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Is BOPEU a sellout?

Ndulamo Anthony Morima

Recently, there have been allegations that there are some within the Botswana Federation of Public Service Unions (BOFEPUSU), Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) itself and the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) who regard BOPEU as a sellout.

Apparently, those who accuse BOPEU of being a sellout cite BOPEU’s opposition to politicization of trade unions, BOPEU’s disinvestment from UNIGEM, and BOPEU’s meetings with Office of the President (OP). In this article, we consider whether or not the aforesaid actions make BOPEU a sellout.

Firstly, BOPEU’s opposition to politicization of trade unions. As argued before, BOFEPUSU’s decision to support the UDC in last year’s general elections was wrong. It was wrong because it was inconsiderate of the fact that its members support various political parties and ‘compelling’ them to support a particular political party violates their rights to the freedoms of conscience, association and choice. Such ‘compulsion’ could also lead to conflicts and splits within the federation. It is as a result of the decision to support the UDC that today there is disunity between BOPEU and the other BOFEPUSU affiliates.  

It was also wrong because the decision would inevitably attract the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and the government’s wrath. No political party and government would celebrate the fact that one is opposed to it, especially if one makes such public and exhorts those under their influence, especially public servants, not to vote for it. If such a political party is in government, as the BDP is, endorsing the Opposition and calling for regime change would be met with remorseless reprisal which can only be prejudicial to BOFEPUSU’s members.

Those who criticize BOPEU for its opposition to politicization of trade unions argue that its position was in defiance of a resolution taken by the federation’s general membership. Alternatively, they contend, even if the general membership did not pass the resolution in the exact manner executed by the leadership, the leadership had the mandate to give effect to the resolution as it deemed fit. They also contend that even if the resolution was wrong BOPEU was duty bound to support the majority’s decision. This cannot be correct.

Given the sensitivity of such a resolution, it should have, following adequate notice and publication, been debated thoroughly from the branch level. Therefore, by the time it reached the national level, if it ever did, the entire federation and the nation should have been aware of the exact contents of the draft resolution. The fact that there is no consensus as to whether this in fact happened brings doubt on the legitimacy of the resolution.

Supposing the general membership did not pass the resolution, can it be right that the federation leadership, e.g. the National Governing Council (NGC) had the mandate to pass the resolution on the members’ behalf? Though in a representative democracy the leadership is endowed with the power to act on the members’ behalf, considering the seriousness of the resolution in issue, the leadership had a duty to defer the matter to the general membership in the form of the federation’s highest decision making body, e.g. the Delegates Congress (DC).

Therefore, if BOFEPUSU’s general membership never consciously passed the resolution to support the UDC at its highest decision making forum, BOPEU cannot be regarded as a sellout for opposing the decision. In fact, as a defender of the federation’s constitution, BOPEU should be praised for being opposed to the leadership’s decision which was ultra vires its constitutional mandate.     

Secondly, BOPEU’s disinvestment from UNIGEM. At the time BOPEU showed intention to disinvest from UNIGEM the reason it gave was that UNIGEM was not a profitable venture and its members’ interest in terms of shareholder value was no longer assured. If UNIGEM is indeed no longer a going concern and provided after the disinvestment BOPEU would prudently invest the proceeds of the share sale BOPEU cannot be regarded as a sellout. On the contrary, it was, in exercise of the fiduciary duty it has to its members, and in observance of its obligations in terms of the Trade Unions and Employers Organizations Act, acting in its members’ best interests.

Thirdly, BOPEU’s meetings with OP. In accepting that BOPEU indeed engaged with OP, the BOPEU President, Andrew Motsamai, stated that there is nothing amiss with such engagement because a trade union, by its very nature, has to develop a working relationship with those in power to engage on issues affecting its members. In justifying why not all engagement with government cannot be through the Public Service Bargaining Council (PSBC) Motsamai was quoted by this publication saying “ …some issues are not for bargaining but for consultation and policy.”  

Motsamai further contended that those opposed to BOPEU’s modus operandi are applying double standards because when Botswana Teachers Union (BTU) and Botswana Sectors of Educators Trade Union (BOSETU) engage the Ministry of Education and Skills Development (MESD) on Levels of Operation and supervision of sporting activities outside the PSBC it is viewed as legitimate, but when BOPEU engages OP it is regarded as a sellout. Motsamai further argues that “…BOPEU has to engage with OP because its membership cuts across the entire government spectrum.”

