Civil service strike – truth is the first casualty

25 Apr 2011

“Drive carefully this Easter. No doctors.” A fired up doctor decked out in theater greens, complete with a stethoscope dangling round his neck threw the civil service strike switch to a life and death panic with a felt-tip pen scrawled placard.

A smattering of white tunics and epaulettes, hoisting placards among hundreds of government workers who have been streaming into the Gaborone Secondary School football grounds suggests that this is no idle threat. Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) Publicity Secretary, Goretetse Kekgonegile, claims that two babies died during birth because there were no mid-wives to deliver them.

About 65 clinics have reportedly closed down throughout the country because doctors have downed their stethoscopes. A blizzard of statistics issued by the union this week demonstrates the extent to which the public sector has been crippled by the strike. A number of government schools have had to close down because teachers downed their chalks and cooks walked out of the kitchens. “As we speak Moeng College, Shoshong Junior School, Macha, Sehutshelo Primary School and Kang were closed yesterday (Thursday) due to uncontrollable situations that come up in the absence of teachers in class,” said Kekgonegile. He claims that 75 percent of teachers are on strike.

It is estimated that 70,000 government workers out of a total of some 103,000 have been staying off the jobs as public servants across the country downed tools in a strike that is expected to last until April 29. It has been reported that 50 doctors at Princess Marina Hospital have joined the strike. This is in addition to hundreds of health workers, including nurses, across the country who have been off the job. These are unconfirmed figures being churned out by union leaders.

In an increasingly desperate attempt to keep the civil service running, the government is blazing away at anything that appears in its gun-sights. Government rushed to court on Thursday for an order forcing essential service staff to ensure that skeletal staff stays on the job at hospitals, schools and other government facilities.

Botswana Police Service promotions, which in the past were announced on March 28, have this year been suspended until after the strike in what is believed to be a tactic to ensure that the disciplined forces support government during the strike. Minister of Justice Defence and Security, Edwin Batshu, would not discuss why the promotions have been held back, referring all enquiries to the Commissioner of Police.

But despite the five unions' threat to paralyze border posts, it has been business as usual at Ramokgwebana border post throughout this week.

Members of the Botswana Defence Force were deployed there to render service that is usually offered by immigration officers. The soldiers were apparently inducted on Sunday to man the border for the duration of the strike. They manned the offices in full military uniforms, allowing travelers in and out of the country.

This action, seen as disregard of strike rules agreed upon by the Directorate of Public Service Management, has incensed the unions.

"This is a clear contravention of strike rules, especially Section 37 of the Trade Dispute Act, which says an employer cannot replace (people) on strike before 14 days elapses. The government does not respect the rule of law," charged Ketlhalefile Motshegwa, secretary general of the Botswana Land Boards Local Authorities and Health Workers Union, who was making the rounds to assess the situation in the northeast.

Incensed by the government’s move, Johnson Motswaragole, secretary-general of the Botswana Manual Workers’ Union, an affiliate of BOFEPUSU last week shooting from the hip, sprayed his ammunition recklessly. He went gunning for Masisi, Seakgosing and Pono Moatlhodi for violating the strike’s terms of agreement. Motshwarakgole warned that the 10-day strike over pay may become violent if the government continues to use replacement workers. BOFEPUSU this week handed a petition to Mokgweetsi Masisi, the minister of presidential affairs, threatening action against the use of replacement workers. “Do not push us to the extremes, we can be violent,” Motshwarakgole allegedly said as he handed over the petition.

“We have petitioned the following Ministers; Mokgweetsi Masisi, Pono Moatlhodi and Rev John Seakgosing because they are not telling people the truth about the impact of the strike and are not being honest to us as unions,” said Kekgonegile.

For most journalists who have been covering the strike, there was a moment of clarity last week as they learnt about dishonest dealings in war. It is the realisation that when the stakes are high, even seemingly charming fellows are capable of telling serious lies.

The civil service union has been engaged in a bit of peddling of its own. Truth has become unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology. For example Kekgonegile claims that the Minister of Health, Dr John Seakgosing has been so overwhelmed by the crisis in his ministry that he had to be admitted and observed for five hours at a hospital in Selibe-Phikwe. Although BOFEPUSU Secretary General, Andrew Motsamai inflated the number of striking civil servants and pitched it at 90 000, a figure which was picked by CNN international, Kekgonegile on the other hand claims the number is 70 000 which most observer feel may still be overstated.

The Socialist Worker online – which calls itself “a revolutionary anti-capitalist paper in Britain “has joined the propaganda war on the side of the workers, claiming that “Most government offices are closed.”

The report filed by members of the Botswana Socialist International further claims that, “The strike's outcome is open. But without doubt it has given workers a tremendous self-confidence and has armed them for more battles to come.”

For now the battle for the heart and soul of Botswana is fought on at least two grounds: on the street and the minds of the people via propaganda. The “good guys” and the “bad guys” can often both be guilty of misleading their people with distortions, exaggerations, subjectivity, inaccuracy and even fabrications, in order to receive support and a sense of legitimacy.

The editorial position adopted by the state media which has been riding rough shod over balanced reporting demonstrates the depth to which the government will stoop for political advantage.
Whenever government goes to war, managed news goes with it, spreading carefully filtered reports and substituting cheerleading propaganda for journalism. Botswana Television (Btv) has been giving Acting Vice President Ponatshego Kedikilwe, finance and development planning Minister Kenneth Matambo, DPSM director Festinah Bakwena, Dr Seakgosing and Permanent Secretary to the President (PSP) Eric Molale the platform to sell the government side of the story and blacking out union leaders.

The two sides have declared war, and as ever, truth is the first casualty.