Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU)’s outgoing President; Andrew Motsamai’s role in trade unionism has divided opinions from detractors and admirers alike. Motsamai will leave the BOPEU presidency to head the commercial wing of the union in March this year.
Moeti Mohwasa, Secretary General of Botswana National Front (BNF) remarked that although Motsamai and BNF had a few differences, both believed in the uplifting of workers.“That is one thing that we shared. He did not believe that trade unions should endorse political parties.
But we strongly believed that trade unions should endorse political movements which share the same vision as theirs,” he and added that, “As the Secretary General of BOFEPUSU he was able to lead workers during the 2011 public servants strike in which the workers were able to exercise their right of withdrawing their labour. We believe the right to strike is a fundamental tool for workers to use to bargain for better working conditions and Motsamai helped the workers in doing that.”
Mohwasa added that Motsamai was part of the Botswana Federation of Public Private and Parastatal Sector Unions (BOFEPPPUSU then BOFEPUSU) team which helped found the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) together with Johnson Motshwarakgole after the collapse of the initial talks.
“We met as BNF at Oasis Motel where he shared with us the need for opposition parties to work together which ultimately led to the formation of UDC though without Botswana Congress Party (BCP). Other than the little differences we had, we shared a common goal on the issues of the plight of workers.”
However, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party’s (BDP) Secretary General, Botsalo Ntuane who described the relationship between his party and outgoing BOPEU president as cordial, has praised Motsamai’s decision to lead BOPEU out of the BOFEPPPUSU federation, as he noted that it was a wise decision.
“We worked well and enjoyed cordial relations with Comrade Motsamai and we hope to maintain the same with his successor and BOPEU at large. Most importantly, we admire him for being part of the BOPEU collective decision to withdraw the union from partisan politics. Our position as the BDP is that unions should not align with political parties because that only serves to divide the membership and subordinates the welfare and interests of workers to partisan agendas,” he said
Ntuane further contended that BOPEU’s withdrawal “was a courageous decision in a union environment characterised by intimidation and intolerance of diverse views. No less important and in testimony to the visionary he is, Comrade Motsamai and his team invested BOPEU time and resources from self serving partisan politics to creating a viable commercial arm meant to improve the livelihood of members. We wish him well and even better success in his new endeavours. Indeed for those with eyes and can see, Comrade Motsamai is possibly a man for the future.”
Meanwhile Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) parliamentary caucus spokesperson and Gaborone Central legislator, Dr Phenyo Butale, expressed disappointment at Motsamai’s decision to pull BOPEU out of BOFEPPPUSU, saying that it defeated the purpose of a strong and united labour movement.
“We have always engaged all players and we believe workers are an important part of our democracy. We have at times solicited ideas from him on issues of labour but one cannot overlook the fact that they were divisions in the labour movements at the time he was at the helm,” he stated.
Butale’s added that, “We believe this happened at a time when workers needed to be more united than ever. You will recall the 3 percent salary increment in which the other segment of the workers accepted while others fought for something better. We had fundamental differences because we believed nobody should be a spectator and there is a need for trade unions to be involved in the political game but he believed otherwise. Our relationship with him was cordial but had its own challenges because of the divisions in the labour movements.”
Motsamai, who came to power in 2007 was part of the transformation that ushered in the new BOPEU. BOPEU started as staff association as far back as 1942, and then known as Bechuanaland Protectorate Junior Civil Service Association. It later in the 1960s merged with Bechuanaland Protectorate European Senior Civil Service Association to establish Bechuanaland Civil Service Association (BCSA), which after independence, transformed into the Botswana Civil Service Association.
The association went through another transformation process in the 1990s’ when it was now called Botswana Civil Servants Association. In 2007, the association attained Trade Union status, thus giving birth to BOPEU.
When Motsamai ascended to the presidency of the newly formed union in 2007, BOPEU had barely 15 000 members, but almost a decade later, the membership stands at more than 32 000, more than 100 percent growth. Perhaps the most significant and also controversial is the transformation of BOPEU’s commercial wing which has paid dividends. BOPEU’s assets base grew from P10 million in 2008 to P120 million currently, an achievement Motsamai has stated he is proud of.BOPEU has however come under fire often times for its commercialisation route, as many view it as trailing outside of trade unionism whose core mandate is to advocate for workers’ rights and welfare.
SECRETARY GENERAL OF BOFEPPPUSU
Motsamai was the secretary general of BOFEPUSU (now BOFEPPPUSU) when the federation resolved to go on the infamous ‘mother of all strikes’ in 2011. The aftermath of the strike was a broken relationship between government and the unions, expulsion of over 700 public servants and the birth of Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).
FORMATION OF UDC
Motsamai is often credited with having played a role in the formation of opposition coalition, UDC, which comprised of; Botswana National Front (BNF), Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) and Botswana Peoples Party (BPP). During the 2011 public servants strike, BOFEPUSU leadership had promised to rally behind opposition, provided they contested as one entity.
The 100 000 membership of BOFEPPUSU made a compelling case. However the talks soon collapsed. Motsamai was instrumental in resuscitating the talks, meeting the leadership of both political parties in order to convince them to reverse their earlier decision. All opposition parties save for Botswana Congress Party (BCP), which was part of the initial talks agreed to return to the negotiation table. The end result was the formation of the UDC.
BOPEU WITHDRAWAL FROM BOFEPPPUSU
The relationship between BOPEU and other BOFEPPPUSU affiliates hit an all time low when the former refused to be part of the resolution that endorsed UDC ahead of the 2014 general elections. BOPEU reasoned that it did not have a mandate to do so while other affiliates opined that having helped found UDC, they had moral obligation to support it. The fall-out set in motion a chain of events which led to the departure of BOPEU from BOFEPPPUSU. The resolution was reached by a majority at the 2015 BOPEU congress. Since then BOPEU and BOFEPPPUSU have been at loggerheads, the latest being a contention over who was eligible to be part of the bargaining council between the two unions.
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