Speaking workers welfare
Topias Marenga’s name is synonymous with Botswana Public Employees Union (BOPEU)
The Secretary General of the biggest Workers Union in the country has been with BOPEU from way back when it was known as the Botswana Civil Service Association.
In 2007, when it changed its name to BOPEU, the 50 -year -old father of five from Sehithwa village in the northwest district became the Vice Secretary before being elevated to SG two years later. With 36 000 members under BOPEU, Marenga has his work cut out for him in terms of welfare issues and advocacy.
Voice Reporter, Daniel Chida had an interview with the SG at Fego Café.
Q. What are some of your achievements as the SG so far?
A. In the beginning we didn’t have our own offices.
The Headquarters’ project was started and we had to diversify and run away from benefiting from subscriptions.
The task was to make sure that our investment arm, the Babereki Investment, supports the Union’s activities and helps to make it visible.
In the end we achieved our mission, as it is now common knowledge that we have our headquarters in Gaborone.
In 2010 the congress took a resolution that I leave the business side and focus on workers rights and welfare matters.
The mandate is very broad because we firstly had to make our members understand how unions operate and what they do.
We had to run workshops to train our shop stewards.
We also had to make sure that their property being houses and vehicles are insured and at an affordable price too.
We even opened a bursary fund, which avails a maximum of P20 000 toward members skills upgrade.
They pay only one percent of the total value.
Q. Tell us about your much publicised recruitment drive.
A. The strength of any workers union worth its salt is in the numbers.
Parastatals have shown great interest in joining BOPEU instead of forming their own unions.
So I can say we are heading towards the right direction.
Q. The drive was the brain brainchild of the former BOPEU President, Andrew Motsamai, how is the implementation of the project going without him?
A. Yes Motsamai has left but the vision that he had together with the team was written down so what we are doing is just driving it.
It is not our vision but what members had suggested.
We do hold annual meetings in updating them and getting their views on what to do.
Q. You were regarded as Motsamai’s right hand man and since his controversial departure; don’t you see your days at BOPEU being numbered too?
A. Of course I was regarded as Motsamai’s right hand man but my contract runs until 2020.
Members will decided then if I am still needed or not but my focus is to make sure that our business wing helps us in setting up branches across the country.
I have managed to open branches in Maun, Kasane, Palapye and Francistown.
Q. How far is Bopeu’s case against Motsamai to recover missing funds?
A. It is better that I do not comment on it because there is a section, which is mandated to do that.
My mandate is on welfare.
Q. Why does BOPEU’s name keep cropping up in scandals involving money, case in point being allegations that the Union received a shot in the arm from Kgori Capital, an investment management firm accused of looting the National Petroleum Fund of P250million.
A. People want to use BOPEU as a scapegoat.
Yes we received P100 million from Kgori Capital in January 2016 as a loan but we are shocked to hear our name being mentioned in the National Petroleum Fund saga.
It was none of our business to find out who Kgori Capital funders were since they were a reputable company doing business above board as far as we were concerned.
The graft case that is before the courts now concerns the P250 million which was allegedly misappropriated from NPF in 2017.
That is what needs to be addressed through the courts until a verdict of guilty or not guilty is reached, instead of looking for a scapegoat.
Q But why has BOPEU been quite about such grave allegations of massive corruption involving even ministers?
A. We feel that the case was rushed to court and and now the defense attorney has started talking too much and mentioning even names he has no business mentioning.
We have decided that it is better we take a seat back and give the court time to do its job.
Clearly there was a case of graft but we trust the court system.
Otherwise if we start commenting, e tloga e nna o kare le rona re phunya phefo. (We are punching the air)
Q. How is your relationship with Botswana Federation of Public Sector Unions (BOFEPUSO)?
A. It’s similar to a relationship between a divorced couple.
Our focus now is to give priority to workers rights and if we are united we would have a stronger voice which the employer is much more likely to listen to.
But it is unfortunate that some of BOFEPUSO leaders seem to be more concerned about tarnishing our names tarnishing our names and lying about us than working with us for the greater good of the worker.
These kinds of leaders have small brains (Ditlhaloganyo tsa bone di felela mo koping)
Q But you haven’t answered my question on your relationship with BOFEPUSO?
A. It is a very strained relationship but we are trying to map a way forward. We want to have a platform where we address workers together and negotiate salaries together but last week they put a dent to that by addressing the Press denouncing and castigating us.
So how do we move forward with such leaders? Some concerned politicians have advised us to stop fighting each other and we have headed their call.
Now that you mention advice from politicians, What is your position on Workers Union involvement in partisan politics?
We are non-partisan.
We don’t take a political stand to support a particular party because it may tarnish our image.
We are not even advocating for change of government because it would mean we have taken a side.
Q. What are your views on the in-coming President, Mokgweetsi Masisi?
A. Masisi is a closed book All along he could pass the buck for all the decisions taken to President Khama but it is now his time to show us what he is made of.
Q. Lastly, how long are we going to see you in union office?
A. I will be in office for as long as members want me to be.
Remember there are some who have been in office for a longer period than me.