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Adopting a Transformational Agenda: Trade Union Renewal in Botswana


As trade unions in Botswana we are compelled to organize workers in dealing with a totalitarian regime and the expanding services sectors. Added to this is the imperative to take on multinational corporations; to create strong solidarity among workers from diverse backgrounds; to forge coalitions with other organizations. Another imperative is to engage young people in the trade union movement.

The trade union movement has in the past been seized with the crucial role of fighting for decent wages, hours of work, equality in the workplace, fare treatment, workplace health and safety, and social justice. Currently the trade union movement has a much greater enemy to deal with.

Namely, issues of globalization, outsourcing, privatization, capital flight and restructuring that have presented employment and income insecurity to poorly organized work force in the country. Therefore, it is inescapable that the trade union movement in Botswana must self-invent if it is to deal with these challenges capably for we can no longer afford to blame our woes on a hostile government, unfavorable economic structural changes or apathy of the younger generation of workers towards unionizing (Kloosterboer, 2007).

Of recent trade unions in Botswana have suffered stagnation and in some areas decline in membership due to a hostile political environment and members beginning to question representativeness of the trade unions on the interests of workers. The most recent chink on the armor of trade union density in Botswana followed the threat of secession by the Botswana Public Officers Union (BOPEU) from the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Trade Unions (BOFEPUSU). This threat of secession was as a result of divergent political alignment. Such move demonstrates trade union leadership’s inability to agree on what model to take to protect the workers’ agenda.

Due to these structural and fundamental threats to the existence of trade unionism in Botswana I would like to suggest key constructs of trade union renewal in this country. Such constructs will inform how trade unions run their business going forward and what shape they take.

Transformational Agenda and Renewal

Though the traditional role of trade unions in Botswana has significantly been narrowly perceived to be just agitating for better wages and working conditions such perception is not only myopic but completely detached from 21st century trade unionism. Trade unionism has evolved with new challenges such as globalization, economic restructuring, multinational corporations, capital flight, foreign direct investment, the fight against neo-liberalism, etc.

With such new challenges the primary mandate of trade unions is no longer just to increase member density as trade unions no longer only exist for their members. This is in view of the ineffaceable fact that trade union operations shapes society. They also contribute to a properly functioning democracy, boosting voter turnout in elections and giving workers a voice at the workplace (Roberts & Cowell, 2012).

Organizing across Workers Groups

In the past three years we experienced trade unions earnestly organizing across working class groups. A case in point is the teachers’ unions: Botswana Sectors of trade Union (BOSETU), Botswana Teachers’ Union (BTU) and Trainers and Allied Workers Union (TAWU) move to organize across the national education structure with TAWU especially concentrating among the marginalized workers in the service industry.

However, such organization by the national trade union movement has proven to be less effective as it lacked fundamental ideological foundation. This lack of founding or underpinning principles has led to such organizing characterized by member poaching; back biting, union relationship disputes and loose sectoral integration of such marginalized workers’ groups into the unions.

There is need for a systematic ideology driven mobilization and organizing strategy especially among the sectors with high shares of minority workers if Botswana’s trade union movement is to stay relevant.

The appeal and depth of any serious minded trade union is based on the ideology that underpins its very existence, for without such foundation the trade union is merely a reaction to forces of national power and nothing else.

Please understand that by so saying I am not espousing partisan politics. The orientation of my argument is that without a firm political ideology trade unionism is in essence baseless and tunnel visionary in its approach to socio, economic and political challenges facing both its constituents and the nation.

Bottom up and Top Down Approach

Trade union member density in Botswana has stagnated generally due to dissonance in member interests in relation to leadership action. Many a times trade union members decry lack of proper representation by leadership with leadership accused of taking decisions that do not represent member interests. Therefore, it is critical that initiatives have to come from the masses in order for them to have grassroots support.

Having said this, it is equally important that there is a strong leadership commitment to a workers agenda if union initiatives are to get members blessing and drive. Most saddening in our context is the lethargy within union members to active participation. There is general apathy especially among tertiary institutions where bona fide union members are content with subscribing and sitting back to cast aspersions on decisions by leadership.

Be that as it may, trade unions cannot afford to treat their members as passive consumers of decisions and initiatives they engage in lest they run the risk of rendering themselves irrelevant.

Staying Relevant  

Though there are new dynamics that require trade unions in Botswana to self-invent, it is equally critical that trade unions should never lose sight of their mandate of providing an agenda based on workers’ rights, employment creation and social protection.

Having said this, trade unions’ mandate is much broader than just ensuring income security, safe working conditions, and skill mobility for workers. They are directly involved in systems of economic production and distribution of wealth. Therefore, they cannot disassociate themselves from protection of human rights and democracy.