Motsamai also contends that BOPEU’s first point of call is the Directorate on Public Service Management (DPSM) which falls under the OP. Further that the head of the public service is the Permanent Secretary to the President (PSP) and when they engage the OP they are in fact administratively engaging the PSP.

The purpose of forming BOFEPUSU was for its members to act in cooperation with one another and to defend one another because of the popular trade union maxim “an injury to one is an injury to all”. Acting in cooperation means that the members’ efforts would not contravene each other. It also means that each member’s efforts, especially those of significance, would be known by other members. It, however, does not mean that each member’s peculiarity and identity ceases to exit. It also does not mean that members should be oblivious to sensitives which may exist at different times.

Considering the significance of a meeting with OP, especially at a time when the political environment was tense because of elections, BOPEU’s meeting with OP, regardless of its purpose, without the other BOFEPUSU affiliates’ knowledge, cannot have been right. Such a meeting would inevitably result in perceptions which unfortunately matter despite their veracity or lack thereof. So, while the meeting may have had a good purpose, it was wrong to the extent it disregarded the political sensitivities prevailing at the time.

This is evidenced by Motsamai’s own assertion that despite the current uproar on BOPEU’s engagement with OP, they have previously engaged with OP several times without such uproar. The uproar arose because of the concerned meeting’s political insensitiveness.   

Still regarding political sensitivities, the fact that in November 2014, only a month after the 2014 general elections, BOPEU invited President Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama to officiate at its convention was imprudent. The same would be the case if it had invited Duma Boko of the UDC or Dumelang Saleshando of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP).  The fact that as a result of such invitation, President Khama hailed BOPEU as a responsible Union and invited its leadership to his office “anytime” demonstrates the political insensitiveness of BOPEU’s action. By referring to BOPEU as responsible President Khama was implying that other trade unions are irresponsible.

Motsamai argues that a smart trade union cannot miss an opportunity to engage with OP. Under normal circumstances this is true. But, the time BOPEU met with OP was not normal and it was always going to elicit suspicions. The fact that some of the meeting(s) are alleged to have happened around the time when Motsamai was alleged to have declined contesting the Gaborone Central constituency under the UDC banner does not help the situation.

Motsamai also argues that BOPEU members are able to separate the office of the President from the person or the party. This is not true. Though my view is based on anecdotal evidence, in Botswana, as is the case in many other countries, there is no such separation. This has been evidenced by the fact that weak candidates win elections simply because they contest in their political party’s safe constituency.

BOPEU obviously acted imprudently by meeting the OP at the time and under the prevailing circumstances, but whether that makes it a sellout or not depends on what transpired at the meetings. If neither the workers’ agenda nor BOFEPUSU’s wellbeing were compromised by such meetings BOPEU cannot be labelled a sellout. It just lacked judgment and it is an indiscretion for which it can be forgiven.

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Is COVID-19 Flogging an Already Dead Economic Horse?

9th September 2020

The Central Bank has by way of its Monetary Policy Statement informed us that the Botswana economy is likely to contract by 8.9 percent over the course of the year 2020.

The IMF paints an even gloomier picture – a shrinkage of the order of 9.6 percent.  That translates to just under $2 billion hived off from the overall economic yield given our average GDP of roughly $18 billion a year. In Pula terms, this is about P23 billion less goods and services produced in the country and you and I have a good guess as to what such a sum can do in terms of job creation and sustainability, boosting tax revenue, succouring both recurrent and development expenditure, and on the whole keeping our teeny-weeny economy in relatively good nick.

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Union of Blue Bloods

9th September 2020

Joseph’s and Judah’s family lines conjoin to produce lineal seed

Just to recap, General Atiku, the Israelites were not headed for uncharted territory. The Promised Land teemed with Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. These nations were not simply going to cut and run when they saw columns of battle-ready Israelites approach: they were going to fight to the death.

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Security Sector Private Bills: What are they about?

9th September 2020

Parliament has begun debates on three related Private Members Bills on the conditions of service of members of the Security Sector.

