The Secretary General of Botswana Federation of Trade Unions, Gadzani Mhotsha, has defended the continued involvement of trade unions in national politics, saying that labour matters and politics cannot be divorced.
Mhotsha’s comments come after the manual workers union leadership issued leaflets and campaign posters lobbying voters to reject senior members of the A-Team faction of the Botswana Democratic Party ahead of the October general elections. The Executive Secretary of Botswana Secondary Teachers Union, Justin Hunyepa, would later posit that it was within the constitutional rights of the union to publish such a pamphlet.
In an opinion letter written to The Sunday Standard, Hunyepa argued that the constitution of Botswana accords every citizen the right to freedom of association and expression. Mhotsha last week lent support to Hunyepa’s utterances, saying that Sections 3 and 12 of the constitution of Botswana provides for freedoms of association and expression without hindrance.
“Any individual or organization is within their constitutional right to freely associate with any organization or political party of their choice,” he said.
He, however, cautioned against union leaders who use trade unions to push their political parties’ agendas. He accused some union leaders of exploiting the labour movement by making political statements on behalf of trade unions when in fact such statements have not been sanctioned by the membership.
However, Mhotsha agreed that it is impossible to separate labour issues from politics. “The fact is that a lot of political ideologies that many political parties talk about the world over are actually products of the labour movement, and they are centered on the rights of workers,” he said.
Government, on the other hand, has in the past warned trade unions and workers in general to desist from politicizing labour matters as they will be prone to manipulation by politicians. As way back as 1970, writes Justin Hunyepa, President Seretse Khama cautioned the public service against involvement in politics when addressing the Botswana Civil Service Association. In 2005, then TSM Director, Opelo Makhandlela, cautioned all teachers to desist from their apparent involvement in politics. When addressing Botswana Public Employees Union’s inaugural conference, Major General Moeng Pheto also spoke at length about the evils of mixing labour matters with politics. Numerous other politicians, especially those aligned to the ruling party, have also cautioned against politicization of the labour movement.
But the government’s disdain for such a development has been dismissed by trade union leaders as a manifestation of the ruling class’s perpetual fear of the enlightenment and education of the working class.
“Political leaders have a misdirected opinion that the labour movement is generally pro-opposition. If such was the case the ruling party would not be in power right now. The idea of trade unionism divorced from politics is wishful thinking peddled by ruling party functionaries who abhor the idea of an educated and informed work force,” charged Mhotsha.
He added that government policies are formulated and implemented by cabinet ministers who assumed office through politics, such that it will take a politically informed workforce to be able to bargain with government.
When addressing the Botswana Mine Workers Union in Francistown, National Union of Mine Workers (SA) President, Senzeni Zwokwana, explained that the South African Confederation of Trade Unions (COSATU) join forces with the ruling African National Congress because they wanted to be part of the decisions that concern their membership and influence decision making from within. Even in the United Kingdom, the strength of the New Labour Party lies in the trade union movement.
In conclusion, Mhotsha said the labour movement has to harness relations with legislators and political leaders who advocate for workers rights, lest they find themselves without favour, marginalized by oppressive labour laws and policies, and emasculated by laws incompatible with union interests.