PSA renders public servants’ political party membership second-class

SHARE   |   Monday, 04 December 2017   |   By Adam Phetlhe
PSA renders public servants’ political party membership second-class

If I were a public servant who is a Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) member in good standing, I would ask the party why I should vote for a party candidate in the national election whom I would have not voted for in the primary elections. Yet, the party does not have qualms with me actively participating in its other activities like national congresses and general councils. Other political parties, however, don’t seem to have issues with their members fully participating in their primaries. Directly voting for your council or parliamentary representative is perhaps one of the most sacrosanct fulfillments for a political party member because such a representative has a direct bearing on him/her in terms of service deliveries. But when the fulfillment is respected when it suits my party at congresses and not at the primaries it is an abuse on my membership which renders me a second-class member. My membership simply becomes conditional. The validity of the Public Service Act (PSA) was recently confirmed by the Court of Appeal (COA) by stating that “Section 5 (5) (b) of the PSA prohibits public officers from voting in political party elections as it fell within the threshold of what is termed active membership….It is really up to the public officer to determine what value, if any, there is in such a membership, and decide whether or not to utilise the right.” The court also ruled that by denying its members who are civil servants the right to actively participate in its primaries, the BDP has not violated Sections 12 (Protection of freedom of expression) and 13 (Protection of freedom of assembly and association) of the Constitution. (Mmegi dated 24 November 2017). Protection of freedom of assembly and association is recognised as ‘a human right, a political right and a civil liberty.’ It is closely linked to Article 20 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Articles 21-22 of the UN International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. That is why we have formed and joined trade unions of our own choices to protect our labour rights. And that is why we have formed and joined churches of our own choice for our spiritual gratification. While it is acknowledged that rights are not absolute, they cannot be applied or revoked arbitrarily when it suits a particular agenda. If the BDP revokes the rights of its members who are civil servants from actively participating in its primaries, it cannot restore them at congresses and general councils where those who revoked them use those denied to achieve and fulfill a personal political desire.   

As stated above, the PSA is the creation of the BDP to amongst others, regulate the conduct of public servants in political matters. It is not in dispute that the civil service of any country should remain apolitical in order to promote and implement programmes of the government of the day. Botswana is no exception! But truth be told, the BDP has fearlessly and viciously pushed Section 5 (5) (b) of the PSA precisely for political expediency than anything else. It has been suggested that a bigger number of the BDP civil service members had registered to participate in the primary elections just before the 2014 general election. It will be remembered that during those primaries, a lot of sitting MPs who were also Ministers lost. These include Ndelu Seretse, Lebonaamang Mokalake, Peter Siele and others. Fearing that if these civil service members are allowed to participate in the primaries pre-2019 general election, the same bitter medicine could also be administered on the current MPs particularly those who won in 2014 by the slimiest of margins. Shaw Kgathi is one such MP who won with a small margin in 2014 and no wonder he is at the forefront of prohibiting civil servants from voting at primaries yet he will seek their vote in 2019. Double standards and speaking in forked tongue it would appear. This fear, I argue, is confirmed by the recent indefinite postponement of the BDP primaries in opposition-held constituencies. The fear is that if civil servants participated, the most vulnerable would not make it past the primaries. If the active membership narrative is to be applied strictly and consistently in compliance with Section 5 (5) (b) of the PSA, BDP civil service members and those who are opposition inclined would not attend party events like congresses and general council activities – precisely because these activities are political in nature. At the recent Tonota congress for example, it is fair to conclude that civil service members actively participated in the election of the current office holders. At BDP activities, civil servants are always shown on Btv in full party regalia. Is this not active membership one may ask? 

Victory at the COA may prove to be very small and inconsequential for the BDP in the bigger 2019 picture. And this is why: the very same vote that is prohibited in the primaries may very well become a poisoned chalice in 2019 in that it could be used to punish the very same people who would have passed the primary election hurdle if they do. It is generally suggested and believed that there are MPs who have not driven the civil servants’ agenda who, as a consequence, must be denied a vote in 2019. Coupled to this view are the labour-related laws which have in the recent past polarised the BDP/trade union relationships. It may very well be argued that these are BDP civil servant members whose party is in government and who cannot by any stretch of the imagination, turn against it. Fair enough! But an indisputable fact is that the very same members together with others, who are not civil servants, have caused in large measure, the decline of the party’s popular vote to 47% in 2014. The subsequent poor performance of the party in the by-elections post 2014 is further proof that BDP members have lost faith in their party. What’s more, the very prohibition of civil servants who are BDP members may just be the last straw. All these are as a result of a protest vote which stands to disadvantage the party and by extension, benefit the opposition notwithstanding that it is not better organised. I always wonder who advises the BDP on political matters because like I have said above, denying civil servants voting rights in the primaries would do more harm than good to the BDP in the long run.

The COA says that “….It is really up to the public officer to determine what value, if any, there is in such a membership, and decide whether or not to utilise the right”. My interpretation of this statement is that is it worth it for public servants to join the BDP yet they do not, at some point of their membership, enjoy the right of protection of freedom of assembly and association as enshrined in the Bill of Rights? It goes without saying that under the circumstances, these members have suffered double jeopardy in that they can neither run for political office nor vote in the primaries for those running for it. I fully appreciate that civil servants should not run for political office while in the employ of the State for obvious reasons. But I am seriously troubled by the argument that active membership is undesirable at the BDP primaries yet the same is desirable at its congresses and the national election. At both party congresses and the national election, the status of civil servants remains constant. That is, they remain employed by the State while actively participating in party and national politics. Opposition parties (and I am saying this cautiously) do not appear to be disenfranchising their members who are civil servants from voting in primaries. The PSA as interpreted by the COA fundamentally renders civil servants who are BDP members as second-class members in so far as primary elections are concerned. While they are prohibited from voting in the primaries, they nevertheless participate with respect, in the form of being errand undertakers for the candidates. Judge for Yourself!