Sunday, April 18, 2021

“The inmates have taken over the asylum”

Nothing illustrates the lack of imagination and depth in our government, opposition and worker union movements than the current arguments advanced for and against the public sector worker strike. Most disheartening is the opposition, which as I will show below betrays a shallowness of thought that one would never have thought possible.

It is generally accepted that diamonds contribute about 40% of our economy. So diamonds would logically account for a 40% portion of any growth in our economy. If the economy grows by 7% then 2.8% out of this would come from diamonds. Now no one in the government or the public sector unions can claim that they are responsible for this portion of the growth in our economy. Any arguments for an increase in public sector wages must therefore exclude this portion of the growth in the economy. At best they can only argue on the basis of 4.2% growth.

If the government, ruling party, opposition parties and the public sector unions include this portion in their equation then regard must be given to the Mineral Rights in Tribal Territories Act. In terms of this act the tribes ceded their mineral rights to the president for the benefit of all inhabitants of Botswana. This will suggest that I am entitled to the same share of the increase attributed to diamond growth as every other inhabitant of this country.

I am therefore disappointed that our opposition parties have seen it fit to agitate and support an increase in public sector salaries to the exclusion of other inhabitants of Botswana. A properly informed opposition would have seen the fallacy of an argument for an increase in public sector wages that did not address the equal distribution of revenues coming out of our minerals. Public servants do not have a better claim to any growth in our economy based on diamonds than other Batswana purely on the basis that they are public servants or have not had an increase in their wages for the past three years.

The same argument can be made about revenues coming out of the SACU pool. No one in government or the public sector can claim to be responsible for any increase in the portion that we get out of the SACU pool. The revenues are not generated exclusively by the public sector labour.

As things stand we are yet to see any conscious and deliberate effort on the part of government as an employer and the public sector to create wealth. Instead we see a government and public sector that lacks imagination and invests time and energy formulating or giving effect to senseless policies and laws that stifle economic activity. Why do unemployed people need distributors licenses? We see a public service that goes the extra mile to prevent young and unemployed Batswana from being economically active by unnecessary licensing requirements. Why should every distributor’s license require a warehouse?

At the end of the year after refusing to give our young and unemployed licenses to distribute goods can our government and public servants demonstrate any economic growth attributed to enforcement of these senseless laws and regulations? I submit that they cannot. Now they are asking us to give up our share of the mineral revenues for them to continue implementing these senseless and useless laws and regulations.

In my view any increase in public sector wages must be tied to direct contribution to economic growth. If licensing authorities and officers implement senseless and economically retarded regulations that make it impossible for our young to trade then we need to reduce their salaries. No government has the right take our mineral revenues to finance enforcement of these senseless regulations. The public sector unions must take a serious look at themselves and consider whether the nation really owes them anything. In my view we do not. The opposition must likewise reconcile their support for public sector wage increases and the role of the public service in retarding economic participation of our young.

If the public sector workers can withdraw their labour to get a better pay why can they not withdraw their labour from enforcing senseless laws and regulations that retard economic growth? After all their argument for a wage increase is founded on economic growth. They cannot hide behind their label as employees.

Our government has no right to promise public sector unions a review of their salaries should the economy improve. It can only promise public sector unions a review that can be attributed to the labour that public sector provides that contributes to growth in the economy. From this perspective there is a need to differentiate between the various public sector employees and cost items. There will be those who by virtue of their employment provide direct economic impact and those that are secondary. There is no justification for paying people to ask ministers questions as is happening in our parliament. There are toll free numbers that can do as well. The technology is available for even providing permanent records.

When we talk about the size of government and the public service we must differentiate between workers and agencies or departments. An intelligence service that spends time and resources in collecting what can at best be called blackmail information is irrelevant to our economy. If memory serves me right one of the duties of DIS is to collect intelligence that advances our economic interests. One wonders how an intelligence agency that does not have to account for how it uses public funds can even come close to playing a meaningful role in economic intelligence.

When public servants get a salary increase prices go up for everyone. Why must we share the inflationary burden occasioned by any increase in public sector wages when we do not share in the diamond revenue cake? In my view the opposition, unions and government must justify to those of us who are left out of the feeding loop why we have to suffer the consequences of a public sector wage hike. If they cannot justify then there is no need for a public sector salary increase.

Alternatively we need price control to cushion those of us who will not get a bigger share of the diamond revenues. In the absence of price control any increase in public sector wages is a curse on those of us who do not have access to the feeding trough. In my view the opposition cannot support a public sector wage increase without at the same time agitating for price control. In the absence of price control the foreign owned retailers will be the greatest beneficiaries of the public sector wage increase.

We must appreciate that most of the products in the retail stores come from South Africa. The increase in public sector wages will end up in the hands of South African manufacturers. We have of late seen reports placing Sanlam in a bad light suggesting that it repatriates profits from Botswana. How different is this from an increase in public sector wages that is then taken by South African owned entities in the retail sector? I submit that there is no difference.

The trouble is that our workers think their enemy is low wages. They think it is a numbers game. They think the greater the number the better. They have learnt nothing from Zimbabwe. Their enemy is inflation and lack of price control in an environment of low or no competition. Increases in wages contribute to inflation and this is a vicious cycle. The solution is to keep the increase in wages at a minimum coupled with minimum or no increase in prices.

The public sector workers are responsible for some of the poorly designed and constructed roads that are costing us a lot in vehicle maintenance and safety. Why should we increase the pay of people who cost us so much? Last weekend when coming from Mahalapye I could not believe what I was seeing. The roads in Gaborone had turned into rivers, placing motorists at great risk of injury and loss of life. Why should we pay public sector workers to place our lives in danger? In fact retailers can say that they are increasing prices to pay for the costs occasioned by poorly designed and constructed roads. The public sector workers must bear the blame for increases in the cost of living.

Our opposition is too opportunistic. When there is a revolution in Georgia, they clutch at that. When there is a revolution in Tunisia they clutch at that. When there is a revolution in Egypt they clutch at that. Such opportunistic activism betrays poor grounding on national issues. Our opposition must ground their positions on properly considered facts and evidence. Dr. Kenneth Koma advanced his own home-grown perspectives, of course backed by sound intellectual grounding obtained in his studies. I do not see that in our current opposition leaders.

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