Monday, April 19, 2021

President Khama’s failure to meet with trade unions can be catastrophic

The government and trade unions have reached an impasse over the issue of salary adjustment. Since the government is not willing to reconsider its position, public servants have resolved to withdraw their labour for the next ten days and then embark on a go-slow.

As I was drafting this article on Sunday night, I watched Festina Bakwena on BTv talking about the rules of the strike which started on Monday 18th April 2011. She explained that the government will apply the principle of “no work no pay” as provided for in the Public Service Act of 2008. The principle of “no work, no pay” is usually used by the employer to intimidate employees who want to withdraw their labour. The belief is that when people are told that they will lose money by participating in a strike (lawful or otherwise), they will change their minds and resume duty. But the truth of the matter is that once people have decided to do something that they know will change their lives one way or the other, intimidation by the employer does not work.

The University of Botswana management failed to apply the principle of “no work, no pay” last year when academic and non-academic staff downed tools for seven days following an impasse on salary adjustment. The employees did not care about the amount of money that the management was to deduct from their salaries. They knew that by withdrawing their labour, the institution will be paralyzed.

And indeed, the institution was paralyzed.

Their argument, which I believe is similar to the one currently made by public servants through their trade unions, was that their purchasing power has been eroded by inflation. They also contended that they were dealing with an arrogant group of leaders who only want to line their pockets while the people who do the core business of the university are getting very little in terms of financial rewards.

If the number of people who gathered at GSS grounds last week Thursday and on Monday morning is anything to go by, then the principle of “no work, no pay” is not going to work. Public servants seem prepared to lose part of their salaries to drive their point home. And the simple point that they want to drive home is that the government needs their labour to do what is expected of it and therefore, should be rewarded accordingly. Surprisingly, we read in the newspapers that instead of meeting the trade unions to avert the strike, President Khama decided to go out of town on “other official engagements.” How can he leave his office when the entire country is just about to catch fire? Given the prevailing situation, I cannot think of any issue that requires the attention of the president more than the strike that can easily plunge the country into a disaster.

Instead of meeting with the trade unions, the president decided to address the issue of salary adjustment at kgotla meetings in small villages like Siviya, Metsibotlhoko and Natale. This, in my view, is a clear indication that he takes public servants for granted. Otherwise, how can one explain a situation whereby kgotla meetings are considered more important than having a fruitful discussion with people who can bring the economy on its knees?

I am tempted to believe that President Khama’s pride does not allow him to meet with trade unions just as it did not allow him to meet with members of Barata Phathi faction when requested by President Sir Ketumile Masire. As a result of his bizarre way of doing things, he single-handedly forced people to leave the BDP in large numbers to form the BMD. And the manner in which he is handling the strike tempts me to conclude that he learnt nothing from the mistake that he made by snubbing Barata Phathi and President Masire.

Snubbing trade unions is a grave mistake that President Khama will regret for many years to come.
The fact that they requested for a meeting with him clearly indicates that they were hoping that the issue will be resolved amicably. I have a feeling that had he met them and made a promise to adjust salaries in September, the strike could have been averted.

It is unfortunate that President Khama seems not to know that politics is a game of negotiations, compromises and most importantly, numbers. There is no way that he can simply dismiss with contempt, a demand made directly by more than ninety thousand public servants and indirectly by thousands of people who work for parastatals, police service, BDF and the prisons department. It is just an illusion for anyone to think for a second that all the people in the afore-mentioned institutions do not want their salaries to be adjusted by sixteen per cent.

All the people who want a salary adjustment are eligible to vote and can easily change the government more so that all opposition parties are in full support of the strike. These are the people that the president has to rely on to deliver services to the citizens so that he can, at the end of his tenure, be viewed as someone who really cared about the needs of the people. Hence, I fail to understand why he easily refused to meet with their representatives.

The president must stop blaming people for being public servants. It is not the fault of people who are employed that some people are unemployed. It is not even his fault that he is working as the president of this country when some people are unemployed. He is on the government payroll and has never refused to receive his salary simply because there are thousands of people out there who are unemployed. Hence, any form of assistance that he wants to give to the unemployed people should not disadvantage those who are employed. Why punish people for serving their country?

I find it interesting that as President Khama tells the unemployed people about the goodies that he has for them, he never tells them that he has spent P20 million of the taxpayers’ money refurbishing the state house to suit his lifestyle. He does not tell them he can use government helicopters to fly around the country using taxpayers’ money to attend to his personal matters or that each minister stays in a house that cost the taxpayers P5 million to construct. He does not tell them that the DIS, which is used mainly to spy on members of the opposition, has been given more than P300 million this financial year. He does not tell them that the Director of DIS does not account to any organ or institution for the millions given to his agency.

The greatest mistake that a president can make is to take the workers for granted, refuse to meet them and dismiss their demands with contempt as President Khama is doing.

*Dr Mothusi teaches Public Administration at the University of Botswana

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