Are Batswana really a lazy nation?

Yvonne Mooka
Tuesday, 16 January 2018
Tobokani Rari Tobokani Rari

Since 2008, Global Competitiveness Report has identified poor work ethic in the national force as a major challenge for doing business in Botswana.

To date, poor work ethic remains a distinctive feature of the country. Work ethic, by definition, is a set of moral principles that an employee uses in the performance of his job. Another business definition describes work ethic as ‘the belief in the moral benefit and importance of work and its inherent ability to strengthen character.’

Basically, work ethic can refer to how you feel about your job or career, so it covers one’s attitude and behaviour. It also pertains to how you do your job, or the responsibilities attached to it. The level of respect you show your co-workers and people you come into contact with at work, and how you communicate and interact with them, also defines your work ethic, according to a Harvard study.

Several other sources have expressed this sentiment. In one of his journal articles, University of Botswana history Professor Christian John traces the perception of citizens being lazy back to colonial period. He analyses discourses of poor work ethic in Botswana from the colonial 1930s to the first decade of the new Millennium.  “The traditional Batswana ethos stressed the importance of hard work, but in the early 1930s British colonial administrators had begun to complain about the Batswana chiefs, leading to colonial policy changes intended to address attitudes to work,” he says.  He informs that despite these changes, the issue of poor work ethic remained a critical topic of discussion by the colonial hierarchy in the mid-1940s, and a long-running debate has continued ever since, targeted today at the post-colonial public service. 

The article shows how debates about poor work ethic intensified in the post-colony owing to political patronage, corruption and politicisation of the public service by Botswana's ruling élite. It describes the erosion of a traditional ethos of self-help and self-reliance and decries its replacement by a syndrome of over-dependence on the state by the people.  Meanwhile, numerous attempts by government to address poor work ethic have produced unimpressive results. Although a meaningful quantitative comparison of colonial and post-colonial work productivity would be difficult to achieve, an analysis of the evolution of discourses surrounding work ethic in Botswana can yield insights into changes in attitudes of people and the state towards work and social welfare from the colonial period to the present.

In comparison, in neighbouring Namibia, poor work ethic is identified as the 3rd most problematic factor for doing business, 8th in South Africa and Zambia and only 11th in Zimbabwe. 

Some people like Kebapetse Lotshwao of UB Political and Administrative Studies however feel that Batswana have a good work ethic. His take is that citizens are paid pittances for salaries. “While Botswana is relatively rich (compared to an average African country), workers are underpaid, and it is common to hear the expression ‘ke lekanya tiro le madi,’ meaning I put effort equivalent to what I earn,” he was once quoted.  He says Batswana are hard-workers who are de-motivated by low pay. In response, UB Humanities graduate Mpho Malaka says that he feels the perception that Batswana are lazy is doing graduates injustice. “Since it is stuck on investors’ minds, they come here and prefer hiring foreigners in our own country,” he says. 

But for Gift Molome who has trained as an engineer in Germany, Batswana need to learn from other nations with a good work ethic. “Our youth is spoiled and they want government to do everything for them. Even at work, people are more relaxed than in other countries,” he says. He makes a special mention of Zimbabweans, saying they are not choosy when it comes to work. “The reason they end up beaten in other countries is because they are hard workers and citizens feel they take their jobs,” he says.  Meanwhile, Rand Merchant Bank’s Where to invest in Africa Report 2016/2017 identifies poor work ethic as only the 8th biggest concern for the continent as a whole.

Research consultant at Botswana National Productivity Centre (BNPC), Letsogile Batsetswe last year cautioned against some people in the national labour force whose bad attitude and lack of accountability has immensely contributed to them not conforming to their set work ethics.  Updating stakeholders on Botswana’s competitiveness and the business environment status in Maun, Batsetswe said BNPC has now come up with a work ethic investigation which will allow them to go deeper to see what still needs to be done, since they want to take it upon themselves to develop mindset change, to make people identify with their leadership roles as well as to improve issues of accountability at the work place. 

“As a country we are also challenged as we still have an inadequately educated workforce. We might have institutions in place but there are still concerns of stagnation. These are human related factors and so we will not give up on improving work ethics since we already know some key components,” he said. 

Low pay, less motivation contribute-Rari

In response, Secretary General of Botswana Sectors of Educators Trade Union (BOSETU) Tobokani Rari says that even though he does not dispute the report, one must first ask why ‘Batswana are where they are.’ He does not think that lack of productivity can solely be attributed to Batswana being lazy. “There must be something else that researchers of the study failed to draw, and had they included us as unions and workers, they would have packaged their findings well,” says Rari, stating that conditions of service in Botswana are deplorable. He reveals that their union and the Bargaining Council went on a benchmarking exercise last year to Namibia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Australia to learn on Levels of remuneration and motivation by government and private sector. 

Their findings were that in Botswana, public servants earn low. He mentions the 13th cheque motivational initiative in South Africa in which government rewards its departments that have reached targets. “In Botswana, the issue is not that we are lazy but why we are so,” he concludes. 

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