Since the 2011 public sector unions strike, BOFEPUSU has never shied away from participating in the factions or affairs of some opposition political parties. The BOFEPPUSU involvement has created enemies and darlings in opposition activists. The Orange Movement is going through a rough patch as a result of BOFEPPUSU’s interference in the party’s internal strife - a strife that has nothing to do with principle but is all about control of the party.
When the war between Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU) and BOFEPPUSU reached the courtroom both parties decided to outsmart each other through legal representation. BOPEU chose Martin Dingake, who happens to be the spokesperson for President of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP), Dumelang Saleshando - a partner in Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).
This did not go down well with BOFEPPUSU who decided to enquire from BCP leadership why they allowed Dingake to represent BOPEU while it has betrayed the workers’ struggle. But they received a cold shoulder, which fuelled the love-hate relationship between them. When UDC president Duma Boko was invited by BOPEU to their May Day celebrations in Selibe Phikwe, BOFEPPUSU again advised Boko to turn down the offer but he did not listen to the federation. That is when they invited BMD president Ndaba Gaolathe to their celebrations in Serowe.
And ever since that time, BOFEPUSU has protected Gaolathe as it was evident recently when they vowed during a meeting at Letlhabile primary, to take the political fight to whoever undermines Gaolathe. The union’s labour secretary who also doubles as Manual Workers Union’s chief executive, Johnson Motshwarakgole used the platform to hurl obscenities at Gaolathe’s antagonists.
An insider explained that since the 2011 public sector union strike, BOFEPPUSU has always viewed the umbrella project as their own baby. “This is why they fell out with BOPEU in 2014 because BOPEU does not believe in partisan politics.”
However, BOFEPUSU does not view itself as a silent partner in the project, but the captain of the ship in UDC’s pursuit for state power in 2019. Already this hunger for power by the federation’s leadership is threatening to tear the workers’ movement asunder. In fact by involving themselves in opposition party factional wars, BOFEPUSU risks alienating some of its members as well as the opposition party cadres they call allies today.
It is not too late for BOPEU, BFTU and BOFEPUSU to sit down together and resolve their differences and begin to advance the workers’ struggle, says another insider. Members of BOPEU, BFTU and BOFEPUSU are to blame because they have allowed their leaders to hijack their organisations under the false pretence that they are fighting for their welfare, he said.
Politicians and unionists can never work together, since one has to be dominant over the other. This is what union leaders have been failing to understand for a long time. As former Secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Zwelinzima Vavi once said; worker control and trade union independence are two sides of the same coin. Workers’ power is based on the ability to forge unity around class-based demands.
Writing in 1963, Jean Meynaud and Anisse Satah-Bey described the idea of principled non-alignment as a widespread position among African unions at the time. The Kenyan labour leader, Tom Mboya was a leading proponent of this idea.
Advocates of this position warned that when unions choose to affiliate to parties, unions would in fact have less freedom of action and their natural function - the defence of the workers’ professional interests - could not be fulfilled, the workers would then be at the mercy of the government.
This is what is going to happen to workers in Botswana because their struggle has been sold out by their leaders because they have allowed partisan politics to divert their mandate.
In their book titled COSATU in Crisis, Dr Ben Scully argues that attempts to create union aligned parties for example in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Nigeria have failed as have attempts to align with opposition parties for example in Senegal in the 1990s.
Where unions have adopted a stance of explicit autonomy such as in present day Senegal, Zambia and Ghana, they have largely been unable to overcome neoliberal policy initiatives of states and they have often experienced a weakening of their institutional base and overall public stature.
BOFEPUSU is advised to stay away from BMD factional wars because this will not help the workers and could lead to the public viewing them as opportunists and power hungry. Most workers especially in the public service have decried lack of financial literacy, an area which unions could embark on especially given that they have multiple financial schemes
Trade unions are now fighting each other for what is seen by many as egos for power control especially in the public service. As the unions continue in their bitter war, the ordinary member who pays monthly subscription is the hardest hit. BMD should be left alone to solve their internal factional wars.