Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Many lessons for Botswana to learn from South Africa’s poisoned industrial relations

For the last few days, the entire world has been shocked by pictures of how the South African Police Services recently killed thirty-four mine workers.

The preceding week had seen ten other people, including two police officers, killed in a related spate of violence.

It all started when mine workers in one of South Africa’s platinum mines demanded wage hikes.
While it is clear that at least one of the striking miners had fired shots at the police, opinion is divided over whether or not the police of that country responded with the kind of force reasonable enough to justify the amount of people that were killed.
South Africa is no stranger to such massacres.

The history of that country is awash with many incidents where the police killed many people just on account of daring to embark on peaceful protests.

The Sharpeville massacre of 1960 is famous the world over, as are the student riots of 1976.
In both incidents the police used lethal force against unarmed civilians.

The only difference is that at the time the police were trained to defend the abominable.
Not only were the police officers trigger happy, they were mostly white, racists who attached very little premium to black life.

When South Africa became independent in 1994, it was assumed that police killings would, like many other evil things that had over the years been institutionalized as a result of the centuries old apartheid, be a thing of the past. Events of the last week have gone a long way to prove just how wrong that assumption has been. The democratic South Africa, which by the way, is only eighteen years still has a long way to overcome some of the past defects.

While in the past the killings were clear in that they clearly cut along racial lines, today it is much more complex than that as it is often black against black.

The forty-four people that died in South Africa’s North West Province, which by the way is only a few kilometers across Botswana’s border, are the clearest proof since 1994 that South Africa has a lot to do┬á to expedite transformation in that country. While political freedom has been attained, and indeed it has been sweet, many South Africans, especially blacks are beginning to take audit of the benefits that have accrued to them vis-├á-vis the pain they had to go through as to attain that freedom.

With the liberation euphoria now dying out, many black South Africans are beginning to ask really tough and uncomfortable questions, in most instances about the state of economic inequalities and other related disparities.

Inevitably, the questions lead many to wonder as to whether the struggle was, after all, worth it.
They are asking themselves and indeed their government just what has been in it for them.
Some of the most cynical are beginning to openly say it was better during apartheid; which is not only untrue but also unfortunate.

One of the unintended consequences of the South African liberation has been excessive and pervasive involvement of trade unions into political party politics.

There is a history to it.

In the past, trade unions took it as their mandate to fight apartheid more because they rightly saw how it was impossible for workers’ rights to be respected by a regime that did not recognize the mere humanity of over 80 percent of the country’s population. As part of the ruling ANC coalition, South Africa is one of the few known countries to us where Trade Unions are literally holding state power.

COSATU, which is a conglomerate of trade unions, has a very influential and powerful voice in the ultimate direction that the country takes; politically, but also economically.

As a result, COSATU, and indeed the ANC, have a vested interest in making sure that only trade unions that are friendly to the government and affiliated to COSATU are given room not only to spring up but also to grow.

But in the case of the Marikana massacre where 34 miners have been killed, it is clear that COSATU, through its most powerful affiliate, National Union of Mineworkers, literally faced defeat in the eye as its own turf was under attack by an upstart union movement that owed no allegiance to ANC and was showing all signs of being hostile to the ruling alliance.

Here in Botswana, we have seen how over the last few years, government setting up one trade union against the other and, in some instances, going to lengths of giving recognition to one less deserving union over others as a way of breaking the backs of those unions perceived hostile to Government.

We advise Government to provide a conducive environment for trade unionism without setting up one against the other or favouring one over other.

We also advise trade unions to stay true to their core mandate and avoid becoming excessively rich corporate as is the case in South Africa.

South African Trade Unions no longer represent the interests of workers.

Leaders of Trade Unions in that country, are in most instances, more powerful than elected government officials while ordinary union members are statistical fodder used to entrench the power and wealth of those union bosses.

In South Africa, apartheid has sworn the seeds of a time bomb that is now exploding and we can only  hope in Botswana we never get to reach those levels of self debasement.

Unfortunately, we are beginning to see very ugly prospects of a path along those lines.
The wealth accumulated by some so called union bosses is mind-boggling. It is just as acidic as the role played by government.


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