Tuesday, July 7, 2020

How the civil service strike has changed Botswana

President Ian Khama is the uninvited guest among hundreds of striking civil servants who gather at the Gaborone Secondary School playgrounds every weekday.

For more than a month, the angry mob could not exorcise the ghost of Khama, which has raised tempers and provided comic relief in equal measure.

Khama, who has become the lightning rod of controversy, is being blamed for everything that is going wrong with the strike, from the deadlock in negotiations to the closure of government hospitals due to staff shortages. He has also helped hundreds of workers release their pent up anger; almost every public servant who has been to the GSS playground knows at least one Ian Khama joke.

That Khama has become a hate figure and a butt of jokes among government workers points to a major shift in the relationship between the president and public service. The government enclave has transcended its fear of the president.

Even the President seems to be aware of his slipping power of moral suasion. Khama has not been seen in the flesh since public servants downed tools last month. He has steered clear from public servants and instead chose friendlier crowds to present his case. As government workers walked out of government offices in protest against the freeze in salary increases, Khama mounted his hobby horse: He went around the country addressing rural folks at kgotla meetings and investors at the High Level Consultative Conference. A no show president and an ailing Vice President does not seem to be helping the government case as the situation escalates.

While Khama and his charges are languishing in the trough, public sector unions, on the other hand, are riding the crest of the wave. Botswana has had big national strikes before, in the early 90s when workers downed tools demanding a 154 percent salary hike. The strike was, however, foiled before causing much damage. The current strike, however, seems buoyed by the information age which has carried it across Botswana borders and seas.

The strike has also given a second wind to Botswana’s burgeoning youth counterculture.

The image of secondary school girls sporting fancy hairstyles hurling stones at police officers hiding behind plastic shields and young boys baying for the blood of anti-riot police officers show the extent of youth investment in anti-establishment. Psychologist would argue that the natural progression would be for the youth to justify the investment of passion by arguing and reasoning in concordance. For thousands of students who come from pro-establishment families, they would have to resolve the discordance tension within themselves and are most inclined towards where their passions are invested the most. This group may be lost to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) for good.

While most people believe that the deciding vote in the next elections is likely to come from aggrieved workers and union leaders who never pass up an opportunity to dabble in politics, indications are that the growing youth counterculture movement may decide the next government of Botswana.

The strike will most likely not result in a regime change, but has surely planted the seeds and Botswana will never be the same again.

From the government enclave to secondary school classrooms, Botswana’s political landscape has undergone a major change and political parties will need to change to remain relevant.
For now President Khama, whose populist card has lost appeal among thousands of public servants, is up against the ropes and the opposition party that comes across as hip and sexy enough to appeal to thousands of secondary school youths has a fighting chance.

Unless the ruling Botswana Democratic Party wins back aggrieved workers and counterculture youth, it may find itself on slippery ground.


Read this week's paper

Amendment to BDF Act sets tongues wagging

A notice in the Government Gazette to amend the Botswana Defence Force Act by adding two positions to its establishment register has...