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BOFEPUSU’s endorsement of the UDC: The risks & benefits

Publishing Date : 06 June, 2017

Ndulamo Anthony Morima

Sometime in August 2014 I wrote an article entitled “BOFEPUSU’s partisan politics: the risks and benefits”. The article was motivated by Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU)’s decision to support the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).

It will be recalled that at the time, BOFEPUSU labelled several Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) Members of Parliament (MPs) as enemies of democracy, and not only campaigned against them, but also implored its members not to vote for them. After the general elections, BOFEPUSU’s pro-UDC stance somewhat changed, with the leadership, or at least some of them, stating that it would support any political party, including the BDP, provided its policies and programmes are pro-labour.

However, recently, BOFEPUSU reaffirmed its endorsement of the UDC, stating that the BDP is anti-labour. This was after government and Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) succeeded in obtaining a stay of execution for Justice Motswagole’s decision interdicting Government from continuing to pay salaries of non-unionized public officers inclusive of three and four percent salary adjustment for the financial years 2016/17 and 2017/18 respectively.

It will be recalled that in response to BOFEPUSU’s statement aforesaid, the Director of Public Service Management (DPSM), Ruth Maphorisa, issued media statements warning public servants not to engage in politics since that will be in contravention of the Public Service Act, 2008 and would warrant disciplinary action.    

BOFEPUSU’s decision and DPSM’s response have once more brought the issue of politicization of trade unions and, by extension, the workers to the fore. It is this latest development which has motivated me to write this article. As a prelude, a historical background is apposite.

Since the 2011 public sector strike BOFEPUSU has increasingly leaned towards opposition politics. While the Botswana National Front (BNF) and Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) were given platforms to address the striking workers the ruling BDP was not.

BOFEPUSU’s inclination towards opposition politics continued after the 2011 public sector strike.  During the Letlhakeng bye elections in April 2013, BOFEPUSU encouraged its members to vote for the UDC. In 2013, BOFEPUSU stated that it will fund and/or support opposition candidates during the 2014 general elections.

Still in 2013, BOFEPUSU, some of whose members often wore regalia associated with leftist political parties, resolved to name and shame politicians who are not supportive of the labour agenda, especially those contesting the 2014 general elections.

Sometime in August 2014, it was reported that during the launch of the UDC’s candidate for the Mankgodi-Gabane constituency, Major General Pius Mokgware, a BOFEPUSU leader announced BOFEPUSU’s endorsement of the UDC for the 2014 general elections. It was, however, reported that BOFEPUSU’s Secretary General, Tobokani Rari, distanced BOFEPUSU from such statements.

At the time, Rari was reported to have stated that the decision to endorse a political party or coalition will only be made after ascertaining each political party’s labour policy at a yet to be convened forum and after studying all the political parties’ manifestos.

I now discuss the risks and benefits of BOFEPUSU’s endorsement of the UDC. It is incontrovertible that BOFEPUSU’s members are affiliated to different political parties. Indeed, some of the members are not affiliated to any political party. It is, therefore, inarguable that BOFEPUSU’s endorsement of the UDC will alienate some of its members.

For instance, though not all BOPEU members were opposed to UDC’s endorsement, some were and it is this issue which, in the main, resulted in BOPEU’s disaffiliation from BOFEPUSU, something which, as evidenced by the recent court battles between BOFEPUSU and BOPEU, has splintered the trade union movement.    

Conversely, by endorsing the UDC, BOFEPUSU may benefit by retaining and/or attracting members from the UDC. However, the extent to which this can be a benefit depends on the number of members of the BDP or those that are apolitical that BOFEPUSU may lose.

Pre-2014, I was of the view that BOFEPUSU stood to lose from its endorsement of the UDC since it was likely to lose more members than it would gain considering the then larger following of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) and BDP compared to that of the BNF, BMD and Botswana Peoples Party (BPP).

Considering UDC’s performance in the 2014 general elections, the BCP’s post-2014 joining of the UDC and government’s alienation of the workers through unilateral salary increases, my view has now changed. With respect to bargaining with government, BOFEPUSU stands to lose because government believes it is pursuing an opposition political agenda.  In 2014, government suspended its participation in the Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC).

Government only returned to the PSBC following court action by BOFEPUSU though that was to no benefit since no meaningful negotiations have been held since, resulting in government’s unilateral increases of public servants’ salaries which led to protracted court battles and BOFEPUSU’s recent withdrawal from the PSBC.

