Iron man is not for bending
The president Lt. Gen Seretse Khama Ian Khama answered questions from The Voice on the ongoing civil service strike for higher pay. Find out what he had to say below.
Q. In line with your commitment to close the gap between the rich and the poor would it not be a reasonable compromise for the Union and government to consider the option of a tier increment system with the lowest paid getting the higher increase and the highest paid getting a lower percentage, rather than a 16.5 across the board?
A– The issue is not what you refer to, but quite simply the affordability of us giving anything and in what amount to who.
Q. Has there been an assessment of how much the strike has cost the country so far?
A– We are monitoring the situation, but it is too early to draw conclusions. Obviously the longer the strike lasts the greater will be its negative impact, potentially compromising our efforts to restore a balanced budget, which will be necessary if we are to achieve our NDP 10 goals for sustainable economic growth.
Q. How much of the strike do you think is politically motivated?
A- What I have already said is that when political agendas get mixed with labour issues it is usually to the detriment of ordinary worker interests. Of course our opportunistic opposition have tried hard to incite and cause as much disruption as possible in the strike so as to gain what they failed to do at elections.
Q. Strike seems to be a battle between the public service and you personally is that fair?
A– I certainly do not see it that way. I am not in a battle with the public sector. People must understand that there is a difference between what we want to do and what we can do.
Q. How do you hope to influence public opinion when the media seems to be against you and your own government is divided?
A- Judging from the poll that was published in a recent edition of your very own newspaper suggesting that people have strongly turned against the strike we seem to be making some progress, notwithstanding any press bias. Media reports of Government being divided are wrong.
Q. The strike is getting out of hand… How do you intend to avert the situation?
A- We are disappointed about the recent outbreak of violence in some areas, and have had to put in place measures to preserve order. I am otherwise encouraged by the efforts that are being made by those public servants who have ensured that Government continues to serve the public.
Q. Schools have been indefinitely closed as part of the strike. What is your comment on this latest state of affairs?
A- It is an unfortunate development, but we had no choice but to close the schools given that our first priority is the safety and security of students, staff and the general public. We are now committed to ensuring that the schools will reopen as soon as possible, which is why we have already reopened the primary schools. Additional measures will be further taken to ensure that all students are properly taught their full syllabi prior to examination. Those that have misbehaved or broken the law will of course have to face the consequences, which have in some cases already started.
Q. Some are calling for you to step down, especially the opposition. What is your take?
A– They should be the ones to step down for encouraging lawlessness and generally irresponsible behaviour not expected of a sensible adult. What I have yet to hear from our political opponents is any serious proposals as how they would increase salaries while restoring a balanced budget without cutting into programmes such as Ipelegeng, ISPAAD, the provision of health care, education and other services.
Q. We understand that the striking civil servants will not be paid for days not worked, is that going to be backdated to the beginning of the strike?
A- This is a matter being handled by DPSM, but the principle is that workers will not be paid for any days that they were on strike.
Q. At what stage will the government start deducting money from the striking employees?
A- This is already ongoing.
Q. The longer the strike goes on, the more damage to the economy, is there no ground for compromise for the greater good of the nation?
A- It is precisely for the greater good of the nation that we cannot now afford to buy short term popularity by burdening the country with unsustainable deficits into the future.
Q. People have criticized your methods of gauging public opinion by addressing kgotla meetings and ignoring the unions, what do you say about that?
A– The purpose of going to kgotla is to engage communities over their specific concerns, while informing them of Government policies and programmes. Of course in any kgotla all sorts of issues may be raised, including those of wider public interest. In this context, if I am in a kgotla or any other public event being covered by the press, be it the Voice or BTV, I am addressing the nation as well as those in attendance.
Q. There is an understanding that your refusal to meet with the unions is somehow fuelling the strike, wouldn’t it be better to meet with them to find a solution?
A- I have not refused to meet with Union leaders. I do, however, wish to avoid a situation where my intervention undermines the existing statutory structures that are in place to resolve labour disputes. I had in fact agreed to meet them, when they had indicated that their strike would last for two weeks. Now that they decided to make it indefinite I have decided to postpone the meeting indefinitely.
Q. Are you aware of the British miners strike and how Margaret Thatcher dealt with it which later earned her the title Iron Lady. Your approach to the strike seems to be similar to hers (Thatcher) are you not worried that this can earn you the title of Iron Man of Botswana?
A – I can think of a lot worse things to be called.
Q. Someone at a rally accused you of being worse than Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, how does that make you feel?
A – Folks are entitled to their opinions, but I am actually trying to sustain our economy and not ruin it.
Q. The country seems to be descending to anarchy by the day, how will this all end?
A- I disagree. While I am deeply concerned about the unrest that has occurred in our schools, I remain confident that our society will continue to uphold the values of botho, including mutual respect and respect for the rule of law that have been the cornerstones of progress.
Q. The hospitals closure and/or slow down is a matter of life and death and has resulted in deaths. Your comment Mr President.
A- The situation our health facilities has been of the greatest concern. As you know the industrial court has declared the strike by health and other essential workers illegal, which incidentally in line with the ILO as well as internationally sanctioned medical ethics. It is most unfortunate that despite this and repeated warnings some health workers have defied the law, their own professional ethics and common decency by persisting with the strike. As a result Government has had to take remedial action to ensure that health facilities remain open, and emergency cases are given due priority.
Q. And the media, Isn’t it time for you to give them your side of the story. Even with the animosity some have shown towards you?
A- Both I and other members of Government have been addressing the media. While there may have been instances where we could have communicated more effectively, I believe that this should be a two way street. Some in the media have paid little or no attention to what we have been saying. Others have clearly demonstrated their biases and lack of balance. But, what we find most unfortunate is instances where some media, particularly broadcasters, have reported unsubstantiated rumours and untruths, which are clearly fed to them as disinformation.
Q. When do you think all this is going to end?
A- Hopefully soon. This situation is of no benefit to anyone, more especially those not at work.