There is a glimmer of hope for workers in Botswana as the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) continues overtures to court trade unions. But the recent change of attitude by BDP could be simply political posturing, STAFF WRITER DITIRO MOTLHABANE observes. By far the harshest critic of trade unions, who openly abhors their militancy, President Ian Khama vacates office in just three months paving the way for new dispensation that will either continue his legacy or thaw relations into the future. In his 10-year tenure Khama has flatly refused to engage trade union leaders, accusing them of being unpatriotic, breeding lawlessness and an irritant to peaceful administration of the civil service. Heroic exploits by the three musketeers, Johnson Motshwakgole, Tobokani Rari and Ketlhalefile Motshegwa of Botswana Federation of Public, Parastatal and Private Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) have been thwarted by Khama Government machinery that clearly took orders from the top, the highest office in the land. Decisions of the courts of law – in labour disputes – that often favour Government at the expense of trade unions have fuelled speculation that even the judiciary under Khama presidency had gravitated towards being Executive minded. Such perceptions persist. Now that Khama is leaving office, a new chapter of industrial relations is opening for Botswana. In fact Johannes Tshukudu, the BOFEPUSU president, sums it up when he declares, "We have closed that chapter; we are now watching Masisi to see what the incoming President is bringing for Batswana and if he is bringing anything different from his predecessor. We are focussing on the future. We are crafting a very clear agenda that should be given to him when he resumes office on April 01, 2018. We are going to put our demands on the table".
Masisi brings hope
Already, the incoming administration led by Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi has extended an olive branch to reach out to trade unions to mend collapsed labour relations. Although he has not personally given trade union leaders audience, Masisi – who is the Chairman of the BDP – recently dispatched the party labour committee to meet trade union leaders. Further, he has already caused interaction between a team of Cabinet ministers, among them Eric Molale, Tshenolo Mabeo, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, Edwin Batshu and Thato Kwerepe and the federation BOFEPUSU leadership. Last week Masisi advised the federation that he has asked cabinet ministers to engage further on TDA and other labour laws. Both parties are currently eyeing each other with scepticism, flowing from a tumultuous relationship that had been reduced to a battle of egos between personalities that make up the leadership on either side of the aisle. To summarise their expectation about the relationship between Government and civil servants under Masisi presidency, BOFEPUSU deputy Secretary General Ketlhalefile Motshegwa, does not enthuse much hope. He says the biggest challenge for Masisi is that he will inherit a civil service rotten at the top characterised by severely arrogant technocrats, who believe they were appointed by Permanent Secretaries. "Khama's administration was premised on nepotism. There is more emphasis on loyalty rather than merit and performance. They were more concerned about who appointed them and it was worse in the sense that whether they are corrupt or practice maladministration nothing will be done about them. Most of them were corrupt because they knew they had protection. This is the type that Masisi will inherit unless he fires them, in particular Minister of Presidential Affairs. If he inherits and maintains Molale as he is that's the cradle of his problems," says Motshegwa. Motshegwa says Masisi should fire Molale and Permanent secretary to the president Carter Morupisi who ploughed seeds of discord in the civil service, and all permanent secretaries and directors whose performance and merit is questionable.
Amending labour laws
The envisaged amendment of the Public Service Act (PSA) and Trade Disputes Act (TDA), which has been temporarily put in abeyance by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), has sent a chilling warning to trade unions by limiting their powers to bargain, almost declaring all public servants essential service workers as well as taking away the independence of bargaining platforms. Trade unions are aggrieved by the proposed appointment of and housing of the Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC) secretariat to be done by Directorate of Public Service Management(DPSM) under the Office of the President. Such development will end the existence of PSBC as an independent body, as it will now become a department of DPSM. This will be regression on the goodwill of Parliament, trade unions warn. Moreover, trade unions are alarmed by a recent decision by the Commissioner of Labour to close down the PSBC, without due process of consultations. Trade unions warn that this is a clear demonstration of total disregard of stakeholders by the BDP Government, which adds to reasons for calling for regime change. The minister of labour has since been invited to intervene, to grant trade unions an opportunity to comment and respond to an application by Government to close the PSBC. The PSBC was registered by the Commissioner of Labour on 19 August 2011, with the powers vested on him by the Trade Disputes Act and the PSA to register Joint Industrial Councils. The cancellation of the PSBC was announced by Minister Mabeo just a week before the Court of Appeal (CoA) made another controversial judgment which outlaws the voting in political party primary elections for civil servants, as requested by the BDP.
