“We shall fight to the bitter end” says union Publicity secretary”
Like warriors prepared to fight till the bitter end, civil servants on strike have vowed that they will not surrender no matter how costly the war might be.
In an interview with the publicity secretary of the Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions last Friday, soft spoken Goretetse Kekgonegile expressed passion, bitterness and emotion about the biggest strike ever experienced in Botswana. The social worker did admit that initially they did not anticipate that the strike would drag on for this long but if anything they get energized with each coming day as the quest to win becomes intense.
Q. The strike has entered its sixth week, when will it really end?
We are really concerned and worried that the strike is on-going and we want to end it immediately but the sad thing is that the other side, which is the Directorate of Public Service Management(DPSM) is not helping the situation. So it will end when we get what we want and that time is not far. We have put a lot of pressure on the government and they will soon be left with no choice but to bow down. We also have the support of members of parliament, BDP labour committee, opposition parties and members of the public and the pressure that they too will exert on the employer, which they have started to do will leave the government with no choice but to give in to our demands.
Q. When this industrial action started, did you think it would come this far?
We knew the type of government that we were dealing with, which is very stubborn so we anticipated some resistance but we didn’t think it would come this far.
Q. The government has maintained that it has no money and it does not look like its position would change.
There is no government in this world which has enough money to do what it wants, it’s just a question of priorities. Our government has and is getting its priorities wrong, it has no regard or respect for workers. Or to be precise President Khama is getting his priorities wrong, why has he prioritised petty programmes that cost a lot of money? Why give priority to the DIS and the BDF, we are not at war with anyone and there are no security threats so why spend millions of pulas on security. He must just suspend his little but expensive programmes like constituency leagues and Ipelegeng, stop channeling money to DIS and use that money to pay the workers.
Q. Talking of President Khama, there is a belief that unions have personal issues with him, what’s your take on that?
He is the one who decided to take it personal, when we went to court instead of Directorate of Public Prosecution or the Attorney Gneneral representing the government it was his personal lawyer who represented the employer, so to him it was a personal issue. And again as the president of this country, a man who is supposed to be the father of the nation he had and still has the power to end this impasse but instead he has decided to keep quiet, he does not want to dialogue with us but instead uses other forums to talk about the strike. We really feel insulted by his actions and I am sure so are many Batswana because everyone is affected by this strike which he has the power to stop.
Q. What would you want to tell him if he was to meet with you and what do you expect him to say to you?
We simply want to present our case to him, to justify why we are demanding a salary increase and for him to convince us that there is no money that can go towards the salary increase because right now we are of the opinion that if he was to prioritize money would be there to pay workers.
Q. But why do you think he is avoiding dialogue with the unions?
He has a negative attitude towards unions. If he had his way he would have dismantled unions long back but unfortunately unions are here to stay.
Q. You were recently quoted saying that if the government does not yield to the union’s demands you will force President Khama to step down if not removing him by force, how do you intend to do that?
We will do that by mobilising the entire nation to support our cause, in fact we have started doing that and people from all walks of life are showing and giving us the necessary support. If the nation calls on him to step down then that’s exactly what he should do. He does not have the interests of the nation at heart so why should he continue leading us. What we have also realized is that DPSM does not have a problem with us and so does parliament, the cabinet and BDP. The only problem is the President and as long as he does not have support he will go.
Q. President Khama is on record saying there is the hand of the opposition in this industrial action, your comment on this?
This is a desperate statement coming from a President who is clearly seeing that he is losing support.
Q. Workers seem to be so determined to carry on with the strike despite the financial consequences since the government has implemented the no work no pay policy, what do you think is driving them to go on?
The stronger the winds, the higher the kite goes. Put into context the more challenges we face, the more determined we will be. This is a war that we have started, this is a war that we will fight till the bitter end and this a war that we will win. The government might use intimidating tactics but we won’t give in, striking workers might not be paid and they might be fired and as unions we will stand by them through thick and thin.
Q. And how will you do that especially for those who will not be paid?
If it means going to court to fight for the re-instatement of the fired workers we will do that. It might be a big challenge to assist those who will not be paid but we will soon be opening a strikers account where well wishers can deposit the money to assist the affected workers. And by the way I am not only talking about local well wishers but beyond borders as well.
Q. Does this therefore mean that you will be paying all the affected workers and what system will you put in place to ensure transparency in this process?
We are not promising to pay all the affected workers, it will all depend on the availability of funds. We will first look at worst case scenarios and assist such cases accordingly, yes it would be a challenge but we will do our best.
Q. Schools were closed recently and now there is a campaign to close hospitals, what do you have to say about the affected students and lives that have been lost and likely to be lost by the closure of health institutions?
It is very sad that students have lost lessons and are likely to fail their exams, it is not something that we wanted. The only way to avoid further losses is for the government to end this impasse. Same goes for the situation in hospitals, it really touches our hearts. Everyday we pray for those people in intensive care, babies in incubators, pregnant women and all those who are in need of medical attention.
Q. Has the strike affected you personally?
I don’t think there is anyone who has not been affected by this strike, my child is at home instead of being at school. The fact that as leaders we also have to deal with problems of fellow comrades is traumatic and emotionally draining but we will soldier on.
Full names: Goretetse Kekgonegile
Date of birth: April 14, 1971
Place of birth: Maun
No. of children: two
Car driving: Toyota Corolla
Mentor(s): Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gomolemo Motswaledi and Robert Mugabe
Pass-time: Reading, watching tv and spending time with friends
Book: currently reading- A journey by Tony Blair
What makes him tick: Contributing to positive change for the good of the people