The deep seated rivalry between some leadership of Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) are said to be on the brink of manifesting in public. Some board members at UNIGEM, the BOFEPUSU investment vehicle, told The Patriot on Sunday that while they try to keep the relationship civil there are clear divisions within the unions particularly between BOPEU led by Andrew Motsamai and National Amalgamated Local and Central Government and Parastatal Workers Union (NALCGPWU)'s Johnson Motshwarakgole on a number of issues. It is alleged that the tension has culminated in BOPEU notifying BOFEPUSU about their intention to withdraw from Unigem, an issue yet to be brought to the attention of the board.
A source posits that the problem is aggravated by that individual trade unions have become powerful in their own right, due to millions of Pula accumulated in massive investments in different sectors of the economy and member subscriptions.
Motshwarakgole says while union leaders may not always agree on everything it is ridiculous to suggest that there are serious divisions, or even that BOPEU is leaving the federation due to a fallout. "We have managed our relationship very well. Some of us who have been in the union movement for over 40 years have provided leadership gained from experience. It is inevitable that government may try to cause divisions to cripple trade unions. Trade union leadership is not about us individuals, so it is not about me or Motsamai. It is impossible or even suicidal if they withdraw from Unigem," he said, denying knowledge about any tension between him and the BOPEU president.
Unigem board chairman, Samuel Molaodi also denies knowledge of any divisions within member unions or the withdrawal by BOPEU from the company. "It would be very unfortunate if that were to happen. It does not make sense that they would want to pull out at this stage. They hold the deputy chairman position," he said.
BOPEU is alleged to have rubbed other shareholders in Unigem the wrong way when they registered companies that have been earmarked for the latter to benefit the collective, thus technically coming into conflict. BOPEU has a registered insurance broker and have already tried to register a cooperatives bank, it is said. Consequently BOFEPUSU leaders are said to have demanded commitment to Unigem from shareholders, which resulted in BOPEU deciding to pull out, it is alleged. Motsamai confirmed Friday evening that BOPEU has indicated to other shareholders in Unigem that they want to disinvest in the company by selling their 20% shareholding. He, on the other hand, denied that they are pulling out due to strained relations with other leaders. "It is purely a business decision, which makes economic sense and has nothing to do with the labour front. Like any shrewd businessman, we have numerous other investments in different sectors and we review these every now and then to optimise returns on investment. Actually the decision was made at our board meeting sometime last year," he said.
About the alleged fallout Motsamai said he does not understand where the allegation comes from as they work together well with other leaders. He denied that BOPEU is too close to the employer. He said in any setup, where leaders meet there is bound to disagreements on some issues but that should not be construed to signify divisions or a fallout. "It is a healthy environment, where everyone is given an opportunity to express their views even if he differs with others," said the man who represents one of the largest public sector union with membership standing at over 28 000.
Motsamai was recently overheard complaining at the BOSETU elective congress in Palapye that manual workers leaders had influenced the outcome of the elections, which saw Kwenasebele Modukanele elected president. Motshwarakgole and Molaodi, who both attended the BOSETU congress, laugh off the suggestion saying they were only invited and left during the voting. "We would be so powerful if we can influence all delegates on how to vote after we only stayed shortly at the congress. But we are not surprised because we are always accused of influencing the decision at every congress we attend on behalf of our union," said Motshwarakgole.
An attorney who has worked closely with BOFEPUSU leadership since its formation said he could not remember at any one point when they all agreed on any issue. "The federation is a broad church, they are never totally united always displaying huge differences in suggestions on political and financial approach," he said.
Asked about the rift between members of BOFEPUSU leadership over the regime change chant, which saw BOPEU pulling out of the Labour Day commemoration on May 1 complaining about the wording of the theme, Motshwarakgole says nobody can derail workers from achieving their resolution of electing a united opposition. He said it is not about what he, Motsamai or any union leader wants, but a collective decision. "We are just individuals in mass based organisations," he said.
There are allegations that Unigem, an investment company formed by BOFEPUSU emanating from resolutions of Thaba Thula Declaration has been negatively affected by internal differences between the shareholder member unions and individual leaders. And government is smiling gleefully at the impending fallout waiting to pounce and annihilate the trade union conglomerate. Already Unigem-a name derived from Union GEMVAS, faces losing the lucrative P500 million government employees motor vehicle advance scheme (GEMVAS) administration contract, which comes to an end in two months (November 2014). Despite that the contract expires next month government has remained silent on its renewal. GEMVAS recently enjoyed an increase in subscriptions after more public servants joined the scheme after government extended the mortgage repayment period from ten to 20 years, which lowers the monthly repayment amounts. Under normal circumstances the contract would have been floated/ advertised/ put up to tender six months before the current one runs out. Sources close to GEMVAS reveal that government plans to extend the contract for Unigem by a further two months before parting ways with the union company, and passing it to a different administrator.
Government has over the years ignored attempts by Unigem to persuade her to award them the administration of LAMVAS- a local authorities version of GEMVAS, which has been riddled with maladministration and poor accounting leading to government losing millions of pula.
Should Unigem be terminated, over 50 employees absorbed from the Ministry of Finance to administer GEMVAS when the trade union company was given the contract will be left jobless. Faced with the predicament, Unigemboard has intensified the diversification of their investment portfolio into different sectors of the economy. Millions of pula have been injected to promote Botlhe Medical aid to penetrate the saturated health care sector, offering products hitherto unavailable in the local market. "Botlhe is growing in leaps and bounds. We are doing well in terms of uptake," says Molaodi.
Rich unions, poor workers
Molaodi then explains that to avoid over reliance on one source of revenue they have mandated their investment vehicle, Unigem, to go out in the market and search for lucrative opportunities to grow their portfolio. Although he declined to share details about the sectors they are investing in as progress is at a sensitive stage, The Patriot on Sunday, can reveal that UNIGEM has identified a local and two South African investors to partner with to resubmit their application for a banking licence. Bank of Botswana had earlier rejected UNIGEM application because the trade unions were the only financiers with one source of revenue, which increased risk.
The Patriot on Sunday also has it on good authority that after selling shareholding in Cresta, due to poor performance of the stock at Botswana Stock Exchange (BSE), Unigem has acquired 60% shareholding of Federal Insurance Brokers. The acquisition of Federal is a precursor to a bigger plan to set up an insurance company, which has proved to be lengthy and technically cumbersome. Unigem has also entered into a technical partnership with an American company and filed an application for an asset management company with the Non-Bank Financial Institutions Regulatory Authority (NBFIRA).
Unigem has also entered into a partnership with a local property development company with international connections and have been aggressively pursuing land authorities and other land owners to purchase land. The trade unions want to venture into real estate and property development to provide affordable housing for their members and commercial property for business. Individual trade unions have also entered the property investment market. They have been on a spending spree buying several office blocks around Gaborone. Although Motshwarakgole and Molaodi refuse to divulge much, the interview is interrupted with notification that they are due for an appointment with Time Projects in the adjacent boardroom. Time Projects are renowned commercial and residential property developers and management.
Members of Botswana Federation of Public Sector Trade Unions (BOFEPUSU) are National Amalgamated Local and Central Government and Parastatal Workers Union (NALCGPWU), Botswana Land boards and Local Authorities and Health Workers Union (BLLAHWU), Botswana Sectors of Educators Union (BOSETU), Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) and Botswana Teachers Union (BTU). They hold equal shareholding in UNIGEM, where each union is represented in the board of directors.