Botswana suffered a huge diplomatic embarrassment last Tuesday when Botswana Meat Commission workers effectively went on a brief strike for the duration of King Letsie III’s visit. BMC itself caused publication of photographic evidence that proves that the king’s visit to the Lobatse abattoir was abbreviated. Letsie was accompanied by the Minister of Agriculture, Christian de Graaff as well as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Phandu Skelemani.
Management and the staff’s trade union have been tussling over the remuneration of employees during slow seasons when the abattoir lies idle because of shortage of cattle. In November and December last year, BMC workers in Francistown workers had to go on compulsory leave because there were no cattle to slaughter. Similar arrangement has reportedly been made for the Lobatse abattoir for August, the difference being that the cash-strapped parastatal organisation says henceforth it cannot afford to pay idle workers. The union is contesting this, arguing that it is not workers’ fault that the abattoir will be shutting down.
Following a “group joint” (a meeting between management and the union) the leadership of the latter had scheduled a feedback meeting with Lobatse members which, as happened, coincided with Letsie’s visit. Sources say that employees were notified about the visit at short notice and instructed to go back to their duty stations. They wouldn’t budge and the result is that the king and his delegation never visited the slaughter and deboning halls. An abattoir visitor experience is largely defined by a stop-over at these halls, a squeaky-clean, high-energy atmosphere where workmen wielding knives skin slaughtered animals and cut out viscera from carcasses. This is the experience that Letsie and his delegation couldn’t get on Tuesday.
On the same day, the king’s visit to BMC was shown on Btv but as a source points out, there were no shots of him touring the slaughter and deboning halls. “That’s because he didn’t go inside the halls. He went to other areas but the slaughtering and deboning halls. If he had toured the halls, you would definitely have seen that because it happens with all dignitaries whose visits are covered by Btv,” says the source. The following day, the king went to DTC Botswana (with Btv still in tow) and he was shown touring an area equivalent to the BMC processing area he couldn’t get into.
The other piece of photographic evidence is in the form of an advertorial that the Commission itself is currently running in the print media. Titled “King Letsie Visits Lobatse BMC”, the full-page advertorial says that “BMC Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Akolang Tombale, led the delegation on a comprehensive tour of the facilities, much to the delight of the visitors.” The visitors (as his hosts, ministers de Graaff and Skelemani) are shown wearing khaki dustcoats.
The source, who knows everything there is to know about BMC’s dress code, says that this is all the more evidence that the visitors did not visit the processing area. In the latter, it is a strict requirement to wear an all-white gear: white gumboots, white trousers, white jacket and white helmet. “You can’t go into the processing area wearing a khaki dustcoat,” the source says. One BMC manager is said to have attempted to force the employees back to work but was rebuffed. However, there is bound to be grave consequences, not least because the king was in Botswana at the invitation of President Ian Khama.