Newly elected President of Botswana Land Boards, Local Authorities and Health Workers Union (BLLAHWU),Thatayoane Mokhurutshe has said that the working class should unsettle the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) at the 2019 general elections in a bid to strengthen their bargaining power.
In an exclusive interview with this publication this week, the youthful trade union activist said BLLAHWU, an affiliate of Botswana Federation of Public, Private and Parastatal Sector Unions (BOFEPPPUSU), will have a clearly defined role as the 2019 general elections approach.
“Trade union politics and mainstream politics are inseparable,” he said, “We need to raise political consciousness and have the working class have their voice heard by the public.” Mokhurutshe said people who continue to sponsor the diatribe on those who engage in issues of national politics are those who enjoy the support of the employers, and are doing so at the detriment of the workers.
Born only 32 years ago in Serowe, Mokhurutshe reminisce his early childhood days which led him to pursue the path that he has taken. His uncle, Montwedi Mokhurutshe cultivated the trade union and politics activism in him. He also called to mind his History teacher at Moeng College, Mr Buti, whom he credits for teaching him history in a passionate manner.
“These two people have influence in the path that I have taken. Learning history provoked something in me and also had major influence in shaping my consciousness,” he recalls. From Moeng College, Mokhurutshe found himself entangled in the rowdy student politics at University of Botswana (UB) where he was pursuing Bachelor of Adult Education, specialising in Community Development. He would find himself on the side of MASS-BNF, a Botswana National Front (BNF) structure in the university.
During his era at the university, he served for three years as MASS-BNF Secretary General in the Student Representative Council (SRC). He learned the art of militancy, taking the forefront in students protest and was involved in the infamous “David Olatotswe Strike” in which students vandalised property in a violent protest. At the centre of controversy were the book shop and the refectory saga.
In the aftermath, the university was closed as a result of growing violence from the protesting students. A few years down the line, Mokhurutshe was at the forefront of another strike, this time around at national level in the BOFEPUSU (now BOFEPPPUSU) 2011 Mother of all strikes.
After graduating from the UB, he was employed by government under Local Government, where he was based in Kanye. “I was never recruited to join the union. The first day at work I asked where I can find the membership forms,” recalls Mokhurutshe, “I immediately joined and appointed myself shop steward at work.”
He would find himself at the thick of the things during the 2011 public servant strike and credits himself as a great organizer. Using his own Nissan vehicle, he took a leading role in mobilising and organising the workers during the entire strike period which lasted for nearly three months.
In 2014 he was elected the Chairman of Kanye Branch, which he says he led with distinction. “I fought for workers at the work place, and I have always been passionate about defending employees in disciplinary hearings,” he said. “We had 14 cases which I participated in and we only lost one.”
In 2015, Mokhurutshe jetted out of the country to pursue a post graduate Degree at Global Labour University. The scholarship was sponsored by the university and the Brazil government. While at college he kept in contact with his comrades in Botswana. It was during this tenure that he was requested by various structures to accept the responsibility of taking charge of BLLAHWU leadership. Having declined the same offers previously, he accepted this time around.
Upon his return in 2016, he solicited for support in union structures. With his track record in the union, and a hailed organiser, it was not surprising when in December last year he ascended to the helm of the union. He was elected the president of the union, with 174 votes, beating Bernard Moseru who garnered 126. Mokhurutshe replaced Disang Mokwape who did not defend his position.
VISION FOR BLLAHWU
Mokhurutshe said BLLAHWU has always distinguished itself as a vanguard of the working class and has remained one of the most militant unions in the country; torch bearer of progressive politics and is leaning to the left. During his tenure, BLLAHWU will continue to mount campaigns against privatisation which has lead to many public servants losing their jobs.
“The employer is capitalist and has the tendency of exploiting workers,” he said. Mokhurutshe spoke against trade unions’ obsession with business ventures as he expressed that “It’s not primary role of the trade unions.” He described it as “Business Trade Unionism’’ or “Yellow Unionism” and blamed it for loss of focus for unions in their primary mandate which is to defend the welfare and rights of the working class.
“Unions should invest to finance the struggle and besides that it will be a loss of focus for unions. Workers will lose if unions do that,” he remarked. He said under his leadership he will embark on extensive membership drive and expand the scope of BLLAWHU membership and include others which were not catered for in the past. BLLAWHU initially focused on health workers, local government employees and land board employees. Presently, BLLAHWU membership stands at over 13000. Mokhurutshe said since returning from the elective congress, BLLAWHU is united and the departure of dissidents has helped bring peace in the union.