The Bills are Prisons (Amendment) Bill, 2019, Police (Amendment) Bill, 2019 and Botswana Defence Force (Amendment) Bill, 2019. The Bills seek to amend the three statutes so that officers are placed on full salaries when on interdictions or suspensions whilst facing disciplinary boards or courts of law.

In terms of the Public Service Act, 2008 which took effect in 2010, civil servants who are indicted are paid full salary and not a portion of their emolument. Section 35(3) of the Act specifically provides that “An employee’s salary shall not be withheld during the period of his or her suspension”.

However, when parliament reformed the public service law to allow civil servants to unionize, among other things, and extended the said protection of their salaries, the process was not completed. When the House conferred the benefit on civil servants, members of the disciplined forces were left out by not accordingly amending the laws regulating their employment.

The Bills stated above seeks to ask Parliament to also include members of the forces on the said benefit. It is unfair not to include soldiers or military officers, police officers and prison waders in the benefit. Paying an officer who is facing either external or internal charges full pay is in line with the notion of ei incumbit probation qui dicit, non qui negat or the presumption of innocence; that the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies.

The officers facing charges, either internal disciplinary or criminal charges before the courts, must be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Paying them a portion of their salary is penalty and therefore arbitrary. Punishment by way of loss of income or anything should come as a result of a finding on the guilt by a competent court of law, tribunal or disciplinary board.

What was the rationale behind this reform in 2008 when the Public Service Act was adopted? First it was the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise.

The presumption of innocence is the legal principle that one is considered “innocent until proven guilty”. In terms of the constitution and other laws of Botswana, the presumption of innocence is a legal right of the accused in a criminal trial, and it is an international human right under the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11.

Withholding a civil servant’s salary because they are accused of an internal disciplinary offense or a criminal offense in the courts of law, was seen as punishment before a decision by a tribunal, disciplinary board or a court of law actually finds someone culpable. Parliament in its wisdom decided that no one deserves this premature punishment.

Secondly, it was considered that people’s lives got destroyed by withholding of financial benefits during internal or judicial trials. Protection of wages is very important for any worker. Workers commit their salaries, they pay mortgages, car loans, insurances, schools fees for children and other things. When public servants were experiencing salary cuts because of interdictions, they lost their homes, cars and their children’s future.

They plummeted into instant destitution. People lost their livelihoods. Families crumbled. What was disheartening was that in many cases, these workers are ultimately exonerated by the courts or disciplinary tribunals. When they are cleared, the harm suffered is usually irreparable. Even if one is reimbursed all their dues, it is difficult to almost impossible to get one’s life back to normal.

There is a reasoning that members of the security sector should be held to very high standards of discipline and moral compass. This is true. However, other more senior public servants such as judges, permanent secretary to the President and ministers have faced suspensions, interdictions and or criminal charges in the courts but were placed on full salaries.

The yardstick against which security sector officers are held cannot be higher than the aforementioned public officials. It just wouldn’t make sense. They are in charge of the security and operate in a very sensitive area, but cannot in anyway be held to higher standards that prosecutors, magistrates, judges, ministers and even senior officials such as permanent secretaries.

Moreover, jail guards, police officers and soldiers, have unique harsh punishments which deter many of them from committing misdemeanors and serious crimes. So, the argument that if the suspension or interdiction with full pay is introduced it would open floodgates of lawlessness is illogical.

Security Sector members work in very difficult conditions. Sometimes this drives them into depression and other emotional conditions. The truth is that many seldom receive proper and adequate counseling or such related therapies. They see horrifying scenes whilst on duty. Jail guards double as hangmen/women.

Detectives attend to autopsies on cases they are dealing with. Traffic police officers are usually the first at accident scenes. Soldiers fight and kill poachers. In all these cases, their minds are troubled. They are human. These conditions also play a part in their behaviors. They are actually more deserving to be paid full salaries when they’re facing allegations of misconduct.

To withhold up to 50 percent of the police, prison workers and the military officers’ salaries during their interdiction or suspensions from work is punitive, insensitive and prejudicial as we do not do the same for other employees employed by the government.

The rest enjoy their full salaries when they are at home and it is for a good reason as no one should be made to suffer before being found blameworthy. The ruling party seems to have taken a position to negate the Bills and the collective opposition argue in the affirmative. The debate have just began and will continue next week Thursday, a day designated for Private Bills.

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