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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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Can we cure ourselves from the cancer of corruption?

28th October 2020
DCEC DIRECTOR: Tymon Katholo

Bokani Lisa Motsu

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” Carl Sagan

Corruption is a heavy price to pay. The clean ones pay and suffer at the mercy of people who cannot have enough. They always want to eat and eat so selfishly like a bunch of ugly masked shrews. I hope God forgives me for ridiculing his creatures, but that mammal is so greedy. But corruption is not the new kid on the block, because it has always been everywhere.

This of course begs the question, why that is so? The common answer was and still is – abuse and misuse of power by those in power and weak institutions, disempowered to control the leaders. In 1996, the then President of The World Bank, James D. Wolfensohn named the ‘C-Word’ for the first time during an annual meeting of the Bretton Woods Institutions. A global fight against corruption started. Transparency International began its work. Internal and external audits mushroomed; commissions of inquiry followed and ever convoluted public tender procedures have become a bureaucratic nightmare to the private sector, trying to fight red tape.

The result is sobering corruption today is worse than it was 25 years ago. There is no denying that strong institutions help, but how does it come that in the annual Transparency International Ranking the same group of countries tend to be on the top while another group of countries, many African among them, tend to be on the bottom? Before one jumps to simple and seductive conclusions let us step back a moment.

Wolfensohn called corruption a cancer that destroys economies like a cancer destroys a body. A cancer is, simplified, good cells in a body gone bad, taking control of more and more good cells until the entire body is contaminated and eventually dies. So, let us look at the good cells of society first: they are family ties, clan and tribe affiliation, group cohesion, loyalty, empathy, reciprocity.

Most ordinary people like the reader of these lines or myself would claim to share such values. Once we ordinary people must make decisions, these good cells kick in: why should I hire a Mrs. Unknown, if I can hire my niece whose strengths and weaknesses I know? If I hire the niece, she will owe me and support my objectives.

Why should I purchase office furniture from that unknown company if I know that my friend’s business has good quality stuff? If I buy from him, he will make an extra effort to deliver his best and provide quality after sales service? So, why go through a convoluted tender process with uncertain outcome? In the unlikely case my friend does not perform as expected, I have many informal means to make him deliver, rather than going through a lengthy legal proceeding?

This sounds like common sense and natural and our private lives do work mostly that way and mostly quite well.

The problem is scale. Scale of power, scale of potential gains, scale of temptations, scale of risk. And who among us could throw the first stone were we in positions of power and claim not to succumb to the temptations of scale? Like in a body, cancer cells start growing out of proportion.

So, before we call out for new leaders – experience shows they are rarely better than the old ones – we need to look at ourselves first. But how easy is that? If I were the niece who gets the job through nepotism, why should I be overly critical? If I got a big furniture contract from a friend, why should I spill the beans? What right do I have to assume that, if I were a president or a minister or a corporate chief procurement officer I would not be tempted?

This is where we need to learn. What is useful, quick, efficient, and effective within a family or within a clan or a small community can become counterproductive and costly and destructive at larger corporate or national scale. Our empathy with small scale reciprocity easily permeates into complacency and complicity with large scale corruption and into an acquiescence with weak institutions to control it.

Our institutions can only be as strong as we wish them to be.

I was probably around ten years old and have always been that keen enthusiastic child that also liked to sing the favourite line of, ‘the world will become a better place.’  I would literally stand in front of a mirror and use my mom’s torch as a mic and sing along Michael Jackson’s hit song, ‘We are the world.’

Despite my horrible voice, I still believed in the message.  Few years later, my annoyance towards the world’s corrupt system wonders whether I was just too naïve. Few years later and I am still in doubt so as to whether I should go on blabbing that same old boring line. ‘The world is going to be a better place.’ The question is, when?

The answer is – as always: now.

This is pessimistic if not fatalistic – I challenge Sagan’s outlook with a paraphrased adage of unknown origin: Some people can be bamboozled all of the time, all people can be bamboozled some of the time, but never will all people be bamboozled all of the time.

We, the people are the only ones who can heal society from the cancer of corruption. We need to understand the temptation of scale and address it. We need to stop seeing ourselves just a victim of a disease that sleeps in all of us. We need to give power to the institutions that we have put in place to control corruption: parliaments, separation of power, the press, the ballot box. And sometimes we need to say as a niece – no, I do not want that job as a favour, I want it because I have proven to be better than other contenders.

It is going to be a struggle, because it will mean sacrifices, but sacrifices that we have chosen, not those imposed on us.

Let us start today.

*Bokani Lisa Motsu is a student at University of Botswana

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Accounting Officers are out of touch with reality

19th October 2020

Parliament, the second arm of State through its parliamentary committees are one of Botswana’s most powerful mechanisms to ensure that government is held accountable at all times. The Accounting Officers are mostly Permanent Secretaries across government Ministries and Chief Executive Officers, Director Generals, Managing Directors of parastatals, state owned enterprises and Civil Society.

