The length and strength of public sector strikes in Botswana have caused confusion for on-lookers. It has come as a surprise to many, not fitting easily within conventional narratives about the diamond rich country. We asked five experts from our panel for their views on the strikes. Are they a sign of the rising power of labour or a desperate cry from a group of workers threatened by the recent IMF mission's call for a shrinking of the public sector?
I think the protests in Botswana cannot be attributed to one cause but to several. There is genuine disquiet about possible shrinkage in public sector employment, but there is also a mood of discontent with the stylistics of the President and his austere and disciplinarian utterances. These convey the sense that society is an army camp where orders should be obeyed, rather than something open and expressive - whether for better or worse. Political opposition has not threatened the ruling party since independence, and there is no real sense that citizens seek the government's overthrow. But they do want a sense of new dynamism. The important thing about the trade unions is that they occupy the effective space that civil society and political opposition in Botswana should occupy, but cannot. The expressiveness of dissent, as led by the unions, is an important development in Botswana.
Tshiamo Rantao, Chairperson, Botswana Network of Ethics, Law, and HIV/AIDS:
I think the strike action is, in part, a sign of the rising power of labour in Botswana. Since 2004, trade unions' powers and independence have been enhanced by the amendments to the relevant acts of parliament, including the Trade Unions and Employers' Organisations Act. This has gone a long way into making trade unions more vociferous and fearless in the bargaining sphere.
Bongani Masuku, International Relations Secretary, Congress of South African Trade Unions:
In simple terms, the struggle of the workers of Botswana is a struggle against the neo-liberal restructuring of the public sector, which is about sustained attacks on worker's rights, their conditions and access to services by communities. It is a struggle we all support and continue to wage in our own countries and globally. We support them and call for global solidarity, particularly because for far too long, Botswana has paraded itself as a paragon of democracy on the continent and now that myth is being exposed and debunked. Workers have a right to defend their pay and conditions, as well as demand better services for communities.
Owen Skae, Director, Rhodes Business School:
Botswana is recognized as a stable democracy, with a well managed economy and a sound programme of development. However, it continues to be over reliant on the diamond sector and hence the effects of the slowdown in the global economy have had a negative impact on the country’s economic growth. With the government being the largest employer in the country, it cannot afford to give the public sector an increase. At the same time, the civil servants have not had a salary increase for three years now. It seems that the government is caught between a rock and a hard place and the public sector employees are set to be the losers.
The key to Botswana’s future development lies in private sector development, which up until now has proven to be an elusive goal. Until that happens in a substantive way, the country will continue to be characterised by labour unrest, driven more by frustration at the rising costs of living than the flexing of labour power. An entrepreneurial class is not likely to emerge in the short term. Perhaps it is time for the government to finally recognize that it should let the private sector start taking a dominant role in the driving of the economy and government take a back seat. Maybe this strike activity is the tipping point for this to happen.
Thapelo Ndlovu, Deputy Chair, Botswana Council of NGOs:
We are hearing gas escape an opening coca-cola bottle. The dominance of public sector unions in the labour movement reflect that sector's economic dominance. For a long time time it was illegal for them to engage in strikes and other industrial actions. When the bottle was opened with the advent of the new Public Service Act, which permitted the establishment of trade unionism in the public sector, all the pressure oozed out. In a way the strikes are a celebration of freedom of association and expression.
Another important factor is the change in political landscape. The emergence of the ruling party's splinter, the Botswana Movement for Democracy has meant a split of public sector loyalty. It is now easier to convince workers to revolt as they would not necessarily be politically linked to the ruling party.
The style and actions of President Khama cannot be ignored. While the strike started as a demand of salary hike, it is possible that workers may desire to forfeit the salary hike for Khama's departure. While the self-styled technocrat was negotiating with the strikes, he was also dismissing their demands in community meetings around the country. With a different approach the strike may have lasted only a week, rather than drag on and change character.