Botswana’s union leaders have snubbed former Botswana National Front ideologue and Temporary Platform spokesperson Elmon Tafa’s call for the labour movement to establish ties with the political fraternity. Speaking to The Sunday Standard on Friday, the union leaders expressed misgivings about Tafa’s overtures saying that they would not want to be seen to be affiliated to any political party, lest they sour their relations with government and ferment discontent within the labour movement.
Tafa made the call to arms at a Botswana Teachers Union delegates’ conference in Moiabana last week. He told the delegates that trade unions must not only defend workers rights but must also take a firm stand on political issues in the country. “Democracy is not the preserve of parliamentary institutions alone…trade unions must be inherently internationalist in their struggle,” he said.
He added that the issue of solidarity becomes meaningless if it is confined to highfalutin speeches, slogans, and resolutions without any militant action. “Fighting on behalf of the weak and marginalized is the hallmark of trade unionism. Unions must be internationalist in their struggle…, and they must forge tactical and strategic alliances and partnerships with progressive political parties and NGO’s which have a common vision and a minimum platform,” he said.
Tafa also urged the unions not to confine themselves to the bread and butter issues of labour relations but rather to strike a balance between the former and the broader socio-politico-economic issues. “To confine yourselves to economic issues and negotiating the terms of sale of your labour to capitalist employers without challenging the system will be suicidal because the broader political context is shaped by the capital’s agenda,” he said.
He reminded teachers that the values of democracy and justice that they so much cherish and seek for their members must also be enjoyed by other stakeholders like students, parents and the larger community. He also warned them that adopting a defensive posture will divorce their struggle from that of the very people with the power to save education namely the stakeholders like parents and students. “Progressive teachers unions must refrain from advancing issues relating to the welfare and well being of teachers at the expense of students, the community and the working people in general,” he said.
Union leaders in Botswana have, however, not responded positively to Tafa’s overtures, saying that they do not want to establish any permanent relations with any political party in Botswana because it would antagonize government and create rifts in the labour movement.
BTU’s German Motswaledi said that they establish temporary liaisons with political parties from time to time, depending on the needs of the labour movement.
“However we do not have any permanent understandings with any political party. Our members have different political affiliations, and we would not want to pursue the ideals of any political organization at the expense of any member of our union,” he said.
Botswana Mine Workers Union President, Rex Tambula, also agreed, saying that their responsibility lies with the members, and they would not want to earn political points for any organization at the expense of their members.
Government officials have in the past urged trade unions to divorce themselves from political parties. Many trade unions leaders have also been accused of using the labour movement to further their political agendas. In his presentation, Tafa dismissed government’s contention that trade unionism and politics do not mix as imperialist emasculation of the labour movement. He said that trade union neutrality cripples anti-capitalist ideologies and makes workers unsuspecting accomplices in their own exploitation.
He accused the state of indoctrinating the labour movement into believing that politics should be separated from economic struggles. “The state discourages civil society, including unions, from lobbying political parties. This is based on the myth that government is a neutral arbiter between different classes and therefore caters for everyone’s interests,” he said. He also accused government of preaching political neutrality as a means of divorcing trade unions from their political allies and enslaving them to the capitalist state. “The first step to freedom in the labour movement is for trade unions to abandon this false neutrality and openly build strategic alliances with revolutionary parties,” he said.
He also accused the government of fuelling divisions between the labour movements by sponsoring a new confederation of public sector trade unions. “Such politically engineered splits must be strongly condemned because they defeat the cause of the working class whose strength lies in unity,” he said.
He added that if the trade union movement in Botswana was bold enough to forge strategic alliances with progressive parties and NGO’s, they would combine their numerical strength and abundant material resources to yield a new pro labour government.
While trade unions remain resolute in their neutrality, some politicians and trade union commentators maintain that there is a very thin line, if any, between trade unionism and politics. They argue that trade unions are products of politics and they are created and developed by parties for the sole purpose of improving the working conditions of the workers.
Examples have been cited in neighbouring South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, where trade unions have formed strategic alliances with political parties.
When addressing a BMWU conference last year South African National Union of Mineworkers President, Senzeni Zokwana, urged trade unions to partake in politics if they want to change the political and, by extension, economic environment of the country.
“You have to be part of the political system to be able to influence it effectively. Your influence will be negligible if you try to change things from the outside,” he said.
Others, on the other hand, argue that workers rights and politics are not necessarily one and the same thing. They argue that it would not be right for trade union leaders to be seen to be courting the interests of a particular political party because their political orientation does not necessarily represent that of all of their members.
Another point that was raised was that union leaders, in a bid to score political points, might become overzealous and confrontational when dealing with government, instead of bargaining reasonably. At the same time, union leaders who support the ruling party might sell out to their membership by not advocating for their rights vigilantly, lest they cast the party of their choice in bad light.