The signs have long been there and daggers were slowly coming out between Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) and one of their affiliate, Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) and the May, the month of workers revealed it all.
The Tuesday evening meeting convened by BOPEU leadership and held at their opulence headquarters at Gaborone CBD with media bared it all on the broken relationship between the former and BOFEPUSU.
The adage that says ‘still waters run deep’ could best describe the Tuesday meeting which was addressed by BOPEU President Andrew Motsamai known for his calmness something foreign to labour union leaders. Speaking in a veiled language, Motsamai stated that BOPEU is taking a member-centred approach to issues, rather than a populist approach, “we debate issues and adopt resolutions in constitutional forums.” Though he did not mention names it was clear that he was referring to decision made by BOFEPUSU when they endorsed Umbrella for Democratic Change something which they were totally against. “Mandates will not be taken from radio stations at political rallies or radio stations but from union members,” said the calm BOPEU president with a rat biting speech.
In the build up to the 2014 General Elections, BOFEPUSU administrative secretary Samuel Molaodi allegedly endorsed UDC during the launch of Gabane/Mmankgodi parliamentary candidate General Pius Mokgware. This irked BOPEU whose Vice President Masego Mogwera was BOFEPUSU President who then issued a statement distancing BOFEPUSU from Molaodi’s utterances at the rally.
The statement was followed by another one from BOFEPUSU deputy secretary general Ketlhalefile Motshegwa who said that they have agreed as affiliates that they will support UDC. BOPEU stuck to their stand and noted that the leadership did not take the mandate from the members. The unapologetic BOPEU leader said that Botswana trade unions have a tendency of copying everything from South Africa especially from COSATU, as progressive and more advanced models. “We want to repeat mistakes of SA unions, rather than learning from their successes and failures,” he said which was clear which direction his bullet is aimed at.
He cited the current turmoil currently engulfing the South African labour unions in which COSATU, their largest federation is divided. Motsamai reasoned the primary cause of division within COSATU is its involvement into partisan politics with their alliance partner African National Congress (ANC). “The biggest lesson from COSATU and RSA is that the model of Trade Union affiliation to a political party have never benefitted workers and is not sustainable in the long run; no clear success stories worldwide including Australia and United States of America,” he said.
To drive his point home regarding their anti-party affiliation, Motsamai who is a lecturer at Institute of Health Services (IHS) gave examples of such failures within the region. One particular example is the relationship between Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and noted that current factions within the latter might spill over to the former.
Zambia ZCTU sponsorship of Frederick Chiluba was a disaster, with Chiluba fast tracking sale of state assets that Kenneth Kaunda regime had tried to shield from the IMF’s SAPs, said Motsamai who is a founding secretary general of BOFEPUSU.
BOPEU, who have been bashed ahead of the 2014 elections and accused of betraying the workers’ struggle by not endorsing UDC, said that their principle of staying apolitical is also supported by the two of Botswana’s founding fathers, Sir Seretse Khama and Dr Kenneth Koma who both held positions against trade unions aligning with political parties.
There is a school of thought that one cannot divorce labour politics from partisan politics but BOPEU maintains that they will continue to take a principled position on national issues without fear or favour, in the interest of workers. BOPEU president said that they will not take any biased position in favour of a particular political party without the mandate of workers.“We will therefore continue to question BOFEPUSU as an affiliate, for behaving as if it has a mandate from workers on this issue. Mandates are taken constitutionally, not in rallies or through radio station phone in programmes,” fired Motsamai.
During their Palapye congress last year, BOPEU invited President Ian Khama to officiate at the event but did not invite other political parties, something that did not go well with their alliances at BOFEPUSU who accused them of sleeping with the enemy.
Some unionist felt that Khama is number one enemy of workers by how he treated them during the infamous 2011 industrial actions in which some public servants were fired. Defending their position, Motsamai said that people should learn to separate the office of the president from the person. According to BOPEU leader, President as head of state is a mandate giver of negotiations.“A smart trade union cannot avoid an opportunity to engage with the Office of the President of the country. Fortunately our members are able to separate the office from the person or the party,” he said.
He took a swipe at some of their alliances at BOFEPUSU accusing them of double standards.“When teacher unions engage the Ministry of Education and Skills Development on levels of operation or supervision of sporting activities outside the Bargaining Council, it is viewed by the media as a legitimate interaction. But when BOPEU interacts with OP it is selling out,” said Motsamai.
Motsamai accused those who question their engagement with the office of the President for not understanding the role of a trade union. He revealed that it is not the first time they interacted with OP and said that many gains public servants achieved in improved conditions were as a result of such interaction. “It is our role to develop a working relationship with those in power, to engage them on issues affecting our members,” he said adding that some issues are not for bargaining but for consultation and policy.
According to Motsamai, policy is the prerogative of those in power and their role is to contest it and he gave example of National Development Plan (NDP) 11 which is about to be formulated noting that they had to get into the policy forums and engage BOCCIM and government bureaucrats to shape it in their favour.
Like a jilted lover who needs a rebound for consolation, some have accused BOPEU of behaving like one especially after they have been sidelined at BOFEPUSU to the extent that none of their members was elected to executive position. Motsamai rebutted that saying that they still remain an affiliate of BOFEPUSU and that they are one of its largest contributors.
On their association with Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU), Motsamai said that their 2014 convention made a resolution that they should explore working with BFTU. To BOPEU president, this is not a contradiction working with BFTU while remaining an affiliate of BOFEPUSU as some allege depositing that the latter is a sectorial federation formed for uniting public servants for the purpose of Bargaining Council.
Early this year BOPEU disinvested in UNIGEM a company formed by BOFEPUSU and this fuelled speculation that they are on their way of the public sector federation but Motsamai refuted the allegations noting that they are still BOFEPUSU members in good standing.“People should understand that we have never been BFTU members unlike other unions within BOFEPUSU of which some are still affiliated to it,” he stung again in the presence of BFTU Secretary General Gadzani Mhotsha who like a new lover enjoys while the ex-lover is bashed and is heaped with praises.
May Day fiasco
The crux of the breakdown between BOPEU and BOFEPUSU came into the open ahead of the 2014 May Day celebration over the theme, “unleashing a progressive labour agenda through influencing regime change”. BOPEU publicly stated that they are going to boycott the May Day activities over the theme which they felt was politically motivated.
Though BOFEPUSU toned it down to “unleashing a progressive agenda” and the “regime change” appendage removed, BOPEU boycotted the activities. Motsamai said that the theme ran parallel to their fundamental political policy on party neutrality. He refuted allegations that they boycotted the 2015 May Day celebrations revealing that they have suffered a fall out of the 2015 BOFEPUSU congress and they are being sidelined from apparent meetings. “As BOPEU we only received notifications to a May Day meeting a week before the event, although a decision had been made by this time, to commemorate the day in Francistown,” said Motsamai who added that by that time they had already moved on and organized their main event in Kang.
Taking a jab at BOFEPUSU, Motsamai said that they expected them to keep their promise they made at the 2014 BFTU congress to celebrate May Day under one banner but have failed.
Something that came out clearly at the media briefing was that BOPEU was on a rampage as their Vice President wrapped it up saying that she is disappointed that journos didn’t ask about the allege chasing of their members at the May Day celebrations in Selibe Phikwe. “BOFEPUSU constitution clearly state that the constitutions of affiliates comes first and must be respected and BOPEU constitution must be accorded the same,” said Masego Mogwera as a parting shot.