Thursday, May 23, 2024

Six more will lose jobs when Tshekedi loses his next month

At this point, it is almost certain that a month from now, Tshekedi Stanford Khama will cease to be the MP for Serowe West, dramatically ending a 23-year public service stint served across two parties. When that happens, some six more people will also lose their own jobs courtesy of three legally suspect clauses in their contract of employment. These job losses will happen at the Serowe West Constituency Office which is staffed by the Senior Administration Officer and Research Officer, Botswana Speaks Officer, typist, messenger/cleaner and two security guards. Officially, these employees are considered civil servants but their conditions of service are not similar to those of other civil servants. While these contracts have a lifespan of 48 months, they are also “dependent on the tenure of office of the serving Member of Parliament.”

Having been elected in 2019, Tshekedi’s term of office was to end in 2024. However, he went AWOL almost a year ago after an unpleasant encounter with agents of the Directorate of Intelligence Services and Security (DISS) who were investigating him over a criminal investigation relating to a company that he and his twin brother, Anthony, are co-directors in. The brothers spent a weekend at a DISS detention facility in Sebele and are said to have been severely traumatised by this experience. Immediately upon their release, the brothers crossed into South Africa with their families to join their brother, former president Ian Khama, who had fled there in November 2021.

According to the standing orders, an MP can only lose his/her seat if s/he absents him/herself from parliament for three consecutive meetings. A parliamentary year has three meetings: the first begins in late October when the president gives the state-of-the-nation address and normally lasts eight weeks; the second, which is the longest, begins in February when the finance minister gives the budget speech and lasts about 13 weeks; and the last, which is also the shortest takes place between July and August, lasting six weeks. At the time of his arrest, Tshekedi had attended part of the 2021 budget session, which was coming to an end. He has been in South Africa since, jeopardising continued service as an MP. 

In terms of the standing order in question, if he misses the current budget meeting, which ends on April 20, then he would have absented himself for three consecutive meetings and would thus lose his seat. The seat would be declared vacant and a bye-election would be held to fill it. The second clause in the employment contract of constituency office employees says the following: “If for any reason the Member of Parliament does not complete the term or Parliament is otherwise, your services will terminate effective that date.” In other words, when parliament ends on April, so would Tshekedi’s run as MP. Consequently, the services of the six staff members at the Serowe West Constituency Office will terminate on the same date. This premature termination of service has financial implications.

The third clause of the contract reads: “You will be eligible for gratuity at the rate of 30 percent of the basic salary at the end of the contract period. That notwithstanding, if for any reason whatsoever, you are not able to complete the contract period, you will only be paid gratuity for the period served.” The latter means that the six employees will lose gratuity of at least 17 months, being May 2023 to October 2024. The resulting financial woes will affect not just the six staff members but family members who are financially dependent on them. These employees would certainly have made financial plans (including those involving creditors) on basis of belief that their services would be terminated in October 2024 after the general election. Such plans will now be loused up.   

This is calamity that Tshekedi (as MP, member of the royal family and future Bangwato kgosikgolo as his brother has decreed) could have prevented. He would have done that by attending parliament even for one day in the 2022/2023 parliamentary year – the year begins in November and ends in August. However, Tshekedi is in a really tight spot: if he couldn’t come to Botswana to attend his sister’s funeral last year, he is certainly not going to be able to come to Botswana to save the jobs of staff members. As Sunday Standard reported last month, Tshekedi was supposed to attend the current session but received intelligence that DISS had unfinished business with him. The latter could have meant anything from spending long hours of interrogation at the DISS facility in Sebele or spending another night or two in detention.

While the clauses in question are legally suspect and don’t make sense from a common sense perspective (why should the fate of employees who are considered civil servants be tied to that of politicians?) the issue is actually quite complex. Practically all the people who work in constituency offices are well-known political operatives who belong to the MP’s party. There is a very good reason why they have to be: if an opposition MP has to hire members of the ruling party, the temptation to sabotage the MP in order that he fails and loses appeal to voters would be extremely high. Members of the opposition working for a ruling party MP would also be inclined to do the same thing.

Whereas there is clear recognition of the fact that constituency office employees are political operatives, the National Assembly has persistently performed a ham-handed magic trick to disrobe them of party attire and contrive to cast them as non-partisan civil servants. That said, this smoke-and-mirrors act is useful in one important respect: members of the public need to be assured that these employees are non-partisan and such non-partisanship can only be assured by subjecting them to civil service rules that will hinder obvious political bias. The chain of command itself adds to the confusion. A National Assembly source says that there is confusion as to who between the Clerk of the National Assembly and MP actually supervises staff working in constituency offices.

Naturally the MP, a politician who is not bound by the Public Service Act and would have recommended these people to the hiring authority – the National Assembly – has to supervise staff. However, as the hiring authority, the Clerk of the National Assembly wields a lot of power and authority over these employees. The MP and the Clerk are not always going to be on the same page – which creates a conundrum for constituency staff when they are expected to implement contradictory administrative decisions by their two bosses.  Not having untangled this morass means that conditions of service for staff members at constituency offices will be confused. As Tshekedi’s case shows, that confusion compromises the job security of staff members.

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