Botswana’s reputation as a shining example of unbroken democracy, stability and economic growth in Africa hangs in the balance as the country grapples with a month-long nationwide strike and rioting in some areas.
Since April 18 public-sector workers have been locked in a bitter tussle with the government over the demand for a 16% salary increase. The strike threatens the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) government’s grip on power, which it has held since independence in 1965.
Trade unions estimate that almost 90 000 state employees have joined the industrial action, although this figure is disputed by the government. The strike, according to some commentators in Botswana, is beginning to look like an uprising.
In a new twist, the Botswana police, usually unarmed, used teargas and rubber bullets to control rioting secondary school pupils, who joined the strikers last Friday. The pupils were demanding that the government move to resolve the deadlock.
They assaulted teachers who refused to join the strike — reportedly killing one on Monday — injured police officers and damaged government and private buildings.
On Monday, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, the education minister, ordered the immediate closure of all schools.
And in a further escalation that evening the government announced that it had fired more than 3 000 essential workers, including doctors and nurses, who were on strike.
Botswana’s increasingly authoritarian leader, President Ian Khama, has said that the government will not bend to strikers’ demands, even if they remain off work for five years. His argument is that a 16% pay increase cannot be accommodated, given Botswana’s budget, its deficit and its fragile economic recovery.
Khama, who remains popular in rural areas, is renowned for his tough attitude. He was recently quoted as telling a public gathering in Borolong: “Those who insist that the country has funds for salary increments are like the conspiracy theorists who still argue that [Osama] bin Laden is not dead.”
His office quoted him as saying: “I will not abuse public funds to buy elections.”
Schools, hospitals and other government operations are said to be running on a skeleton staff. The situation is so serious that last week the unions approached former presidents Festus Mogae and Ketumile Masire to intervene.
Union leaders are addressing rallies around the country and lobbying for support among tribal leaders. Last week, they addressed members of four major clans — the Bakgatla, Bakwena, Batawana and Balete — after their paramount chiefs granted them permission to do so — in defiance of government orders not to allow the unionists to address their subjects on their turf. Other traditional leaders have refused union leaders such access.
Botswana’s traditional leaders fall under the ministry of local government and report directly to government officials.
The ruling party is divided over the strike, with some BDP MPs openly backing the workers and criticising the government for refusing to listen to their grievances. Among them are prominent politicians Tshelang Masisi, Ryner Makosha and Tawana Moremi, who have all expressed support for the strikers.
For the first time in Botswana’s history, labour and opposition parties are openly embracing each other without fear. The Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) and the Botswana National Front (BNF) have all climbed on the bandwagon of anti-government sentiment, backing the workers in public addresses. On Saturday BNF leader Duma Boko, Gomolemo Motswaledi of the BMD and Dumelang Sale-shando of the BCP addressed a joint rally in Gaborone.
Although it appears far-fetched, some commentators have suggested that the Khama government could fall. “There are different ways to take over governance, including by force. If we can come together we can take our government, as it happened in Egypt,” Boko was quoted as saying at a recent press conference.
The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by M&G Media and the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, co-produced this story. All views are the centre’s. www.amabhungane.co.za.