So parliament plays its oversight authority via the legislators sitting on a parliamentary committee and Accounting Officers sitting in the hot chair.  When left with no proper checks and balances, the Executive is prone to abuse the arrangement and so systematic oversight of the executive is usually carried out by parliamentary committees.  They track the work of various government departments and ministries, and conduct scrutiny into important aspects of their policy, direction and administration.

It is not rocket science that effective oversight requires that committees be totally independent and able to set their own agendas and have the power to summon ministers and top civil servants to appear and answer questions. Naturally, Accounting Officers are the highest ranking officials in the government hierarchy apart from cabinet Ministers and as such wield much power and influence in the performance of government.  To illustrate further, government performance is largely owed to the strategic and policy direction of top technocrats in various Ministries.

It is disheartening to point out that the recent parliament committees — as has been the case all over the years — has laid bare the incompetency, inadequacy and ineptitude of people bestowed with great responsibilities in public offices. To say that they are ineffective and inefficient sounds as an understatement. Some appear useless and hopeless when it comes to running the government despite the huge responsibility they possess.

If we were uncertain about the degree at which the Accounting Officers are incompetent, the ongoing parliament committees provide a glaring answer.  It is not an exaggeration to say that ordinary people on the streets have been held ransom by these technocrats who enjoy their air conditioned offices and relish being chauffeured around in luxurious BX SUV’s while the rest of the citizenry continue to suffer. Because of such high life the Accounting Officers seem to have, with time, they have gotten out of touch with the people they are supposed to serve.

An example; when appearing before the recent Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Office of the President Permanent Secretary, Thuso Ramodimoosi, looked reluctant to admit misuse of public funds. Although it is clear funds were misused, he looked unbothered when committee members grilled him over the P80 million Orapa House building that has since morphed into a white elephant for close to 10 successive years. To him, it seems it did not matter much and PAC members were worried for nothing.

On a separate day, another Accounting officer, Director of Public Service Management (DPSM), Naledi Mosalakatane, was not shy to reveal to PAC upon cross-examination that there exist more than 6 000 vacancies in government. Whatever reasons she gave as an excuse, they were not convincing and the committee looked sceptical too. She was faltering and seemed not to have a sense of urgency over the matter no matter how critical it is to the populace.

Botswana’s unemployment rate hoovers around 18 percent in a country where majority of the population is the youth, and the most affected by unemployment. It is still unclear why DPSM could underplay such a critical matter that may threaten the peace and stability of the country.
Accounting Officers clearly appear out of touch with the reality out there – if the PAC examinations are anything to go by.

Ideally the DPSM Director could be dropping the vacancy post digits while sourcing funds and setting timelines for the spaces to be filled as a matter of urgency so that the citizens get employed to feed their families and get out of unemployment and poverty ravaging the country.
The country should thank parliamentary committees such as PAC to expose these abnormalities and the behaviour of our leaders when in public office. How can a full Accounting Officer downplay the magnitude of the landless problem in Botswana and fail to come with direct solutions tailor made to provide Batswana with the land they desperately need?

Land is a life and death matter for some citizens, as we would know.

When Bonolo Khumotaka, the Accounting Officer in the Ministry of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services, whom as a top official probably with a lucrative pay too appears to be lacking sense of urgency as she is failing on her key mandate of working around the clock to award the citizens with land especially those who need it most like the marginalised.  If government purports they need P94 billion to service land to address the land crisis what is plan B for government? Are we going to accept it the way it is?

Government should wake up from its slumber and intervene to avoid the 30 years unnecessary waiting period in State land and 13 years in Tribal land.  Accounting Officers are custodians of government policy, they should ensure it is effective and serve its purpose. What we have been doing over the years, has proved that it is not effective, and clearly there is a need for change of direction.

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Is it possible to make people part of your business resilience planning after the State of Public Emergency?

12th October 2020


His Excellency Dr Mokgweetsi EK Masisi, the President of the Republic of Botswana found it appropriate to invoke Section 17 (1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Botswana, using the powers vested in him to declare a State of Public Emergency starting from the 2nd April 2020 at midnight.

The constitutional provision under Section 17 (2b) only provided that such a declaration could be up to a maximum of 21 days. His Excellency further invoked Section 93 (1) to convene an extra- ordinary meeting of Parliament to have the opportunity to consult members of parliament on measures that have been put in place to address the spread and transmission of the virus. At this meeting Members of Parliament passed a resolution on the legal instruments and regulations governing the period of the state of emergency, and extended its duration by six (6) months.

