Almost 100 000 public servants have been on strike in Botswana since Monday last week, in an unprecedented display of popular militancy in the country.
The nationwide strike, over demands for a 16% salary increase, has potential political implications for a state ruled by the Botswana Democratic Party since independence.
Thousands of striking workers have gathered daily at the Gaborone Secondary School (GSS) grounds, chanting anti-government slogans.
Some union members say the strike is clearly influenced by events in North Africa, adding that the GSS grounds have been nicknamed “the Tahrir Square of Botswana”, recalling the scene of protests in central Cairo. Workers in major towns and villages have also been demonstrating.
The strike is said to have paralysed government operations such as health and education. Trade unions claim that about 80% of the civil service has joined in.
The state is Botswana’s largest employer.
Unionists said the government has redeployed members of the Botswana Defence Force, the Botswana Police and volunteers to keep services running. The Botswana Red Cross Society has also been roped in to assist in clinics and hospitals.
This week the government of President Ian Khama dismissed reports of a “crisis”. The government spokesperson and deputy permanent secretary in Khama’s office, Jeff Ramsay, told the Mail & Guardian that the situation is under control.
“While the strike has certainly not paralysed the government service as a whole, it has had a negative impact in some areas. No hospitals or schools have been closed, but some have been affected,” Ramsay said.
He said that of a total of 658 health facilities, 13 clinics and three health posts have closed, while 10 others are not fully operational.
The Industrial Court had ordered all essential-service employees, including health workers, to return to work, Ramsay said.
Driving the strike action is the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions, comprising five unions, which argues that the government has not increased state-sector pay for three years.
Federation spokesperson Goretetse Kekgonegile said workers were fed up with the government’s “don’t care” attitude, adding that labour had been calling for pay hikes since November.
Ramsay said the government had consistently warned that the economy could not afford a 16% increase, given the budget deficit that was largely caused by the negative impact of the global recession on state revenues.
Some 28% of government expenditure last year, or 11.6-billion pula, was paid in salaries and benefits to civil servants, he said. The state had conditionally offered a 5% increase, following a joint review of the performance of the economy in the first quarter of the financial year.
Kekgonegile hit back: “The government continues to spend millions of pula funding programmes like the president’s football constituency league, constructing multibillion-pula houses for ministers and buying five aircraft for 250-million pula. The government has funds, period.”
Political analyst Thapelo Ndlovu commented that the strike was a wake-up call to a government that had become overly complacent. “It signifies a dramatic change from a society that has been described as docile to a more assertive and bold one.”