17 June 2024 | 12:26 PM

Strongman Khama forces union retreat

Key Takeaways

Shattered glass, large stones and bricks littered the ground at Gaborone’s Main Mall after violent protests by Botswana’s public service workers, who are embroiled in a wage dispute with President Ian Khama’s government.

Several shops in the mall, including the country’s largest mortgage lender, the Botswana Building Society, were vandalised.

Bokang Nsala, a 25-year-old unemployed journalism graduate, said: “Welcome to Africa” — an apparent dig at the scenes of violence, police crackdowns and allegations of dictatorship that are engulfing Botswana.

“The people in Botswana are disappointed and angry and this strike has revealed to the whole world that our democracy is just phoney,” Nsala said.

In the run-up to the violent outbreaks angry workers marched and sang and denounced Khama’s rule as “autocratic”. Some of the workers, taking a cue from the North African protests, demanded that Khama be removed.

A teacher at the Naledi Senior Secondary School, who did not want to be named, said: “It happened in Tunisia and Egypt and it could happen here. If the system of government is not working for our own advantage then those in power should be removed by any means necessary.”

For the past four decades Botswana has been highly regarded for its economic and political stability. Its remarkable track record on the continent is reinforced by the high ratings given to it by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which supports good governance and great leadership in Africa, and the Celebrate Africa Foundation, which crowned it “Best African Country” in 2009.

But times have changed in the country of two million following the nationwide public service strike in April by 90 000 workers, who demanded a 16% salary hike. Khama’s three-year-old rule and, in effect, that of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which has been in power for 45 years, is facing its sternest test yet.

Khama’s government is already beset by economic problems, which include high unemployment (estimated at 25% by the United Nations), inflation of 8.2% and a crippling budget deficit of $1.5 billion (nearly 15.5% of GDP), which led Botswana to seek a loan from the African Development Bank in 2009 to meet the shortfall.

Kenneth Matambo, the minister of finance and planning, pleaded with unions to “take into account the difficult budgetary constraints”.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian former Botswana president Sir Ketumile Masire described the unrest in the country as “heartbreaking”.

“Strikes and riots never leave any country the same and if I had magical powers I would resolve this issue in the blink of an eye,” Masire said.

Botswana, the world’s largest producer of rough diamonds — the government’s main source of revenue — has not recovered fully from the impact of the 2008-2009 global economic recession that led to reduced diamond sales.

Keith Jefferies, an economist and former deputy Reserve Bank governor, said: “Mineral revenue constitutes more than half of the total revenue generated by the Botswana government and accounts for close to 90% of the total export revenue in the country.” However, reports by industry experts have highlighted that the country’s large diamond reserves could run out by 2030, an unsettling assessment for the government, which has still to deliver on its 2009 election promise of economic diversification.

With a revenue base still largely hinged on the recovery of the troubled diamond industry, Botswana’s government has refused to give in to workers’ demands. It offered workers a modest 3% increase to be implemented only in September and subject to improvements in the economy.

The Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions has suspended the strike until its special congress on June 25, to enable the unions to plan the way forward. But it is unlikely that a continuation of the strike will change the government’s stance.

A cool Khama recently told a community meeting that “the workers can strike for another five years but they will not get any money”.

Statements like these from Khama have only increased perceptions of his authoritarian — and no-nonsense — personality. A teetotaller and recluse, the 56-year-old bachelor imposed a 40% levy on alcohol and severely cut the operating hours of bars in a bid to deal with Botswana’s “drinking problem”, which is blamed for the large number of deaths on the country’s roads.

Outside Botswana the former army commander is remembered for condemning, early in his rule, President Robert Mugabe’s violent and disputed re-election of 2008. Khama has never taken kindly to insults directed at him and has been quick to deport offenders such as South African Dorsey Dube, who remarked that Khama looked like a “Bushman”. But Khama’s fixation on discipline has badly hurt his own party, which has been rent by factions because of discontent within it.

Last year there was a split and the break-away group formed the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD). It is led by former BDP secretary general Gomolemo Motswaledi, who was suspended from the party after allegedly questioning Khama’s authority. It is currently the main opposition in Parliament, with seven seats, although the BMD is involved in coalition talks with other political parties to try to wrest power from the BDP in the 2014 general elections.

Kabo Morwaeng, the BMD national organising secretary, said that the strike and the split in the ruling party showed that the BDP was losing its grip on power. “It is evident that internal democracy in the BDP party has died because President Khama is running the party with an iron fist,” Morwaeng said.

Dr Comma Serema, the BDP’s executive secretary, said the opposition was partly to blame for the continuing political unrest. The opposition and union leaders had been working together to demonise Khama. “Fortunately, Batswana are not fooled. Khama has the backing of majority of Batswana and that’s why BDP and Khama will have the last laugh come 2014,” Serema said.

The rise of extra-judicial killings questioned

Two years ago, on May 13, in Gaborone’s Extension 12 suburb, John Kalafatis was gunned down by intelligence officers from the Botswana Defence Forces for allegedly robbing a wealthy and “politically connected” businessman living in the affluent Phakalane golf estates.

The unarmed Kalafatis, wanted for a long time by Botswana’s intelligence forces, was shot a number of times from behind, while seated in the rear of a stationary Corsa bakkie.

His killing, hardly a year after President Ian Khama’s ascent to power in April 2008 as Botswana’s fourth president, underscored the growing fears of observers of the “militarisation” of the country and an increase in extrajudicial killings of civilians by security forces.

A human rights report released by the United States last year noted that Botswana had experienced eight incidents of extrajudicial killings in which police forces gunned down 11 civilians in the course of arresting them. The effect of this, pointed out Tebogo Moipolai, executive secretary of the Law Society of Botswana, was immense fear in the nation and a “dangerous slide towards anarchy”.

Now, the saga of the murder of Kalafatis, who was the father of two children, is reaching its end following the conviction of his killers.

On Thursday last week Lobatse High Court Judge David Newman convicted defence force members Goitsemang Sechele, Ronny Motako and Boitshoko Maifala of murder after the court found that the state had proved its case against the trio.

Another accused, Dzikamani Mothobi, was aquitted of the murder charge after being found to have played a minimal role but was convicted of being an accessory to murder.

In his judgment Newman noted: “My findings conclude that by the time the security officers embarked on the search for Kalafatis they intended to take his life. They had already formed in their minds to kill Kalafatis. This circumstance, from the onset, was accompanied by malice aforethought.”

The trio were due to hear their sentences on Friday. At the time of Kalafatis’s killing, Botswana’s private newspapers and civil society groups led an outcry against the heavy-handed actions of the state and called for Khama to end the extrajudicial killings.

Kalafatis family lawyer Dick Bayford said this week that after Friday’s sentencing, the family would institute civil proceedings against the government, because they felt the real culprits, who ordered the execution, should be charged.

“Our investigations have revealed that instructions to execute Kalafatis came from the highest echelons of power. The four army officers were just agents executing the master’s instructions,” said Bayford. He said the family was disappointed that the issue of who ordered the killing of Kalafatis was not raised in court.

Bayford said the family was hopeful the court would hand down a sentence commensurate with the gravity of the offence. — Ray Ndlovu and Ntibinyane Ntibinyane

Ntibinyane Ntibinyane is an intern with amaBhungane, the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism.

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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