BOFEPUSU also stands to lose since government may deny it non-statutory benefits. For instance, had it not been for the courts, government would have terminated the secondment of trade union Secretary Generals under the pretext that they uttered political statements.

President Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama has been quoted as having informed civil servants that he is ready for battle with trade unions if they do not desist from open political activity. As shown above, this battle was indeed fought during the 2014/15 and 2015/16 salary negotiations which were deadlocked resulting in litigation.

Not only that. Government has taken away the administration of the Government Enabled Motor Vehicle Aid Schemes (GEMVAS) from trade unions; taken away the right to strike away from teachers, inter alia, by declaring them as essential service employees; and dismissed some BOFEPUSU leaders, for instance, BOFEPUSU’s Deputy Secretary General, Ketlhalefile Motshegwa.

Obviously in an act of vengeance, government attempted to frustrate some BOFEPUSU leaders by transferring them to departments not related to their professions. An example is government’s April 2016 attempt to transfer BOFEPUSU president, Johannes Tshukudu, from his position as Senior Lecturer at Tlokweng College of Education to the Ministry of Transport and Communication as Chief Administration Officer, which was interdicted by the courts.      

Still with respect to relations with government, BOFEPUSU and, by extension, the workers stand to lose in that government, in retribution, is likely to enact laws and make policies that are adverse to unions and workers. As shown above, this actually obtained as evidenced by government’s declaration of teaching, among other professions, as an essential service, effectively taking the right to strike away from them in an attempt to weaken the trade unions’ impact in the event there is a public sector strike.

Recently, government published a Bill seeking to amend the Public Service Act, 2008. Among the proposed amendments are making DPSM the PSBC Secretariat; taking the power of adjudicating disciplinary cases from the PSBC to the Permanent Secretary to the President(PSP) and restricting salary deductions to union subscriptions to the exclusion of such amenities as funeral cover and loan repayments.

Owing to the political pressure that BOFEPUSU’s UDC endorsement may bring to bear on government, BOFEPUSU may benefit because government may accede to its proposals during negotiations. Also, government may, in an effort to outclass the UDC and to placate the workers, initiate terms and conditions of service which are favorable to workers.

For instance, following the deadlock of the 2014/15 salary negotiations, government unilaterally implemented positive terms and conditions of service. These included expanding housing loans to include top earners; interest free salary advances for low bracket employees; and increasing the GEMVAS loan repayment period from 10 years to 20 years.

BOFEPUSU’s endorsement of the UDC is also likely to alienate its current and prospective partners and funders. Prospective partners and funders who are apolitical and do not want their political allegiance exposed will most likely disassociate with BOFEPUSU.

Antithetical to that, BOFEPUSU may gain the partners and funders who are pro-UDC and/or are not afraid of the BDP’s retribution. The reality, though, is that the gains may be outweighed by the losses considering that most significant prospective partners and funders are unlikely to support an opposition political party or coalition.

As evidenced by South Africa’s case, the political party that a trade union endorses is not necessarily always pro-labour. For instance, despite being in an alliance with the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the African National Congress (ANC) has developed laws, policies and projects which are anti-labour.

An example is the toll gate project which the ANC implemented despite opposition from COSATU. Not only that. The ANC has failed to outlaw labour brokering despite COSATU’s opposition to it. The relationship between COSATU and the ANC has soured, mainly because of COSATU’s calls for President Jacob Zuma to resign because of allegations of his capture by the Gupta family, to the extent that COSATU recently barred president Zuma from addressing any of its gatherings.  

Therefore, BOFEPUSU’s endorsement of the UDC does not guarantee support for the workers’ agenda. This notwithstanding, just like many ANC policies are pro- labour, the UDC may, in the main, develop pro- labour policies because of BOFEPUSU’s endorsement.

BOFEPUSU’s endorsement and subsequent collaboration with the UDC may result in conflict and splits. As stated above, though not all BOPEU members were opposed to BOFEPUSU’s decision to endorse the UDC, some were and the endorsement is one of the reasons why BOPEU disaffiliated from BOFEPUSU.

Similarly, not all BOFEPUSU members are in support of BOFEPUSU’s decision to endorse the UDC. This may result in a split in BOFEPUSU, especially if the UDC betrays the workers. In South Africa, the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) withheld its subscriptions from COSATU and was ultimately expelled partly because it was of the view that the alliance with the ANC was no longer beneficial to workers.



Do you think the courts will help put the UDC, BMD impasse within reasonable time ahead of the 2019 General Election?