ON BOFEPPPUSU TOWARDS 2019
In December, affiliates of BOFEPPPUSU met and took radical resolutions, among them to mobilise its members in preparation for the highly anticipated 2019 general elections. BOFEPPPUSU, which threw its weight behind the opposition coalition, Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) in 2014 general election has been at odds with government for some time now. Their battles have been defined by endless court battles.
Mokhurutshe is of the view that, BOFEPPPUSU and its affiliates are within their right in determining who governs the country in the next elections. He said unions should also look for leaders who are pro-workers. According to him, the worker’s resentment against the current regime is caused by income disparities. He said government has failed to deal with public service salary disparities and failed to utilise its resources for the economy to reach full employment.
“We cannot be spectators in our own economy. Highest income inequality is not natural, it is created by government through its policies,” he said. While government always prefers increment which is a fixed percentage across the board, Mokhurutshe prefers a pyramid structure in which the lowest earning employees will get a bigger increment while highest earning will get a lesser increment.
Botswana remains one of most unequal societies in the world, with salaries in public service attesting to that. Those in the lower structure can get away with a paltry increment of P37 while the top earners will walk away with as much as P1100. Mokhurutshe affirmed that BLLAHWU remains a committed member of BOFEPPPUSU and in the lead to 2019 general elections, its role will be clearly defined. “Government is under pressure hence the decisions they have been making recently, but as workers we do not realise the enormous power that we possess,” he stated.
“BOFEPPPUSU will remain resilient and we will not limit our bargaining power.” Even though Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) has de-affiliated from BOFEPPPUSU, Mokhurutshe remains confident that the federation is still intact and influential.
“The withdrawal of BOPEU is of course something not to be celebrated, but BOFEPPPUSU remains strong. We still have good leaders such as Rari [Tobokani], Motshwarakgole [Johnson] and Motshegwa [Ketlhalefile] and others who were at the forefront during the 2011 public servant strike,” he said.
The newly elected Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) Executive Committee led by Pastor Reverend Thuso Tiego has declared their disapproval of homosexuality saying it is anti-Christianity and Botswana culture.
Speaking at a Media Briefing this past week, BMD President Tiego said Botswana has been a country that respects culture hence endorsing homosexuality will be catastrophic.
“Our young generation grew up being taught about types of families, if homosexuality is passed, at what age will our children be introduced to homosexuality?” he rhetorically asked.
He continued: “If we are going to allow homosexuality then the next day, another person will come and say he wants to practice bestiality. What are we going to do because we have already allowed for this one (homosexuality) and at the end it will be a total mess.” Bestiality is sexual relations between a human being and an animal
This according to Tiego will give those people an opportunity thus disrupting known Botswana beliefs. He however dismissed any notion that the decision to condemn homosexuality should not be linked to the top two of the committee who are men of cloth. “This is a decision by the whole committee which respects the culture of Botswana and it should not be perceived that because we are clergymen we are influencing them, but even if we do, politics and religion are inter-related.”
Of late the church and the human rights organization have been up in arms because of the high court decision to allow for same sex marriages. Ministries ganged up, petitioned parliament and threatened to vote out any legislator who will support the idea. The ruling party, BDP which was to table the amendment in the constitution, ended up deferring it.
BMD President further revealed that he is aware of what really led to the split of the party and he is on course to transform as they approach 2024 elections.
“There are so many factors that led to split of party amongst others being leadership disputes, personal egos and ambitions, toxic factionalism and ideological difference just to mention a few, but we are transforming the party and I am confident that we will do well in the coming elections.
In addition, Tiego is hopeful that they will take the government as they feel it is time to rebrand Botswana politics and bring in fresh blood of leaders.
He further hinted that they are coming with positive transformation as they eye to better the lives of Batswana.
“When we assume government, we promise to be transparent, free and fair electoral processes and encourage pluralism as way of getting back to our roots of being a democratic country as it seems like the current government has forgotten about that important aspect,” Tiego explained.
Reeling under the increasing barrage of stinging international sanctions, the isolated North Korean regime is reportedly up to its old trickery, this time in a more complicated web of murky operations that have got the authorities of five southern African countries at sixes and sevens as they desperately try to tighten their dragnet around Pyongyang’s spectral network of illicit ivory and rhino horn trade.
It is an intricate network of poaching for elephant tusks and rhino horns that spans Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, with the main sources of the contraband being Botswana and South Africa.
The syndicate running the illegal trafficking of the poached contraband is suspected to be controlled by two shadowy North Korean government operatives with close links to one Han Tae-song, a disgraced North Korean career diplomat who, while serving as the second secretary at his country’s embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe, was expelled in 1992 after he was fingered as the mastermind behind a similar illegal ring that was busted by the country’s authorities.
