In explaining his administration’s handling of the Tshele Hills strategic fuel reserves project, former president Ian Khama reveals a detail that even his detractors will accept as fact – a perennial propensity of South African trade unions for strike action.
The main reason to build the facility was the obvious strategic one but Khama reveals that his administration also factored in the threat of strike action in South Africa that could threaten regular fuel supplies to Botswana.
“To address that particular issue of disruption to supplies, we put in place an arrangement with Mozambique and Namibia as alternative routes for imports of petroleum products which could be called on to cater for any disruptions from South Africa,” says the former president, adding that this arrangement “worked well for us and was in place until I left office.”
In his address to the nation last month, President Mokgweetsi Masisi said that in addition to COVID-19-related factors, the recent strike action by South African truck drivers “also had an impact on our [fuel] supply.” He made the latter point in explaining an unprecedented fuel shortage that resulted in motorists queuing up at filling stations for hours on end. Botswana is overly dependent on South Africa for most essential goods and services and according to Masisi, “approximately 90 percent of fuel consumed in Botswana is sourced from the Republic of South Africa and the balance comes through Mozambique and Namibia.” The latter is confirmation that the arrangement that Khama started is still in place.
Members of South Africa’s highly militant trade unions play a crucial role in a supply chain that delivers fuel to Botswana. While these unions, which took root during the apartheid era, are highly effective in protecting worker rights, all too often, their exercise of such power undermines the imperatives of commerce and imperil trade relations with other countries. As a matter of fact, two South African scholars with liberation-struggle bona fides, have also expressed grave concern about the militancy of the country’s trade unions.
One is Professor Adam Habib, the Vice Chancellor of Wits University, who said that the unions are given to “overplaying their hand” and “refuse to understand competing imperatives: the survival of a business and economy with what workers demand.” He told a South African radio station: “I think that society is increasingly tired of the fact that strike after strike become violent. Union leaders who claim they have nothing to do with the violence are implicitly complicit in creating a culture of violence.” The other is Professor Bonke Dumisa of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Management IT and Governance. Dumisa, who is also an advocate of the High Courts of South Africa and Lesotho, has lamented the “misguided militancy” of South African unions.
The days of South African unions being able to hold Botswana at ransom may be numbered. Having been only an idea for way too long, the Trans-Kalahari Railway project, which will connect Botswana to Walvis Bay port in Namibia, is finally taking shape.