Botswana public sector strike persists, threatens

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.

See: Botswana: Public Sector Strike Hurts Poor.

Updates on Botswana and Swaziland Protests

I wanted to update the fallout from the Swazi protests and the strike in Botswana, which I posted earlier. In the case of Swaziland, government repression appears to have quieted things down, with the regime taking advantage of the term “terrorist” to justify brutality to its own citizens. Today, two activists were denied bail for illegal possession of explosives.

In Botswana, the government is imposing a “no work, no pay” policy, effective as of May 1. According to a recent report, state worker unions will strike until this Friday, after which they will carry out a work slow-down. Workers have demanded a 16 percent pay hike, and so far the state has only offered 5 percent.

In no way am I trying to equate these two mass actions or the respective government responses – the former is dictatorial repression, the latter is pretty much regular democratic politics. But in both cases, ordinary people are expressing substantial frustration with leadership at the top.

Protests in typically calm (aka docile) Botswana

I’ve been pretty surprised to read about the extent to which public servants have acted collectively and stayed away from work this week, protesting three years of stagnant wages. We’re not used to seeing much in the way of mass action in Botswana. The country is a unique case as the most stable and fastest growing African economy in the post-independence era. But as some have pointed out, the same party has been in power the whole time, which raises the question of how democratic the country really is. I must admit, I’ve been impressed by how competent and effective the civil service is, and as nurses stay home from hospitals, and teachers from schools, the country will really feel the bite of the absence of ordinarily high quality services. But the key question of how we describe Botswana — and its tolerance for political contestation — may well be revealed by how the government reacts to this strike.