The neutral stand ahead of 2019 general elections, adopted by Botswana Federation of Public, Parastatal and Private Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) last week, while not surprising makes a mockery of the labour movement, exposes deep seated divisions and conflicting interests in the coalition of trade unions, argues STAFF WRITER DITIRO MOTLHABANE
Throughout the week Tobokani Rari, BOFEPUSU and Botswana Sectors of Educators Trade Union (BOSETU) Secretary General, was at pains trying to explain to all and sundry the neutral stand with regards the Federation’s position of aligning with any of the political formations that will be contesting the 2019 national general elections.
Try as he did, Rari was not convincing. At best he was clutching at straws, if not waffling. He said BOFEPUSU convened an Extra – Ordinary Governing Council to discuss political alignment for the upcoming elections where it was decided the Federation will adopt a neutral stance. "As such, we would not align with any of the political formations that will be contesting the 2019 national general elections. This stance was adopted following an
intense and robust debate by the Governing Council delegates. This decision was
arrived at as a result of the absence of a guiding principle in the form a comprehensive workers manifesto," said Rari.
Botswana Land boards Local Authorities & Health Workers Union (BLLAWHU), where Ketlhalefile Motshegwa is Secretary General, has already dismissed the meeting as a farce because it was an illegal gathering not provided for by any BOFEPUSU statutes. Further to that, it boggles the mind why BOFEPUSU would wait until the 11th hour to announce that they do not have a position on an intriguing election whose outcome have a direct impact of the working class.
Thaba thula Declaration
The opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) came into existence at the behest of a collective decision taken by trade union leaders to support a 'united opposition' to unseat the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), then led by Ian Khama as its president. The trade union coalition even coined and popularised the phrase 'moono wa babereki' loosely translated to encapsulate a resolution by workers to cause regime change, a commitment to canvass any support they could fathom to topple the Ian Khama dictatorship. The then president Ian Khama had flatly refused to engage trade unions, threatening that even if they were to continue with the 2011 industrial action for 10 years he will never accede to their demands for salary increase and better conditions of service. Thousands of civil servants were fired after the Khama administration moved swiftly to declare their cadre Essential services, disregarding every law in the book to feed his ego by annihilating those he labelled unpatriotic. To spite BOFEPUSU, Khama pulled the plug by withdrawing a multi-million pula tender for administration of GEMVAS - a motor vehicle and property scheme for civil servants which at the time was managed by UNIGEM. Now crippled by loss of business, UNIGEM was an investment vehicle owned by five BOFEPUSU trade unions as part of Thaba thula Declaration.
True to his word, Khama never showed signs of relenting to accomodate trade unions' demands until he left office on Saturday 31st March 2018. Instead Khama unleashed a divide and rule tactic, holding clandestine meetings with some leaders of strategic trade unions in the BOFEPUSU family and promising them favours from government. Gemvas was the trump card, which he dangled before trade union leaders to coerce them to succumb to his dictates. Khama openly showed a soft spot for Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) leadership, particularly its then president Andrew Motsamai, while persecuting the likes of federation president Johannes Phalaagae Tshukudu and deputy Secretary general Ketlhalefile Motshegwa among others. Infact before his departure, Khama had destroyed the unity among trade unions sowing seeds of discord by openly frolicking with BOPEU even officiating at their congress -the one and only time he attended a trade union gathering. By that time BOPEU had withdrawn from BOFEPUSU citing political differences.
Blind sided, bruised and beleagured the remaining trade union leaders tried to pick up the pieces and keep the fire burning but a lot of damage had already been done. They could only count their losses. But this was only the tip of an iceberg. On the political front, BOFEPUSU got a rude awakening when they discovered that the man appointed to lead their brainchild, moono -the Umbrella for Democratic Change(UDC), its president Duma Boko had befriended Khama and Motsamai behind their back. One shocking discovery was that although Boko was their attorney in marathon litigation against the Khama-led administration and BOPEU, he was also giving legal advise to the other party. Long before his latest bromance with Khama-now out of state house, Boko had told BOFEPUSU point blank that the coalition does not owe its existence to them and therefore they could not make any demands on the UDC. Up yours, he stopped short of saying!
