In 2013, the then Permanent Secretary to the President Eric Molale issued a directive which barred civil servants from taking part in political party primary elections (bulela ditswe). His reasoning was that this amounted to active participation in politics, a view which he said was contrary to the Public Service Act. The High Court recently dismissed Molale’s directive which effectively allowed civil servants to take part in the ruling party primary elections. Just what the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) led government through Molale stood to gain from this directive is mindboggling if not downright suicidal. While civil servants voted in the 2014 general elections, the main reason for barring them in the BDP bulela ditswe was that the party feared that its big preferred names could possibly fail to make it past the first hurdle. In any event, some of these names still failed like Ndelu Seretse and Lebonaamang Mokalake. The BDP has a sub-committee on labour which comprises of among others, Ministers Edwin Batshu, Molale and Tshenolo Mabeo. Two of these are former and current ministers responsible for labour while the other is the author of the ill-fated directive. Minister Batshu has not done enough if anything to win the hearts and minds of workers nor is Minister Mabeo, so far. To compound matters further for the BDP, there are allegations that Minister Molale is an unpopular figure both in the party and government. He (Molale) stands accused of interfering in the Bargaining Council which further strained relations with civil servants. Molale, it is further alleged, is the civil servants’ enemy number one. If these allegations against Molale are true, it is incomprehensible how he will make it past Bulela ditswe where civil servants will be entitled to participate. With these figures in the sub-committee on labour and given their histories in their respective portfolios, how on earth does one expect them to bring anything different this time around that which they failed to in the past. It will be reasonable to argue that the polarised relations between the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and the civil servants is in great measure, attributable to them individually and collectively. The BDP has in my view, shot itself in the foot – it is the architect of its own misfortunes. Before Molale’s directive though, relationships between the BDP and workers were at an all-time low following the 2011 public service strike. Workers from across trade unions were very dissatisfied that government had refused to meaningfully engage them on issues which led to the strike. To add salt to injury to the already gaping wound, about 3000 civil servants were fired for participating in the strike with a few subsequently re-employed. While these dismissals followed a legal route where the court declared that the strike was unlawful because issues complained about constituted disputes of interest as opposed to those of right, it didn’t really matter much to most of those dismissed –government was accused of some form of intransigence and the actual losses of jobs. The BDP is in government and it surely should have taken a lead in engagements to avert the strike.
After the 2014 general elections, government became even more heavy handed by adding more sectors to the essential services bracket presumably and firstly as some form of punishment for the strike and secondly as a way of reducing striking numbers and strength in future strikes. Slowly but surely, industrial relations were becoming more polarised by each passing day. Again, didn’t anybody in government anticipate the consequences of not reaching out to workers as an important voting bloc which was estimated at around 100,000 in 2013? As time progressed, government and workers through their trade unions spent most of the time in courts because even in the most of trivial and unwinnable cases, government exhibited an inflexible attitude and conduct. Workers won most of the court battles like when government tried to un-procedurally and unlawfully terminate secondment of union officials to their unions. In October 2016 and a few days after the 50th Independence celebrations, government delivered the a fatal and perhaps the final punch on the faces of workers when the BCL mine was shut down with over 5000 gainfully employed workers there literally lost their jobs at the blink of an eye. Assuming each worker directly or indirectly supported four dependents, about 20,000 livelihoods are arguably permanently shattered. To again add salt to the gaping wound, expert advice was rendered to government on the catastrophic consequences of wholesomely closing the mine. This was ignored. State Owned Enterprises in which and in most cases government is the shareholder, continue to shed jobs at an alarming rate which as a consequence balloons the already high unemployment rate, poverty and crime levels. As recently as two months ago or so, government appeared at the International Labour Conference (ILC) in Geneva for gross violations of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Conventions to which she is a signatory. For all intents and purposes, this should not have occurred because Botswana has portrayed herself as a country that respects workers and their rights. In no uncertain terms, Botswana has been instructed to repair the damage to the Conventions and offer an update in November this year. Pronouncements of the Minister responsible for labour doesn’t for now as has been the case before, suggest that anything different will be forthcoming from the expected update if any. The gist of the Minister’s utterances directed at the ILO before and after the ILC meeting suggested that Botswana doesn’t require these institutions’ input in solving the country’s labour challenges. Nothing suggests that this ‘arrogant’ conduct will change in the face of adversity. The status quo is set to remain.