Monday, June 5, 2023

How public sector strike morphed into fight for regime change

It started off as a simple demand for a 16% salary increment to militate against crippling inflation and suffocating costs of living. Government refused, and a public sector strike ensued.

But, within four weeks, the strike has morphed from a protest over salaries to an outright demand for President Ian Khama’s ouster.

The demand for salary increases has been muted by a loud and increasingly militant call for regime change. The workers have been relegated to the backbenches, as opposition party leaders, aided by their trade union bed fellows, run the show. Students have also added fodder to an increasingly raging inferno, launching a parallel violent protest demanding that their teachers’ demands should be met.

And the opposition is having a field day.

At a time when she was supposed to be kick-starting the recruitment of temporary teachers to take over the jobs of those who are on strike, Education Minister Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi was forced to back down and close schools after students’ riots spread like wildfire throughout the country.

When the strike started, government accused opposition parties of conniving with trade unions to cause unrest in the country. In turn, the opposition argued that their actions are justified as they are protecting the welfare of 47% of Batswana, including the workers, who voted them into office.

The strike is now in full swing, the students are rioting, and Botswana is burning under a conflagration of an increasingly magnitude. Cabinet has reportedly been summoned for an impromptu meeting at which strategies will be hatched to see how the strike can be quelled.

Meanwhile, Khama is under increasing pressure, both from within and without the BDP, to bow down to the wishes of the people.

After declaring solidarity with the workers, the opposition sought a meeting with the President. It was never to be. They then planned a massive combined march and political rally, at which they would sing and dance side by side with the workers and declare their undying love for each other. And so it came to be.

It was the biggest political rally ever seen in Botswana. They attended in large numbers, from Gaborone, Francistown, Gantsi and beyond. They displayed a rare show of unity. They stood side by side, hand in hand, chanting slogans and singing revolutionary songs.

One would be pardoned for thinking they were in a democratic Botswana. And indeed it was. Theirs were not the songs of the oppressed seeking independence. Theirs is a different revolution. All they seek is regime change. In their songs, their slogans and their chants, the message is clear: Khama must go, simple.

Finally, opposition parties and the workers have come out in the open, it is time for BDP to pack up and leave because it has failed the country.

“Enough is enough. Khama is over burdened, tired and simply useless. The time is ripe for regime change and there is no turning back. We are fully aware of our responsibilities and we will speak in one voice against the injustices visited upon the working class,” said BNF President Duma Boko.

And if BDP even thinks about refusing to cede power, Boko has the perfect plan.
“There are many ways of taking power,” he said.

“The people can either take to the streets or demand that the President steps down, or they can vote the unwanted President out, or they can take that power by force.”

Remember Egypt, and Tunisia? A recent BDP rally in Molepolole immediately comes to mind, when President Khama castigated members of the opposition for inciting violence when they said similar uprisings can occur in Botswana?

“They cannot even spell the word revolution,” he said.

But now the opposition are not only spelling the word revolution, they are chanting it with abandon.

“This rally marks the beginning of a new dawn in Botswana’s political landscape. We are setting an elaborate agenda and establishing a new platform. Never again will we allow our country to suffer a deficit of democracy, deterioration of good governance, and unprecedented extra┬ájudicial murders as experienced under Khama’s rule,” said BCP President Dumelang Saleshando. He added that BDP’s ability to rule this country has expired, and confirmed the opposition tripartite’s readiness to work together to unseat the BDP government.

And this seems to be exactly what maverick trade unionist and Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions stalwart Johnson Motshwarakgole wants. When he stood up to speak on behalf of the workers, Motshwarakgole urged opposition parties to work together to unseat BDP.

“The opposition also has a right to lead this country. It is not an exclusive preserve of a select few. We must ask the Khamas what we owe them so we can pay them off and take our country back,” he charged.

Motshwarakgole reminded politicians that the 90 000 strong public service commands a significant bloc of potential votes. He said workers will use their vote to unseat all those who do not fight in their corner, and warned those who want to be re-elected into office in the 2014 general elections to start openly supporting workers.

He too could not resist a go at President Khama.

“Khama is an arrogant and patronising colonialist who scorns the plight of the poor by giving them blankets while he shamelessly fails to improve the working conditions of their children, the workers,” he said.

“The man has no democratic credentials to speak of. He failed to consult with the workers at their time of need. He is responsible for the problem that we find ourselves in today. He should have anticipated the problems that the strike will create and consulted with parents, students, teachers and ordinary Batswana. He failed to display requisite leadership skills when it mattered the most. He should resign immediately,” said BMD President Gomolemo Motswaledi.

The joint opposition-trade union political rally has come and gone. Meanwhile the workers remain on strike. Even more significant is the fact that the strike happened in the wake of alarming unrests in Botswana’s schools.

With the memories of the recent examinations fiasco fresh in their minds, students last week took to the streets and demanded that government does something to ensure that their teachers return to work.

It all started with Lobatse Secondary School students, and then it spread like wildfire. By Monday, reports indicated that almost all of the schools in Botswana were crippled by demonstrating students who were demanding their right to education. They chased away teachers who had not gone on strike and urged them to join their counterparts.

They rallied other students to join them. They pummelled ill prepared security personnel with sticks and stones, leaving several policemen injured. They defied tear gas smoke and policemen’s shields and batons, and demonstrated unbelievable tact and determination. Mere twelve and thirteen year olds held their own ground against trained security personnel.

In the end a deflated Venson-Moitoi capitulated and announced that schools will be closed indefinitely.

Cabinet ministers were Monday evening hastily summoned for an ad hoc meeting to try and address the escalating situation. Striking workers are still gathered at GSS grounds. While they have lowered their demands from 16% to 13%, they remain resolute in their decision not to go to work. Doctors have also called government’s bluff on her threats of dismissal, and they remain on strike.

All these developments spell disaster for the ordinary Motswana. But they are kudos for the trade unionists and the opposition politicians. What they mean to the leadership is yet to be known, for the leadership has not been forthcoming in the face of such a national catastrophe.

The trade unions are emboldened into believing that their demands will be met. The opposition parties are celebrating because they have found new political allies in the trade unionists, which just might result in their much anticipated regime change.

To the ordinary Motswana, this means no services, diminished security, unrest and uncertainty. Botswana burns, and nobody knows when or where it will end.


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