Of Africa’s labour force surveyed in 2015 for an investment research report, Botswana’s stands out for its lack of appetite for work.
To be clear, the RMB Where to Invest in Africa 2015 report doesn’t have a category for who works the hardest and who is the laziest. Common sense says that there are lazy workers in all African countries but Botswana is a special case when it comes to the “most problematic factor for doing business.” Such factors are “Access to financing” (for example, Burkina Faso, Burundi and Cabo Verde), corruption (Angola, Benin and Cameroun ), resolving insolvency (Central African Republic, Comoros and Equatorial Guinea), paying taxes (Congo Brazzaville and Togo), protecting investors (Djibouti), enforcing contracts (Democratic Republic of Congo), policy instability (Egypt and Tunisia), foreign currency regulations (Ethiopia and Malawi), inefficient government bureaucracy (Libya), policy instability (Madagascar), inefficient government bureaucracy (Mauritius and Morocco), inadequately educated workforce (Namibia and South Africa), trading across borders (Niger), inadequate supply of infrastructure (Nigeria), getting credit (Sao Tome and Principe), dealing with construction permits (Sudan) and high tax rates (Swaziland). Among all the countries that were surveyed, Botswana is the only country among those surveyed where labour productivity is an issue. The report says that the most problematic factor for doing business in the country is “poor work ethic in national labour force.”
Botswana has always had a unique labour productivity problem. During his administration, Sir Ketumile Masire famously bestowed the prestige of his presidential office on this problem by establishing the Botswana National Productivity Centre (BNPC) in 1993. The Centre’s statutory mandate, as outlined on its website, is “to enhance the level of productivity awareness as an advocacy function and to enable individuals and organisations through training and consulting to be productive and competitive.” Sadly though, as a University of Botswana study shows, the reality is that not one productivity intervention scheme has produced the desired results and in his 2015/16 budget speech, the Minister of Finance and Development Planning, Kenneth Matambo, lamented the low levels of labour productivity in Botswana.
Masire chalks Batswana’s poor work ethic down to a centuries-long pastoralist lifestyle.
“If you look at the life of pastoralists, they don’t have a good work ethic,” he told Sunday Standard earlier this year.
The example he gave was that beyond digging out a few shovelfuls of sand to strike water (the Setswana he used was “hata hata” which suggests very light duty), letting out cattle to pasture and doing some other undemanding work, most of the time pastoralists are just lazing about as their cattle graze untended in the bush. In terms of the former president’s analysis, this is the work ethic that has been bequeathed to modern-day Botswana and apparently, no amount of interventions from the East will make it go south.
On the other hand, the Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) has asserted that the government cannot talk about poor labour productivity among civil servants without claiming responsibility for it. In a budget preview statement it released earlier this year, BOPEU expressed concern that “workers alone take the blame for declining labour productivity even though they are not in control of determinant factors, such as training and provision of requisite equipment and technologies and work processes.”
Whatever the accurate diagnosis of the problem is, one incontrovertible fact is that this laziness is monetarily rewarded, something that workers take great comfort in. The accounts clerk who knocked off at 1415 hours on Friday leaving behind a Mount Everest of unprocessed invoices, is today making merry at a jazz session and when he wakes up at 11 am tomorrow, will call in sick before heading off to the nearest drinking hole to pluck the hair of the dog that bit him. Not only will he get his full pay for the days that he didn’t work, he will also stay employed, qualify for a pay raise and may even get a promotion down the road.