With this in mind it is preposterous for certain interest groups to berate BOFEPUSU’s involvement in shaping the national politics as all self-respecting trade unions are gate keepers of social justice. Likewise, ‘fence sitting’ as trumpeted by some is in essence ludicrous and nothing else but a game of smoke and mirrors.

However, the notion of ‘fence sitting’ might be appealing to some due to the fact that in Botswana oftentimes enemies of workers’ rights depict trade unions as rabble-rousers serving narrow self-interests that are devoid of national interests.

In view of this, trade unions must engage on a systematic social justice agenda where unions will be seen as partners in national socio-economic and political development.

It is also important that trade unions engage in coalitions on community mobilization initiatives. This would strengthen grassroots mobilization and organization and also allay the misguided notions that trade unions only serve narrow interests.

Trade unions must actively engage in community mobilization and campaigns for social justice such as launching campaigns against government policies that threaten democracy and the rule of law. Likewise, trade unions must be in the forefront in launching community campaigns against social ills such as corruption and abuse of state resources.

It is equally crucial that trade unions in Botswana forge coalitions with community organizations in influencing district and national policy. For example, land allocation, protection of minority groups, use of mother tongue in foundation classes, and distribution of national resources.

For its survival Botswana’s trade union movement needs to ask itself these hard questions:

Does it act only on behalf of a privileged group of workers who are already its members or does it stand to mobilize new groups of workers?

Does it prioritize job security over socio-economic political imperatives or does it advocate for sustainable development?

Are its decision making structures transparent and democratic or are decisions made in boardrooms?

Does it agitate for equal rights for all or does it talk about it with the hope that government will deliver on it?

This said, trade unions must view themselves as critical contributors to social policy and invaluable players in providing the balance between efficiency of the markets and equity for the people (Roberts & Cowell, 2012). This would require a change in outlook.

They have to view themselves and be viewed not only as representing narrow self-interests to being spokespersons of broader social justice imperatives.

David Keagakwa is a member of BOSETU Research & Publications Committee.
(This is a two part submission and hopefully we will share the second part next week).

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Internal party-democracy under pressure

21st June 2022

British novelist, W. Somerset Maugham once opined: “If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too.”

The truism in these words cannot be underestimated, especially when contextualizing against the political developments in Botswana. We have become a nation that does not value democracy, yet nothing represent freedom more than democracy. In fact, we desire, and value winning power or clinging to power more than anything else, even if it harms the democratic credentials of our political institutions. This is happening across political parties — ruling and opposition.

As far as democracy is concerned, we are regressing. We are becoming worse-off than we were in the past. If not arrested, Botswana will lose its status as among few democratic nations in the Africa. Ironically, Botswana was the first country in Africa to embrace democracy, and has held elections every five years without fail since independence.

We were once viewed as the shining example of Africa. Those accolades are not worth it any more. Young democracies such as South Africa, with strong institutions, deserves to be exalted. Botswana has lost faith in democracy, and we will pay a price for it. It is a slippery slope to dictatorship, which will bring among other excess, assault on civil liberties and human rights violations.

Former President, Festus Mogae once stated that Botswana’s democracy will only become authentic, when a different party, other than the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) wins elections, and when the President of such party is not from Serowe.

Although many may not publicly care to admit, Mogae’s assertion is true. BDP has over the years projected itself as a dyed-in-the-wool proponent of democracy, but the moment its stay in power became threatened and uncertain, it started behaving in a manner that is at variance with democratic values.  This has been happening over the years now, and the situation is getting worse by the day.

Recently, the BDP party leadership has been preaching compromise and consensus candidates for 2024 general elections. Essentially, the leadership has lost faith in the Bulela Ditswe dispensation, which has been used to selected party candidates for council and parliament since 2003. The leadership is discouraging democracy because they believe primary elections threaten party unity. It is a strange assertion indeed.

Bulela Ditswe was an enrichment of internal party democracy in the sense that it replaced the previous method of selection of candidates known as Committee of 18, in which a branch committee made of 18 people endorsed the representatives. While it is true that political contest can divide, the ruling party should be investing in political education and strengthening in its primary elections processes. Democracy does not come cheap or easy, but it is valuable.

Any unity that we desire so much at the expense of democracy is not true unity. Like W. Somerset Maugham said, democracy would be lost in the process, and ultimately, even the unity that was desired would eventually be lost too. Any solution that sacrifice democracy would not bring any results in the long run, except misery.

We have seen that also in opposition ranks. The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) recently indicated that its incumbent Members of Parliament (MPs) should not be challenged for their seats. While BDP is sacrificing democracy to stay in power, UDC is sacrificing democracy to win power. It is a scary reality given the fact that both parties – ruling and opposition — have embraced this position and believe democracy is the hindrance to their political ambitions.

