Sunday, April 18, 2021

The strike is not about salary increase: it’s really about government spending

Strike e tsile go re bolaya. Those are not my words. They were uttered by the president on that strange Btv program on Saturday. The battle lines seem to be drawn. On one side are the government workers with the people and the other side has the government with the people. The people have become caught up in between, like an unfortunate child during a divorce tussle ÔÇô claimed by both parties. So it made sense that the president snubbed the union leaders, and instead chose to address a group of bemused villagers in Natale about the strike. He wanted to get the people’s sympathy. But the same people are the ones who are supported by their children’s shameful salaries at the end of each month. What HE had come to tell the residents of Natale was that badirela puso ba botoka go na le lona ba lo iphotlhereng fela. It is a kind of divide and rule strategy which is likely to fall on its face. Oh the William Blake Human Abstract! “Pity would be no more, If we did not make somebody poor”.

We must ask the question though: Who is unreasonable? Is it the government of Botswana or the workers who for the past three years have gone without an increase? The government’s position is rather simple: Ga go na madi! You can argue and reason until your eyeballs are red; there is a simple line which will be repeated until you feel dizzy: Ga go na madi! The government even had to pretend to negotiate so that it could play this broken record: Ga go na madi! The government never negotiated with the unions. People who negotiate come with an offer, but are prepared to shift and accommodate each other during the talks. The government came with zero to the negotiations ÔÇô no wonder it sent Bakwena, because fairly speaking she cannot negotiate. She can listen, but she can’t make an offer which she hasn’t been instructed to make by her bosses. The government’s offer is zero, if it bends under pressure; it is prepared to bend to….zero. Actually the government le go akanyetsa babereki ga e go dire; that is why the government is saying the employees must wait 4 months kgotsa ba ka akanyediwa 5%. Kgotsa. Who wants to wait 4 months for kgotsa? There is no guarantee and no promise.

What are the workers’ demands? The workers seem to understand that the economy is bad, but they argue that it is not only bad for the government; it is also bad for the employee. They argue that in the last three years, the government has raised VAT in the middle of an economic downturn, in effect giving with the left hand and taking with the right. They contend that over the last three years the government has systematically weakened the buying power of families since food prices have gone up while salaries have gone down and the cost of living has been escalating annually. The price of housing and accommodation has gone up. The employee feels surrounded and squeezed from all sides. School feels are high with no consideration for the economic downturn. So are food prices.

Actually they get hiked because of the downturn. When things get tough nationally and internationally, things have not eased for the employee. The reverse instead has happened, things have been even tougher. Taxes are raised; water and electricity bills have gone up, bank charges have gone up as well as school fees. Workers need a salary increase. The government’s argument is simple: Ga go na madi!

The more I listen to the argument between the government and the unions, the more I realise that this strike is not really about salary increase, the strike seems to be about government spending.

Yes it may be true that madi ga a yo, but that is just because of the government’s ungodly priorities. Since April 2008, there have been some rather strange and spectacular expenses. First, the black Mercedes Benzes were replaced by the equally black BMWs. Then there were massive spending in establishing the DIS with at least P26 million at the beginning and more millions following. Then there was the multi-million brand new presidential jet purchased in 2009 which was estimated at over P240 million. The Sunday Standard at the time argued that “President Ian Khama’s new plane is to cost the taxpayer over P240 million which is almost double the P132 million allocated to the Botswana Police Service under the development budget. The amount of money that will be spent on the presidential jet is even more than the development budget allocation for the Colleges of Education project which is P 171 million.” Then there was the P300,000 spent on one minister’s furniture.

Then there was the story of the purchase of a P46,000 fridge. Then about P81 million of taxpayers’ money was used to construct 16 houses for Cabinet ministers ÔÇô kana ke raya bone ba bontsi jwa bone bo nang le matlo mo Gaborone. Not only that, it was revealed that government spent about P1.24 million annually paying the maids, guards and gardeners for the 16 houses! Last year the government was spending just over a million a month on the salaries of Ipelegeng workers. This year close to P30 million will be spent on establishing another useless project: backyard gardens ÔÇô dimmilone di tshelelwa dinonyane. Mountains of money have been also directed towards the constituency league. What about the P20 million spent on renovating the state house and an estimated P7 million for the construction of the barracks in the state house? While it may be true that we have experienced an economic downturn as a country, it appears that nkale yo o jeleng madi is not the economic downturn, but what appears to be government wastage.

What we have been hearing in the past weekend has been government propaganda at its best. It seems to me that there is a need to return to the negotiating table and avoid Btv and radio Botswana posturing. The government must return with something. Go iphotlhara won’t do. Additionally it is important that the employer must cease to say batho ba botoka ka bone ba amogela sengwe. Workers sell their labour. Their salaries are not charity from the employer. The employee in effect sells his skills and labour to the employer who should compensate him appropriately for his services. The employees have just noticed the employer that the cost of labour has escalated over the last three years and that a raise is long overdue. The employee owns the commodity called labour which he sells to the employer. The employer must pay a fair price or else, as we see today, the employee may be tempted to withhold his commodity for a long time if the employer fails to deliver a fair price. If the employee fails to act in a resolute and consistent manner, he does so at his own peril and demise. He will in actual fact cheapen his labour and make himself dispensable and irrelevant. So the strike rolls on.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper