April 11 2010: Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) General Secretary, Topias Marenga, left Members of Parliament in little doubt about the power of the Botswana labour movement.
In a letter on behalf of public sector unions, addressed to the all party parliamentary caucus, Marenga warns that there will be a regime change unless the union demands are met.
But can the sudden emergence of unions as a political force overthrow the Khama administration? Or are union leaders just making empty threats? One way or the other, the public sector union stands as a major wild card for the evolution of Botswana’s political system in 2010 and beyond.
The trade union power has passed to a new breed of leaders committed to a more active political agenda. The slate of leaders inside the union tent makes for the most colourful and passionate speakers on the circuit. And it is these leaders who are expected to urge their members to vote for a political party whose programmes chime with core union concerns. On the other hand, there is President Lt Gen Ian Khama whose administration does not countenance any role for the unions in the country’s economic governance.
Lt Gen Ian Khama’s feeling about the new breed of union leaders is captured in a comment he made in the run up to the elections. Rehashing the clich├® of “union barons” looking only to their own priorities, Khama lashed out at political allegiance of trade unionists.
The president’s implicit belief that a politicized trade unionism is a threat to his regime seems in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. He sent a powerful message of what the unions should expect under his presidency.
President of Botswana Land Board Workers and Local authorities Union (BLLAWU), Pelotshweu Baeng, who is facing disciplinary action from government after defying an order barring him from attending a Botswana Congress Party (BCP) Youth League conference, told the media recently that the labour movement is redefining the role of trade unions in Botswana politics and the economy. “We can no longer sit and watch other people politicking about state power only to run to them after they have won the elections,” he said.
Baeng said the five public sector unions intend to actively participate in and influence the outcome of the elections. “We are now going to deliberate on matters of national interest without fear or favor. We will no longer be spectators; that era is gone and whoever wants to maintain the status quo where unions are told to keep quiet has no partners in that agenda.”
He said 2010 was a defining moment for the labour movement. “It is the same with political parties, this year they will either swim or sink, basing on how they relate with various sectors.”
Khama and his followers have little doubt what the public sector union thinks of them. On the eve of the 2009 elections, the Manual Workers Union leadership issued leaflets and campaign posters lobbing voters to reject senior members of the A-Team faction of the BDP. The union listed Vice President Mompati Merafhe, ministers Shaw Khathi, Peter Siele, Phandu Skelemani, Kentse Rammidi, former ministers Jacob Nkate, Neo Moroka and Duncan Mlazie as “enemies of democracy.” The new mood of union assertiveness has clearly rattled the government enclave and is stirring some of Botswana Democratic Party’s (BDP) deepest fears and insecurities
Nkate, who lost his parliamentary seat to the opposition, told The Sunday Standard then that “this has got nothing to do with workers’ rights but BDP factional fights. I would loath the day when Unions in this country are divided along political lines, which is where this thing is taking us,” cried Nkate.”
Leader of the public service manual workers union, Johnson Motshwarakgole, on the other hand warned that: “We cannot be spectators of people who are going to make laws that affect the workers,” he said. “We believe we can urge members not to vote for certain individuals.”
Prior to the BDP’s Kanye Congress, the Union issued a number of press statements expressing solidarity with the BDP’s rival Barata-Phathi faction who proceeded on to win the party’s central committee elections.
If anything is clear from the past few weeks, it is that acrimony between the BDP government and unions is deep, long-standing and likely to fester for years to come. Rancor has been the order of the day, or rather the month as the Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) General Secretary, Topias Marenga, acting on behalf of the public service unions, warned that the labour movement will enter into partisan politics and align themselves with political parties if government continues to ignore their interests.
“It is with great regret that public service unions, acting on behalf of over 90 000 persons employed by government, have to seek audience with the all party caucus to express disappointment with the delay in implementation of the New Public Act of 2008. As a result of this our comrades continue to be subjected to unfair labour practices and to draconian pieces of legislation that are out of kilter with labour practices in civilized communities. Of particular concern is the rampant rise in early retirements of public officers,” reads the letter.
Marenga further stated that, “our members are ready to enter into the arena of partisan politics to ensure that the interests of the labour movement are adequately represented in parliament and government,” they said.
The public service unions that signed the petition are Botswana Land Boards and Local Authorities Workers Union, National Amalgamated Local and Central and Parastatal Workers’ Union, Botswana Secondary Teachers Union and Botswana Teachers Union.
The ink on Marengo’s letter has hardly dried and the union this week issued another warning that they will mount a strike action that will bring government operations to a standstill if government goes ahead and takes action against Botswana Land boards and Local Authorities Workers Union (BLLAWU) President Pelotshewu Baeng for addressing the Botswana Congress Party Youth League congress.
This comes after Baeng defied an order from government not to honour an invitation to address a BCPYL congress in Francistown over the weekend.
While it remains to be seen what action government will take against Baeng for his defiance, the public sector unions have warned that they will not tolerate any repressive action against him.
BLLAWU, Botswana Public Employees Union, Botswana Teachers Union, Botswana Secondary Teachers Union, and the Manual Workers Union, have issued a stern warning that they will cripple government operations if any action is taken against Baeng.
In an interview with Sunday Standard on Friday, at which BOPEU president Andrew Motsamai and General Secretary Topius Marenga were present, the unions said that Baeng had gone to address the BCPYL as a representative of the public sector unions.
“We endorse Baeng’s actions and the statements that he made at the BCPYL congress. He went there as a trade unionist. Should anything happen to him, we will bring this country to a stand still for as period that will be determined by us. An injury to Baeng is an injury to all of us,” said Motsamai.
He also accused government of double standards as she remained mum when trade unions engaged the labour subcommittee of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party.
“On two occasions we were wined and dined by the ruling BDP at the pavilion, where we exchanged ideas on what we expect of each other and how we can harmonies relations. The employer remained mum. But they only speak out when we engage with the opposition. Government will not intimidate our representations,” he said.