I am actually pretty stunned that Botswana’s public sector strike still has not been resolved after 6 weeks. An estimated 100,000 employees have stayed away from their jobs, including at major public hospitals. President Khama says he’s resolved to stand his ground against demands for a 16 percent pay hike in the context of a recession.
It’s not easy to say who’s wrong in this standoff. On the one hand, public employees in Botswana are among the best-trained, most honest bureaucrats on the continent, and good work deserves good pay. They have not received any increases in three years, and in early negotiations, the government offered just a 5% hike. Elsewhere on the continent, civil servants at most levels are not paid living wages, and feed their families on receipts from petty bribes.
But Botswana has been hit hard by the international financial crisis, including declining diamond receipts, and rising fuel prices (Times Live). President Khama faces a budget deficit, and knows that the international financial community would judge his government harshly for a change in a long pattern of fiscal discipline. So he is staying firm so far.
And yet, the standoff really threatens a veritable African governance jewel. Consider the health sector: While Botswana has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, it is also home to one of the most comprehensive treatment programs. And yet, the capital’s leading hospital – Princess Marina – was forced to shut down as a result of the strike. Irin reports that some lives have been lost due to inadequate medical care.
I am surprised that there hasn’t been more international media coverage of the event. Frankly, such a solid labor action for an African country outside South Africa is a pretty rare and newsworthy event, but particularly when the strike is putting so many vulnerable people at risk, and may have longer term repurcussions for the country’s long track record of good government. Perhaps a bit of external pressure would help force a reasonable compromise.