This disturbing tale of malfeasance by North Korean state actors is as real as it gets.
Recent reports indicate that authorities in the source countries are jointly battling to plug holes created by the shadowy syndicate which allegedly has on its payroll, park rangers, border officials and cross-border truck drivers.
Even more disturbing are allegations that some wildlife officials are conniving in misrepresenting numbers of retrieved rhino horns and ivory from poachers and getting kickbacks for their involvement in the pilfering of ivory and rhino horns from government stockpiles especially in South Africa.
In a shocking and well-orchestrated movie-style heist in South Africa, thieves in June this year made off with 51 rhino horns after breaking into a very secure government stockpile facility of the North West Parks Board (NWPB).
While some suspects from South Africa and Malawi were nabbed in a government sting operation, none of the rhino horns – 14 of which were very large specimens that can fetch serious money on the black market – were recovered.
A report of the heist said the police were lethargic by eight hours in responding to an emergency alert of the robbery which was described by North West police spokesperson Brigadier Sabata Mokgwabone as “… a case of business robbery…”
Thabang Moko, a security analyst in Pretoria says the military precision in the burglary, delays in police response, and failure to recover the stolen rhino horns is dubious. “This development lends credence to suspicions that some government officials could be part of a shadowy syndicate run by foreign buyers of rhino horns and ivory,” Moko says.
It is understood that in light of the rhino horns heist in North West, South Africa’s Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Barbara Creecy on 1 August, shared her concerns to her counterparts in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique calling for greater regional cooperation to combat the illegal wildlife trafficking which she believes is being masterminded by the Far East’s buyers of the ill-gotten horns and ivory.
It is believed that foreign kingpins involved in perpetuating the illegal trade are mainly North Koreans vying against Vietnamese and Cambodian buyers in the quest for dominance of the illicit trade in rhino horns and ivory sourced from southern Africa.
Creecy’s concerns, which she also shared to South Africa’s state-run broadcaster SABC, echoed Moko’s worries that the North West heist may have been an inside job.
According to Creecy, there was a need for the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol)’s greater involvement in joint investigations by affected countries as there were indications of ‘local knowledge’ of the North West job and that syndicates, “Higher up the value chain actually recruit park rangers to the illegal ivory trade network.”
Botswana’s Environment and Tourism Minister Philda Kereng is on national record admitting that poaching was a source of headaches to her government, especially considering that the daring poachers were making successful incursions into secure areas protected by the Botswana Defence Force (BDF).
This came after poachers gunned down two white rhinos at the BDF-protected Khama Rhino Sanctuary in August 2022 despite Kereng putting the time frame of the killings between October and November 2022.
Kereng hinted at the existence of Asian controlled syndicates and acknowledged that the surge in poaching in Botswana is driven by the “increased demand for rhino horn on the international market” where in Asia rhino horns are believed to be potent in traditional medicines and for their imagined therapeutic properties.
Botswana has in the past recorded an incident of a group of an all-Asian reconnaissance advance team teams being nabbed by the country’s intelligence service in the Khama Rhino Sanctuary.
Masquerading as tourists, the group, with suspected links to North Korea and China, was discovered to be collecting crucial data for poachers.
Also according to reliable information at hand, an undisclosed number of wildlife parks rangers were arrested between September 2022 and January this year, after information surfaced that they connived in the smuggling of rhino horns and ivory from Botswana.
One of the rangers reportedly admitted getting paid to falsify information on recovered horns and ivory which were smuggled out of the country through its vast and porous eastern border with South Africa, and making their way to their final destination in Mozambique via back roads and farmlands in South Africa and Zimbabwe.
“We are aware that in the past year, some rhino horns and ivory illegally obtained from Botswana through poaching activities and shady deals by some elements within our wildlife and national parks department, have found their way out of the country and end up in Mozambique’s coastal ports for shipment to the Far East,” a Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) source says.
Independent investigations reveal that two North Korean buyers, one of them only identified as Yi Kang-dae [confirmed to be an intelligence official in the country’s state security apparatus], acting on behalf of the disgraced Han Tae-song, financed the entire operation on two occasions between 2022 and 2023, to move at least 18 rhino horns and 19 elephant tusks from Botswana, including pay-offs – mostly to border patrol and customs officials for safe passage – along the knotty conduit across South Africa’s north western lands, then across south-eastern Zimbabwe into Mozambique.
