Neither the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions nor its leaders will be scrambling to buy the Botswana Telecommunications Corporation Limited shares when the company’s initial public offering (IPO) is launched next month. Lately, public sector trade unions have individually and collectively become very wealthy that they can spend millions of pula to build their own head offices.
They have pooled their resources to form a company called UNIGEM through which they have made numerous investments. One opportunity that this trade union commerce will not touch with a barge pole is BTCL. A fortnight ago, the company announced that next it will float 49 percent of its shares and is inviting citizens to take advantage of this historic opportunity. However, BOFEPUSU’s spokesperson, Ketlhalefile Motshegwa, says that the union cannot participate in an exercise that it is explicitly opposed to. The BTCL IPO is part of a process to privatise the parastatal organisation and BOFEPUSU (which is made up of five unions) is against privatisation.
Motshegwa describes privatisation as “a pact between local elites and international elites” that works to the disadvantage of the poor and working class citizens. “We highly antagonise privatisation and quest to fight for direct provision of all basic necessities of life by state at all levels. We take it that the emphasis should be on work for economic growth and equitable distribution of wealth towards achievement of equal access by all to public services of good quality,” he argues. Motshegwa says that it is vital that state enterprises that provide water (Water Utilities Corporation), power (Botswana Power Corporation) and air travel (Air Botswana) should be protected from privatisation at all costs.
“We can’t object to the privatisation of national entities, then turn around and buy shares in them when they are privatised,” he says, adding that the same standard should apply to union leaders themselves. “There is no option of claiming individual choice because the deeds of leaders should reflect their words. Leaders who say that privatisation brings misery to workers shouldn’t be the same ones who purchase shares when state enterprises are privatised,” Motshegwa says. He concurs with the view that spouses of those leaders must also be disqualified from participating in share-buying in instances where a couple is married in community of property. However, ordinary union members will not be help up to the same standard.
“The issue is for us to deal with at a policy level and we can’t encourage or discourage individual members from buying shares. I also don’t think that at this stage making any recommendation either way would have any impact,” Motshegwa says. The government has decided that some of the shareholding in state enterprises that will be privatised should be reserved for employees and citizens. Even before the process gets underway, Motshegwa is already convinced that this arrangement will not yield the desired amount of fruit. “The question is what arrangements have been made for such employees and nationals to acquire reasonable loan facilities? That is, is there a deliberate and favourable arrangement? The result will be inability by employees and nationals to acquire the shareholding. What will happen is that such shareholding will be acquired by foreigners. If it is citizens, it will be those who are already rich and hence the continuation of an economy that is concentrated in the hands of a few.
Alternatively, the few who will manage to buy shares will be fronting for some big fish behind the scene,” Motshegwa says. One of the reasons that the government has given for privatising its enterprises is that they would be more efficient with such conversion. In response to this, Motshegwa says that the government is itself to blame for underperforming enterprises because it fills up their boards with incompetent board members and creates an environment conducive to the occurrence of corruption. He gives examples of the Botswana Meat Commission, Botswana Development Corporation and the Botswana International University of Science and Technology. In the case of the latter, the vice chancellor, Professor Hilary Inyang, a highly educated Nigerian national who was in the process of guiding the new university through its baby steps, has given notice to resign his post. According to BIUST’s website, Inyang is “the first black person to be endowed as a distinguished professor in environmental engineering in the United States, as well as the first African immigrant to chair a committee of the congressionally mandated national science advisory body of a US agency.”
He is allegedly being frustrated out of his position to make way for someone that some establishment faction would be more comfortable with. Another example that he gives is of Thapelo Lippe, the former CEO of the Botswana Telecommunications Corporation (as it then was) who left the parastatal under a shroud of mystery and had reportedly butted heads with his principals over matters of corporate governance where the latter were in the wrong. Motshegwa says that BTC was poised to do well under Lippe while retaining its status as a state enterprise. Such condition would have obviated the need to privatise it supposedly to enhance efficiency. Motshegwa sees the privatisation of BTCL as slippery-slope disempowerment of the nation because other state enterprises are also being lined up for such exercise. At a grand assembly convened in Gaborone a fortnight ago, the Minister of Transport and Communications, Nonofo Molefi said that should BTCL’s privatisation go according to plan, other enterprises would follow suit. Even before the launch of the Botswana Oil Limited, its CEO, Willie Mokgatlhe, announced that in a future when it starts doing well, the company would hive off its shares into private hands. Motshegwa says that at the end of this process, “Batswana collectively as a nation will end up owning nothing.”