These current reality points to one thing; our political parties have lost faith in democracy. They desire power more than, the purpose of power itself. It is also a crisis of leadership across the political divide, where we have seen dissenting views being met with persecution. We have seen perverting of political process endorsed by those in echelons of power to manipulate political outcomes in their favour.

Democracy should not be optional, it should be mandatory. Any leader proposing curtailing of democracy should be viewed with suspicion, and his adventures should be rejected before it is too late. Members of political parties, as subscribers of democracy, should collectively rise to the occasion to save their democracy from self-interest that is becoming prevalent among Botswana political parties.

The so-called compromise candidates, only benefits the leadership because it creates comforts for them. But for members, and for the nation, it is causing damage by reversing the gains that have been made over the years. We should reject leaders who only preach democracy in word, but are hesitant to practice it.

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The Big Deal About Piracy

21st June 2022

Piracy of all kinds continues to have a massive impact on the global creative industry and the economies of the countries where it thrives.

One of the biggest misconceptions around piracy is that an individual consumer’s piracy activities, especially in a market the size of Botswana’s, is only a drop in the pool of potential losses to the different sectors of the economy piracy affects.

When someone sitting in Gaborone, Botswana logs onto an illegal site to download King Richard online, they don’t imagine that their one download will do anything to the production house’s pocket or make a dent in the actors’ net worth. At best, the sensitivity towards this illegal pirating activity likely only exists when contemplating going about pirating a local musician’s music or a short film produced locally.

The ripple effects of piracy at whatever scale reach far beyond what the average consumer could ever imagine. Figures released by software security and media technology company, Irdeto, show that users in five major African territories made approximately 17,4 million total visits to the top 10 identified piracy sites on the internet.

The economic impact of this on the creative industry alone soars to between 40 and 97.1 billion dollars, according a 2022 Dataprot study. In addition, they estimate that “illegally streamed copyrighted content consumes 24% of global bandwidth”.

As Botswana’s creative industry remains relatively slight on the scale of comparison to industries such as Nollywood and Nilewood where the creative industry contributes a huge proportion to West and East Africa’s respective GDPs, that does not imply that piracy activities in Botswana do not have a similar impact on our economy and the ability of our creative industry to grow.

When individuals make decisions to illegally consume content via internet streaming sites they believe they are saving money for themselves in the name of enjoying content they desire to consume. Although this is a personal choice that remains the prerogative of the consumer, looking beyond the fact that streaming on illegal content sites is piracy, the ripple effect of this decision also has an endless trail of impact where funds which could be used to grow the local creative industry through increased consumption, and revenue which would otherwise be fed back into Botswana’s economy are being diverted.

“Why can’t our local creative industry grow?” “Why don’t we see more home-grown films and shows in Botswana?” are questions constantly posed by those who consume television content in Botswana. The answer to this lies largely in the fact that Botswana’s local content needs an audience in order for it to grow. It needs support from government and entities which are in a position to fund and help the industry scale greater heights.

Any organisational body willing to support and grow the local creative industry needs to exist and operate in an economy which can support its mandates. Content piracy is a cycle that can only be alleviated when consumers make wiser decisions around what they consume and how.

This goes beyond eradicating piracy activities in so far as television content is concerned. This extends to the importation and trade in counterfeit goods, resale of goods and services not intended for resale across the border, outside its jurisdiction, and more. All of these activities stunt the growth of an economy and make it nearly impossible for industries and sectors to propel themselves to places where they can positively impact society and reinvest into the country’s economy.

So what can be done to turn the tide here in Botswana in order to see our local production houses gain the momentum required to produce more, license more and expand their horizons? While those who enforce the law continue to work towards minimizing piracy activities, it’s imperative that as consumers we work to make their efforts easier by being mindful of how our individual actions play a role in preventing the success of our local creative networks and our economy’s growth.

Whether you are pirating a Hollywood Blockbuster, illegally streaming a popular Motswana artist’s music, or smuggling in an illegal decoder to view content restricted to South Africa only, your actions have an impact on how we as a nation will make our mark on the global landscape with local creative productions. Thembi Legwaila is Corporate Affairs Manager, MultiChoice Botswana

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Our Strength is our Unity

18th March 2022

Putin Chose War.  We Remain United with Ukraine.

U.S. Ambassador Craig L. Cloud

This is a dangerous moment for Europe and for freedom-loving people around the world.  By launching his brutal assault on the people of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has also committed an assault on the principles that uphold global peace and democracy.  But the people of Ukraine are resilient.

They’ve had a democracy for decades, and their bravery is inspiring the world.  The United States, together with our Allies and partners across the globe, will continue to support the Ukrainian people as they defend their country.  By choosing to pay for a war instead of investing in the needs of Russians, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will be a strategic failure for the Kremlin and ravage the future of the Russian people.

When the history of this era is written, it will show that Putin’s choice to launch an unprovoked, unjust, and premeditated attack left the West more unified and Russia exponentially weaker.