According to a trusted cross-border transport operator in Zimbabwe, the rhino horns and elephant tusks were illegally handed over to smugglers in Mozambique at an obscure illegal crossing point 15km north of Zimbabwe’s Forbes Border Post in November 2022 and February this year.
The end buyers in Mozambique? “It is quite an embarrassment for us, but we have solid evidence that two North Korean buyers, one of them who is linked to a former notorious diplomat from that country who has been in the past involved in such illegal activities in Zimbabwe, oversaw the loading of rhino horns and ivory onto a China-bound ship from one of our ports,” a top government source in Maputo said before declining to divulge more information citing ongoing investigations.
Yi Kang-dae and his accomplice’s whereabouts are presently unclear to Mozambican authorities whose dragnet reportedly recently netted some key actors of the network. Han Tae-song currently serves as North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations in Switzerland.
North Korean diplomats have in the past used Mozambique as a final transit point for the shipment of rhino horns to the Far East.
In May 2015, Mozambican authorities nabbed two North Koreans, one of them a Pretoria-based diplomat and political counsellor identified as Pak Chol-jun after they were caught in possession of 4.5kg of rhino horn pieces and US$100,000 cash.
Pak’s accomplice, Kim Jong-su, a Taekwondo instructor also based in South Africa, was fingered as a North Korean spy and returned to North Korea under suspicious circumstances on the heels of Pak’s expulsion from South Africa in November 2016.
A security source in Zimbabwe closely following current developments says there is a big chance that Han Tae-song may have revived the old smuggling network he ran while posted in Zimbabwe in the 90s.
“The biting international sanctions against North Korea in the past decade may have prompted Han to reawaken his network which has been dormant for some time,” the source says. “There is no telling if the shady network is dead now given that Han’s two front men have not been nabbed in Mozambique. More joint vigilance is needed to destroy the operation at the source and at the end of the line.”
North Korean diplomats have, as early as October 1976, been fingered for engaging in illegal activities ranging from possession of and trade in ivory pieces, trade in diamonds and gold, the manufacture and distribution of counterfeit currencies, pharmaceuticals, and the sale on the black market, of a paraphernalia of drugs, cigarettes, alcohol and other trinkets on the back of protracted and biting international sanctions against the reclusive state for its gross human rights abuses against its own people and flagrant nuclear tests.
These illegal activities, according to a US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, have raked in at least US$500m annually for the Pyongyang regime. Other global studies estimate that North Korea’s illegal earnings from the black market are around $1bn annually, and are being channelled towards the country’s nuclear weapons programme, while ordinary North Koreans continue to die of mass starvation.
In February 2014, Botswana, citing systematic human rights violations, severed ties with North Korea with the former’s president Mokgweetsi Masisi (then vice president) calling North Korea an ‘evil nation’ on 23 September 2016, at a United Nations General Assembly forum in Washington, USA.
Botswana has close to 132,000 elephants, more than any of its four neighbouring countries, namely Angola, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, according to a 2022 Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) Elephant Survey.
The rhino population in Botswana has significantly dwindled, with poaching a leading cause of the decimation of the country’s rhinos. Despite dehorning and relocating its diminishing rhino population from the extensive Okavango Delta to undisclosed sanctuaries, Botswana has since 2018, lost 138 rhinos to poachers.
The sharp spike in rhino poaching in Botswana came after the country’s government made a controversial decision to disarm park rangers in early 2018.
In a statement delivered in November 2022 to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) CoP-19 in Panama, the Botswana government instead blamed the surge in poaching to a shift of foreign-sponsored organised poaching organisations from South Africa to Botswana.
“This increase in rhino poaching in Botswana coincided with a decline of rhino poaching in South Africa from 2018 to 2020, suggesting a displacement of the poaching syndicates from South Africa to Botswana,” the statement reads. “The recent decline in rhino poaching in Botswana (2021 and 2022, relative to 2020) coincides with the increase in rhino poaching in Namibia and South Africa, further suggesting displacement of the poaching syndicates across the sub-region.”
According to the Botswana government, as of 13 November 2022 the country has secreted its shrinking rhinos (only 285 white rhinos and 23 black rhinos) in undisclosed locations within the country’s borders.
South Africa has close to 15,000 rhinos. Between January and June 2022 alone, poachers killed 260 rhinos in South Africa for their horns. The country is home to the majority of Africa’s white rhinos, a species whose existence remains under threat of extinction due to poaching.
The major threat posed by foreign state actors including those from North Korea, to southern Africa’s rhino and elephant population remains grim as the bulk of the rhino horns and elephant tusks reportedly continue finding their way to the Far East, where China is being used as the major distribution centre.