Botswana’s government deployed heavy security in the capital Gaborone for the second day on Friday as despairing union leaders announced a suspension of a seven-week civil service strike that has driven the peaceful nation to the brink of full-scale violence.
Armed police backed by the paramilitary Special Support Group (SSG) and a helicopter were out in force on Thursday to prevent the striking workers from engaging in acts of violence and destruction that have accompanied the strike.
The SSG in anti-riot vehicles surrounded the strike’s main hub at the Gaborone Secondary School sports ground as other security officers armed with batons farmed out on foot with the helicopter roaring above the city.
The heavy security was deployed after a warning by the police that they will use force to deal with the striking workers after acts of violence and destruction. On Wednesday, the workers eluded the police to smash shops and cars in central Gaborone.
Similar evasive tactics were used by the workers to force non-striking civil servants out of all government offices in Mochudi, about 40km east of the capital Gaborone. In Lethlakeng, the workers evaded the police to block the entrance of government offices in the village.
After the evasive tactics and the violence and disruptions that followed, the police issued a stern warning to the workers and threw a heavy security ring around the strikers’ gathering spots.
After three years without a salary increment, Botswana civil servants went on strike in April to demand a 16 percent pay hike.
After negotiations, the government agreed to a five per cent increment but the unions rejected the offer when it was made clear it would be implemented in September subject to the economy improving.
The government then offered a three per cent raise without conditions but a deadlock was reached when unions demanded that essential service employees sacked for disobeying a court order to go back to work be reinstated and at the same time the ‘no work, no pay’ clause not be implemented.
The government refused to back down on the reinstatement of the sacked workers and the ‘no work no pay’ clause and, eventually, negotiations collapsed as violence escalated.
Mediators went public this week and revealed that each time there was progress by the government and workers’ negotiating teams, the Office of the President threw a spanner in the works by changing the goalposts.
Frustrated by the collapse of the talks, union leaders have announced that Friday will be the last day of the strike to allow them to regroup and strategise for phase two.
The unions under the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSU) now plan to hold a special congress soon to chart the way forward.
The federation said it decided to suspend the strike because there are no prospects of success in negotiations while a good number of civil servants have returned to work. In addition, the strike was becoming violent and uncontrollable.
However, the announcement of the suspension of the strike has been denounced by some of the civil servants who have vowed that they will go back to work only after the reinstatement of their sacked colleagues.
Reports indicate that union leaders in Botswana’s third biggest town, Selebi-Phikwe, have vowed to continue with the strike despite the suspension by the federation.