Perhaps offended by the cold treatment from Boko, Johnson Motshwarakgole of the National Amalgamated Local, Central Government & Parastatal Workers Union (NALCGPWU) -then BOFEPUSU National Organising Secretary and Secretary General Tobokani Rari tried in vain to reign in the UDC. It was not to be! The relationship had broken down irretrievable, and it was time to move on to find new friends. It is a no-brainer why their easiest ally was an equally troubled politician, Ndaba Gaolathe. At the BMD, Sidney Pilane had turned up the heat and made his intentions clear to take over the party presidency from the soft spoken, meek and timid Gaolathe. Inside the UDC, Ndaba stood out isolated like a sore thumb as Boko and his new vice president, Dumelang Saleshando watched him being roasted while avoiding him like a plaque of epidemic proportions. "Comradeship is not friendship," Boko would quip to justify his refusal to intervene in the leadership crisis inside BMD where Pilane brandished the party constitution at every corner as a weapon against Gaolathe.
After the UDC sucessfully sidelined, alienated and weaned themselves off the federation, it was time for BOFEPUSU leaders to define their stand on the local political economy. With no guiding instrument or policy adopted everyone scattered in different directions, with some trade union leaders making personal decisions to enter the political space and contest the 2019 general elections. Alive to the immense potential of the labour movement as voters, political parties noticed the state of paralysis and pounced on BOFEPUSU promising its leaders influential positions and candidacy in some constituencies.
Motshwarakgole, a staunch Botswana National Front (BNF) member, openly endorsed and publicly made known, his affection for Gaolathe at a meeting called by disgruntled anti-Pilane Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) members who had gathered at Letlhabile as a precursor building up to the formation of the Alliance for Progressives (AP). Even at the launch of AP at Ave Maria Pastoral Centre in Gaborone, Motshwarakgole and other BOFEPUSU leaders, among them Rari occupied the front row perhaps to shore up support for their blue-eyed boy. All the while they kept denying being partisan, despite strong suggestion that Rari is sympathetic to Gaolathe's AP.
Actually months later, University of Botswana academic Dr Kaelo Molefhe's name would pop-up in the list of AP candidates to challenge UDC president Boko for the parliamentary seat in Gaborone Bonnington North. Dr Molefhe -who has grown very close to Motshwarakgole, represents University of Botswana Academic & Senior Support Staff Union
(UBASSSU) at BOFEPUSU. The jury is still out on whether it is by design or coincidence that he is challenging Boko through a party led by Gaolathe.
BOFEPUSU Deputy Secretary General Ketlhalefile Motshegwa, a long time BNF member naturally stayed with the UDC and was identified as a suitable candidate for Gaborone Bonnington South. Now breaking bread with the leadership of UDC and enjoying massive support for his candidacy, unbeknown to him Motshegwa infuriated some of his comrades at BOFEPUSU. One of those unhappy with the decision to stay with Boko was Motshwarakgole who to date does not see eye to eye with Motshegwa. The rivalry even plays out in board meetings and leadership forum where they appear together representing their respective trade unions.
Although casual, a partnership entered into between Boko and former president Ian khama (UDC and BPF) has been used as ammunition to demonstrate how the UDC has abandoned moono. Khama has always been enemy number #1 for workers following the ill fated 2011 public sector strike. UDC opponents have also criticised the party and its leader for bringing a dictator who terorrised workers and Batswana in general during his 10 year tenure. Motshegwa's candidacy at UDC is also taking a beating from the Khama pact.
Cracks started showing, when without caucasing with comrades in BOFEPUSU leadership and probably over-awed by goodies promised, Motshwarakgole literally and figuratively embraced incoming President Mokgweetsi Masisi of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) whole heartedly. This, notwithstanding that the veteran trade unionist is a life member and former Councillor under the BNF- an affiliate of the UDC.
Totally going against the grain, Motshwarakgole's endorsement was ill timed because it happened at a time when the Masisi government was yet to deliver on any of the promises he made when he ascended office. To date, infact just early this week government was locked in a mediation with six public sector trade unions because of disagrements over the PEMANDU report recommendations. Motshwarakgole is part of the team representing the six trade unions in the negotiations over PEMANDU, but has already expressed confidence in the Masisi regime.
From then on it has been free for all, which culminated in the anit-climax that Rari has spent sleepless nights trying to justify. Like many have always warned in the past, the chicks have come home to roost, as politics have in the end destroyed the once vibrant vanguard of the working class -BOFEPUSU.