Socialist Worker

Public sector strike paralyses Botswana

by members of International Socialists Botswana
Issue No. 2248

A strike by tens of thousands of government workers has paralysed Botswana in southern Africa since Monday.

The Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU)—made up of five unions representing over 90 percent of the government workforce—has called the first mass public sector strike in the country's history. The ten-day strike affects most of BOFEPUSU's 98,000 members.

The government is going taking the union to court today, saying public sector workers are violating an agreement to ensure essential services didn't suffer during the strike.

At 7am on Monday workers streamed into a central open space in the capital of Gaborone. In all major towns and villages trade unionists were on the streets. Even in the hometown of president Ian Khama—who publicly declared his unwillingness to compromise last week—workers marched singing with a confidence never seen before.

Workers are fighting for a salary increase of 16 percent. They have had no increase since 2008, despite rising inflation.

Most government offices are closed. Doctors, nurses and cleaners from clinics and hospitals joined ranks with teachers and cooks from government schools.

The government deployed soldiers and police officers to staff border posts, court rooms and the state media building.

The government has offered 5 percent, arguing that there is no money due to the economic crisis. But the workers reject that. On the second morning of the strike one said, 'There is more than enough money. They can pump millions into the controversial Directorate for Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) which is only spying on people, but where are our allowances?'

Another complained, 'They have money to build expensive houses for ministers and palaces for former presidents. They buy a new airplane for the current president while they impose VAT on us.'

This is the first time that workers have been able to strike legally. The unions have won a battle to get bargaining power for themselves, rather than only being recognised as 'associations'.

The government was forced to introduce a new Public Sector Act last year, introducing a negotiation process and granted unions the right to strike.

BOFEPUSU immediately took the chance to convert workers' anger into an impressive show of worker's power.

Though this strike is about economic demands, workers are clearly influenced by the revolutions in north Africa and the Middle East. Some are talking about 'regime change' in Botswana where the ruling party has been in power for more than 40 years. One suggested that all should gather in the central square as people did in Tahrir Square in Egypt.

The strike's outcome is open. But without doubt it has given workers a tremendous self-confidence and has armed them for more battles to come.

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Thu 21 Apr 2011, 12:44 BST
Issue No. 2248
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