists into political and other positions to silence them, enacted unfriendly laws which inhibit freedom of expression and the rights to assemble, protest and petition and the government has in the past waged propaganda war, including labelling some activists as foreign and opposition agents.
The church is weak, the academia has no impact and there is effectively no human rights organization. Ditshwanelo has disappeared; it seldom speaks against the regressing democracy and the state of human rights in the country. However, there’s hope that trade unions, especially public sector unions, can save Botswana’s democracy.
Their civic duty has now increased from being mere advocates of better working conditions for their members to being a force to reckon with on democracy and governance issues. This way, unions can help Political parties and Parliament in efforts to democratise Botswana to a point of consolidation.
It is trade unions which have transformed the country’s industrial relations. Public Sector employees couldn’t unionize and could only form associations. Leadership of unions couldn’t be full time, unionism was therefore part time for obvious reasons. Government could attend meetings of unions or associations and could access minutes. It was impossible to strike for purposes of bargaining with the employer.
Many international Labour Organisation conventions were not signed ratified and domesticated. Unions and associations couldn’t access external technical or financial assistance as this was not allowed. A plethora of unfriendly labour laws and laws inhibiting freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions existed. Trade unions and workers associations (now unions) fought these bad laws and scored great wins for many battles, even though the war is far from over.
Trade unions such as public sector unions and others like Botswana Mine Workers Union (BMWU) are big unions with a large following, have big assets and business interests worth millions.
These unions have numerous financial and other incentives for their members. Their financial freedom has allowed them to speak truth to power without fear, favour or prejudice. They can hold anyone accountable including the executive. They can litigate not only on matters relating to workers rights but on other issues concerning democracy and governance. Unions, especially public sector unions, have filled a void left by human rights groups, academia and in some cases political parties. Their litigation is shaping the country’s jurisprudence.
Parliament of Botswana is less independent; the executive has over 40% representation in parliament, the backbench of the ruling party is numerically less than the front bench, the institution depends on the executive for resources including staff and Government Business supersedes Private Members Business in the House. For theses and other reasons, Parliament needs assistance from the civil society, in particular trade unions. The two should work together to reform laws and policies relating to industrial relations and democracy and governance.
On issues affecting unions and workers, progressive MPs and parties in Parliament can work with unions to get many things done. There’s a need for a stand alone ministry of labour to specifically deal with industrial relations. Unions and Parliament should work together to achieve a more independent industrial court with an improved system of appointment of justices.
The court should be a creation of the constitution and not a mere Act of Parliament. There’s also a need for a labour court of appeal to deal with trade disputes appeals. It is also important to have a commission for conciliation, mediation and arbitration to independently deal with trade disputes; the state is not neutral and competent to deal with these matters.
Laws should be reformed to accord full pay for women on maternity leave and to increase the same to fourteen days as well as to introduce a paternity leave for men to play a part in raising children. Living wage should replace minimum wage. There has to be compulsory pension for all workers. Th envisaged Trade Disputes (Amendment) Act should be killed especially its intention to declare every worker essential; the scope should be aligned in accordance with ILO conventions.
All the above can be achieved with cordial relationship between unions and progressive MPs or parties. Unions don’t have to affiliate to parties, they just have to assist each other in pursuit of workers’ rights and democracy and governance. If need be, unions should assist in the envisaged change of government because many of their aspirations cannot be realised under this government.
They don’t have to have permanent friends in the opposition and permanent enemy in the ruling party. They just need to have permanent interests of ameliorating workers’ rights and conditions and consolidating Botswana’s democracy.
Efforts to change government should be supported by all pro-democracy forces because it is by and large the only way to achieve meaningful change in many aspects of our polity.