United in Our Response

This will not end well for Vladimir Putin.  Together, the United States and our Allies and partners are taking action to hold Russia accountable.  As a result of unprecedented global sanctions coordination, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Japan, and Canada have removed selected Russian banks from the SWIFT messaging system and imposed restrictive measures on the Russian Central Bank.

President Biden announced sweeping financial sanctions and stringent export controls that will damage Russia’s economy, financial system, and access to cutting-edge technology.  After Putin began his invasion, the ruble hit its weakest point in history, and the Russian stock market plunged.

Along with the United Kingdom and European Union, the United States imposed sanctions on the architects of this war, including Putin himself.

By moving in close coordination with a powerful coalition of Allies and partners representing more than half of the global economy, we have magnified the impact of our actions to impose maximum costs on Putin and his regime.  In response to Putin’s war of choice, we will limit Russia’s ability to do business in U.S. dollars.

We will stunt Russia’s ability to finance and grow its military.  We will impair Russia’s ability to compete in the global economy.  And we are prepared to do more.

In addition to economic penalties, this week President Biden authorized an additional $1 billion over the $350 million of security assistance he recently approved, and a $650 million in 2021, to immediately help Ukraine defend itself, bringing America’s total security assistance to Ukraine over the past year to $2 billion.

We also stand ready to defend our NATO Allies.  President Biden has coordinated with Allied governments to position thousands of additional forces in Germany and Poland as part of our commitment to NATO’s collective defense.

He authorized the deployment of ground and air forces already stationed in Europe to NATO’s eastern and southeastern flanks:  Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania.  Our Allies have also added their own forces and capabilities to ensure our collective defense.  There should be no doubt about the readiness of the greatest military Alliance in the history of the world:  NATO is more united than ever.

The United States has also coordinated with major oil-producing and consuming countries to underscore our common interest in securing global energy supplies.  We are working with energy companies to surge their capacity to supply energy to the market, particularly as prices increase.

Putin’s Unprovoked and Premeditated War

This was an attack that Vladimir Putin has planned for a long time.  He methodically moved more than 150,000 troops and military equipment to Ukraine’s border.  He moved blood supplies into position and built field hospitals, demonstrating his intentions all along.

He rejected every good-faith effort by the United States and our Allies and partners to address his fabricated security concerns and to avoid needless conflict and human suffering by engaging in diplomacy and dialogue.

Putin executed his playbook exactly as we had warned he would do.  We saw Russia’s proxies increase their shelling in the Donbas.  We saw the Russian government launch cyber-operations against Ukraine.  We saw staged political theater in Moscow and heard outlandish and baseless claims made about Ukraine in an attempt to justify Russia’s aggression.

Russia continues to justify its military aggression by falsely claiming the need to stop “genocide” in Ukraine – despite there being no evidence that genocide was occurring there.  We saw Russia use these tactics before when they invaded Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008.

And then, at almost the very same moment the United Nations Security Council was meeting to stand up for Ukraine’s sovereignty and forestall disaster, Putin launched his invasion in violation of international law.  Missiles began to rain down, striking historic cities across Ukraine.  Then came air raids, columns of tanks, and battalions of troops, all riding a renewed wave of disinformation and outright lies.

We have been transparent with the world.  We declassified our intelligence about Russia’s plans so there could be no confusion and no cover up.  Putin is the aggressor.  Putin chose this war.  And now his people will bear the consequences of his decision to invest in war rather than in them.

Transatlantic Unity and Resolve Stronger Than Ever

Putin’s goal of dividing the West has failed.  In the face of one of the most significant challenges to European security and democratic ideals since World War II, the United States and our Allies and partners have joined together in solidarity.  We have united, coordinating intensively to engage as one with Russia and Ukraine, provided assistance to Ukraine, developed a broad response, and reaffirmed our commitment to NATO.

Putin has failed to divide us.  Putin has failed to undermine our shared belief in the fundamental right of sovereign nations to choose their destiny and their allies.  And Putin will fail to erase the proud nation of Ukraine.

The next few days, weeks, and months will be incredibly difficult for the people of Ukraine.  Putin has unleashed great suffering on them.  But the Ukrainian people have known 30 years of independence, and they have repeatedly shown they will not tolerate anyone who tries to take their country backwards.

The world is watching this conflict closely, and if Russian forces commit atrocities, we will explore all international mechanisms that could be used to bring those responsible – whether members of the military or their civilian leadership – to account.

Putin’s aggression against Ukraine will cost Russia profoundly, both economically and strategically.  The Russian people deserve better from their government than the immense cost to their future that this invasion has precipitated.

Liberty, democracy, and human dignity are forces far more powerful than fear and oppression.  In the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation, make no mistake:  Freedom will prevail.

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