It came as no surprise, when President Ian Khama, in his speech, delivered on Saturday 22 May 2010 at the Botswana Democratic Party, National Convention, exposed his ignorance about the proper role of public sector trade unions in a vibrant democracy, by asserting that trade unions should refrain from expressing any political views. As a former military man, Khama does not have the faintest idea of how public sector unions are organised and what the legitimate activities of a public sector trade union are; because our laws prohibit unionisation in the military. Khama has never been a member or office bearer of any trade union, nor has he ever had any interaction with any trade union. He is therefore not qualified to offer any advice to trade unions on the activities that they should engage in.
Workers rights are created by the supreme-law making body in Botswana which is Parliament. Parliament consists of democratically elected representatives. These representatives are responsible for formulating laws that have a bearing on the livelihoods of all citizens, including members of trade unions. Trade union members are not immune to the laws that affect everyone else. The Government of the day, which is democratically elected, is responsible for formulating and implementing policies with far-reaching effects. Union members’ are not impervious to the effects of these Government policies. Just by way of example, the recent Government decision to increase VAT is hurting the pockets of our members. Workers undoubtedly have an interest in ensuring that persons who can adequately represent their interest are elected into positions of power. After all it is those persons who are ultimately responsible for the terms and conditions under which public servants are employed.
It would be very naive, if not plain foolish, for trade unions to sit back and watch the country being badly administered and their wealth being squandered by a regime that has institutionalised corruption, without uttering a word. Trade unions have a responsibility towards their members to ensure that candidates who can best represent the rights of workers are elected into Parliament.
Trade Unions have always been engaged in political activity. In the United Kingdom, as early as the 1860s, trade unions were campaigning for the election of candidates of their choice to the House of Commons. In the United States, the vast majority of lobby groups at Congress are trade unions. In South Africa, the liberation struggle could not have been won without the assistance of the labour movement. In Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change, which Khama supports, would not be as strong as it is, without support of the labour movement.
The view that public sector unions have no role to play in formulating and shaping political ideology, is an uninformed one. NALCPWU’s will therefore continue to involve itself in politics and will do everything it can to ensure that, in future, only candidates who are sympathetic to the plight of workers are elected into political office.
Ian Khama should leave it to the unions to decide what activities they want to engage in. With the establishment of the Botswana Movement for Democracy, whose formation NALCGPWU supports, Khama has enough to keep him preoccupied without having to interfere with the legitimate activities of trade unions.
*Motshwarakgole is National Organising Secretary of the NATIONAL AMALGAMATED LOCAL & CENTRAL GOVERNMENT WORKERS’ UNION