Botswana offends ILO
When advised that for the first time in history Government of Botswana was reported and summoned to appear before ILO committees for violating some conventions she has ratified, Khama dismissed that development saying ILO is not a court of law. Trade unions say they expect Masisi to understand the dynamics and bearing of international institutions like ILO after they engaged him before the ILO meetings in May. The proposed PSA amendment declaring almost all public servants essential service workers contravenes ILO conventions, and trade unions demand that Botswana should comply because she has ratified the international statutes. According to a Committee of Experts on the application of standards Botswana violated two core conventions: Conventions 87 and 98 and acted contrary to the ILO frame work definition of essential service. Convention 87 provides as thus; “Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize while Convention 98, provides as thus; “The Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining”. Upon lobbying by BOFEPUSU, BFTU and all other international labour partners, Botswana made the short list of 24 countries, who are the top aggressors and violators of the core ILO. A team of cabinet ministers has already met trade unions to discuss the state of labour laws and the bargaining council in Botswana under instruction from Masisi. Last week Masisi promised to engage further on TDA and other labour laws. True to his word, the BDP recently announced that Government has suspended the presentation of Bills before Parliament that will kick start the amendment of labour laws, among them PSA and TDA.
The Khama administration has been criticised for failing the education sector, with examination results for PSLE, JCE and BGCSE continuing to plummet throughout his tenure due to numerous factors. For example, in 2016/17 JCE results show that 32.54% of 41 938 candidates obtained grade C or better while 67.4% failed only managing grade D and E. Tobokani Rari, who doubles as both BOFEPUSU and teacher trade union BOSETU Secretary General, said they are waiting with baited breath to see what the incoming Masisi administration will do to turn the tide. He says Government should channel more resources into the education sector, as the current lion's shared dedicated to education in annual budgets is clearly insufficient. Emphasising the importance of education as the mainstay of economies around the world because it trains human resource to drive development, Rari says Government should support the sector more than any other. He says over the years the Khama administration (MoE) was always caught flat footed at the beginning of the academic year, causing a floppy start of the school term due to shortage of resources e.g. books, teaching aides, food, which disrupted learning. "It was not a good year for education, once again we saw appalling results and dwindling education system results. We cannot allow a situation where over half of the students failed," he says.
BOFEPUSU has justified their open participation in the political economy arguing that they represent a critical constituency, which benefits directly from decisions made by politicians elected to Parliament and local authorities. As the proponents of a united opposition towards achieving regime change, BOFEPUSU is deeply hurt by the split of opposition political parties, a major set-back in the alliance agenda. In not so many words the federation, who supported a united opposition leading to and post 2014 elections, blame the UDC leadership for failing to intervene on issues at the BMD and leaving them until it was too late. To them, the split was avoidable but was allowed to happen because of failure or lack thereof of dispute resolution mechanisms in the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC). But notwithstanding their disappointment, Rari says as a mandate driven federation they will discuss and form a resolution on the way forward at the next congress. In addition, Motshwarakgole decries the dearth of robust debates in Parliament, particularly where opposition MPs are becoming more and more apologetic. He said such conduct is what has led to current developments where they are tossed around at the pleasure of the Speaker. He says as BOFEPUSU they want politicians to realise that Parliament is not a church and should pursue their mandate of representing their electorates with vigour rather than failing to even protect each other as they are often shown thrown out while others watch helplessly. "Re rata gore ba thanye maroko, ka gore dieta diema di etla" [We want them to be on top of their game because trouble is on the way], he says.