Festival of really troublesome ideas at Oasis Motel

23 Oct 2017

Granted, the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions’ Democracy and Constitutional Reform Conference at Oasis Motel was not Australia’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House. However, one supposes that there would have been points when the Botswana Democratic Party activists in attendance would have shifted uneasily in their chairs as a parade of speakers – some University of Botswana lecturers, took turns at the podium retailing revolutionary ideas.

Among those attending were members of a group with a self-explanatory name - the Unemployment Movement, which is affiliated to BOFEPUSU. Some of its members are university graduates who got more than they bargained for last year when they tried to protest their plight at the National Assembly. Quoting an international example from the Middle East, Professor Motsumi Marobela, said that one of the most transformative events in Iran was the 1979 revolution that was spearheaded by unemployed university graduates. One other important group was of secondary school students who couldn’t get a university place. Known as the Islamic Revolution or the 1979 Revolution, this event toppled a United States puppet and replaced him (and 2500 years of continuous Persian monarchy) with an Islamic Republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Never once did Marobela cast the Botswana situation through the Iran prism but the parallels are striking. In a different context, the African Development Bank has stated that countries like Botswana that have a high income and wealth inequality are at particular risk of experiencing an “Arab-Spring-like” civil strife that brought down the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and started a civil war in Syria.

Professor Monageng Mogalakwe frowned upon a state of affairs in which only “one man” (President Ian Khama as he would later make clear) has arrogated to himself the right to define what “national interest” is. Mogalakwe’s particular concern related to lavish spending on the military at the expense of other, sometimes more deserving sectors of national development. Even as Khama window-shops around the world for fighter jets (first in South Korea and later Sweden), there is acute shortage of lifesaving drugs in government health facilities. Often when the argument about other deserving areas of expenditure is made, Khama has been quick to state that arming the army is in Botswana’s national security interest. Mogalakwe suggested that trade unions should play a proactive role in a broad-based national dialogue to define what national interest means.

“You can’t allow only one man to define what national interest is for you,” he said, further proposing that such national interest be codified into policy.

The practical effect of such exercise, he explained to Sunday Standard later, is that government officials would become more circumspect in their public invocation of such that term to explain away problematic spending of state funds. In lamenting the “pouring of money into national security sector under the cover of national interest”, he also raised concern about rampant “executive corruption” that mostly occurs around public procurement. That point would be picked up by Professor Agreement Jotia who, in his own presentation, modified the language and focus to “institutional corruption.” Jotia said that unions like BOFEPUSU can help fight this corruption.

Ahead of the 2014 general election, BOFEPUSU aligned with the Umbrella for Democratic Change, a loose confederation of then three opposition parties that it played no small part in founding. The Union had made it a condition that these parties had to come together for it to support them. Ironically though, BOFEPUSU itself would split over this issue with the Botswana Public Employers Union disavowing political activism. There is still controversy over whether unions should align with political parties.

“There is nothing wrong with unions aligning with a political party,” Jotia pronounced to rapturous applause from the crowd.

That position is being officially contested by the BDP whose main fear is that unionised workers are pro-opposition. The party is litigating a case at the Court of Appeal to keep civil servants out of its primary elections process. Some BDP leaders fear that BOFEPUSU might strategically target certain ministers it deems anti-worker agenda for elimination during the elections. As the 2019 general election approaches, one real possibility is of trade unions aligning with a united opposition to topple the BDP. It is no secret that the first order of business in a post-BDP era will be the prosecution of those who have been fingered for what Mogalakwe calls executive corruption. It has been suggested that the whole idea of introducing electronic voting machines (EVMs) is to forestall such eventuality. Thus far, only the Botswana Congress Party has waged a spirited campaign to block the introduction of EVMs. Mogalakwe urged unions to also join this campaign.

The BOFEPUSU conference occurs as neo-liberal democracy faces its most challenging crisis yet. Nowhere is that more evident that in the US where a morally and ethically defective as well as possibly criminally insane man whom his Greek counterpart has credibly described as “evil”, is now president. Interestingly, the problem is not Donald Trump but the vehicle that he used to get to the White House – electoral democracy. In that regard, the Trump presidency will forever be used as an example of what is wrong with democracy.

Citing an example from the judiciary, lawyer Joao Salbany illustrated how undemocratic the current constitutional order is. Upon gaining independence in 1966 and against the ideals of democracy, the new republic of Botswana adopted laws from an alien culture. One of the most egregious of the principles associated with these laws - which President Khama himself has frowned upon, is that “ignorance of the law is not an excuse.” The latter requires illiterate Batswana in remote rural areas to know the culture of the west. On the basis of the foregoing, Salbany concluded that Botswana’s courts “are not democratic.”