The passing of the State of Emergency is considered as a very crucial step in fighting the near apocalyptic potential of the Novel COVID-19 virus. One of the interesting initiatives that was developed and extended to the business community was a 3-month wage subsidy that came with a condition that no businesses would retrench for the duration of the State of Public Emergency. This has potentially saved many people’s jobs as most companies would have been extremely quick to reduce expenses by downsizing. Self-preservation as some would call it.

Most organisations would have tried to reduce costs by letting go of people, retreated and tried their best to live long enough to fight another day. In my view there is silver lining that we need to look at and consider. The fact that organisations are not allowed to retrench has forced certain companies to look at the people with a long-term view.

Most leaders have probably had to wonder how they are going to ensure that their people are resilient. Do they have team members who innovate and add value to the organisation during these testing times? Do they even have resilient people or are they just waiting for the inevitable end? Can they really train people and make them resilient? How can your team members be part of your recovery plan? What can they do to avoid losing the capabilities they need to operate meaningfully for the duration of the State of Public Emergency and beyond?

The above questions have forced companies to reimagine the future of work. The truth is that no organisation can operate to its full potential without resilient people. In the normal business cycle, new teams come on board; new business streams open, operations or production sites launch or close; new markets develop, and technology is introduced. All of this provides fresh opportunities – and risks.

The best analogy I have seen of people-focused resilience planning reframes employees as your organisation’s immune system, ready and prepared to anticipate risks and ensure they can tackle challenges, fend off illness and bounce back more quickly.  So, how do you supercharge your organizational immune system to become resilient?

COVID-19 has helped many organisations realize they were not as prepared as they believed themselves to be. Now is the time to take stock and reset for the future. All the strategies and plans prior to COVID-19 arriving in Botswana need to be thrown out of the window and you need to develop a new plan today. There is no room for tweaking or reframing. Botswana has been disrupted and we need to accept and embrace the change. What we initially anticipated as a disease that would take a short term is turning out to be something we are going to have to live with for a much longer time. It is going to be a marathon and therefore businesses need to have a plan to complete this marathon.

Start planning. Planning for change can help reduce employee stress, anxiety, and overall fear, boosting the confidence of staff and stakeholders. Think about conducting and then regularly refreshing a strategic business impact analysis, look at your employee engagement scores, dig into your customer metrics and explore the way people work alongside your behaviours and culture. This research will help to identify what you really want to protect, the risks that you need to plan for and what you need to survive during disruption. Don’t forget to ask your team members for their input. In many cases they are closest to critical business areas and already have ideas to make processes and systems more robust.

Revisit your organisational purpose. Purpose, values and principles are powerful tools. By putting your organisation’s purpose and values front and center, you provide clear decision-making guidelines for yourself and your organisation. There are very tough and interesting decisions to make which have to be made fast; so having guiding principles on which the business believes in will help and assist all decision makers with sanity checking the choices that are in front of them. One noticeable characteristic of companies that adapt well during change is that they have a strong sense of identity. Leaders and employees have a shared sense of purpose and a common performance culture; they know what the company stands for beyond shareholder value and how to get things done right.

Revisit your purpose and values. Understand if they have been internalised and are proving useful. If so, find ways to increase their use. If not, adapt them as necessities, to help inspire and guide people while immunizing yourself against future disruption. Design your employee experience. The most resilient, adaptive and high performing companies are made up of people who know each other, like each other, and support each other.

Adaptability requires us to teach other, speak up and discuss problems, and have a collective sense of belonging. Listening to your team members is a powerful and disruptive thing to do. It has the potential to transform the way you manage your organisation. Enlisting employees to help shape employee experience, motivates better performance, increases employee retention and helps you spot issues and risks sooner. More importantly, it gives employees a voice so you can get active and constructive suggestions to make your business more robust by adopting an inclusive approach.

Leaders need to show they care. If you want to build resilience, you must build on a basis of trust. And this means leaders should listen, care, and respond. It’s time to build the entire business model around trust and empathy. Many of the employees will be working under extreme pressure due to the looming question around what will happen when companies have to retrench. As a leader of a company transparency and open communication are the most critical aspects that need to be illustrated.

Take your team member into confidence because if you do have to go through the dreaded excise of retrenchment you have to remember that those people the company retains will judge you based on the process you follow. If you illustrate that the business or organization has no regard for loyalty and commitment, they will never commit to the long-term plans of the organisation which will leave you worse off in the end. Its an absolutely delicate balance but it must all be done in good faith. Hopefully, your organization will avoid this!

This is the best time to revisit your identify and train your people to encourage qualities that build strong, empathetic leadership; self-awareness and control, communication, kindness and psychological safety.  Resilience is the glue that binds functional silos and integrates partners, improves communications, helps you prepare, listen and understand. Most importantly, people-focused resilience helps individuals and teams to think collectively and with empathy – helping you respond and recover faster.

Article written by Thabo Majola, a brand communications expert with a wealth of experience in the field and is Managing Director of Incepta Communications.

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