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Working for workers

Working for workers
HUMBLE: Tobokani Rari

Out spoken

Give him the microphone and an audience, the humble,soft spoken and ever smiling Tobokani Rari turns into a firebrand.

To Botswana’s working masses, Rari is the voice and face of public sector trade unionists, who have over five years fiercely fought for better working conditions from the employer of the day.

The Nshakashongwe born trade unionist, burst into limelight back in 2011 as one of the leaders and brains behind the first ever national public servants strike in Botswana.

The “Mother of all Strikes” brought service in government offices across the country for almost two months to its knees.

This week the 47-year-old family man spoke to The Voice about life beyond the trade unions.

Q. Kindly give us a bit of your family background

A. I’m from a family of seven children, three girls and four boys. I’m the fifth born.

Though originally from Nshakashongwe, I grew up at my mother’s home village of Marapong after the death of my father.

So I was raised up by a widowed mother.

I did my primary school education at Nshakashongwe primary school, then proceed for junior secondary at Letlhakane junior secondary, which later became unified while we were still there.

I therefore did my senior secondary schooling there too.

Q. You are a Guidance and Counselling teacher and a professional Counsellor, how did you end up in trade unionism?

A. I always tell colleagues and people that am a Counsellor on loan to trade unions( laughs). We will come back to that one later on.

But I’m sure to go back, because counselling is a profession I love so much.

Back to your question, it was during my years when I was teaching in Gantsi that I met up and got involved in trade unions.

It was my co-workers who nominated and elected me to be their representative at regional level.

It involved organizing civil servants to join trade unions.

Even at college I was part of the student representative council.

Q. How do you marry the two? Are there any similiarities between trade unionism and counselling?

A. Trade unionists are viewed as more of antagonists while counsellors are people who listen more and talk less.

They listen and advise. But if you look at trade unionism and counselling they are not totally different.

What stands out is the language and the approach. But they are all about assisting people with their problems.

They are both concerned with doing away with injustice and lifting the burdens off people’s shoulders.

Q. I want us to go back to 2011, the “Mother of all Strikes”. What are your memories from the first ever strike by the public service employees?

A. I had never seen workers in the history of this country so united for a single cause.

When I visualize it I only see people under the grief and united for one purpose, saying enough is enough to government.

Saying to government ‘you can no longer dictate the terms and conditions of services of employees’.

The biggest lessons we have learnt as a federation, was to do things according to the law.

Because we had two contradicting clauses of the law, being essential services and non essential services.

We should have gone from arbitration of the essential services employees right away. Maybe their concerns for salary increment and conditions of services would have been addressed earlier or sooner than those of non essential workers.

It is important to highlight that the law contradicted itself.

Q. Major casualities of the strike were the industrial class. What is your take on that and why was that so?

A. Not necessarily so, but most of the dismissed workers were those in the essential services.

My view is that there was a grave injustice done by our courts especially where there are two contradicting pieces of legislature.

The courts would have given the dismissed employees the benefit of the doubt.

More so that the employees did not have power and the case was won at the lower courts only for it to be reversed at the Court of Appeal.

Q. Do you feel guilty for the massive dismissals that transpired thereafter?

A. Honestly I sometimes have sleepless nights.

But let me tell you what happened when the Industrial court ruled that the strike was illegal for the essential services employees.

Leadership went around the country informing the essential services workers and telling them to go back to work.

But they refused! They said if government wants to dismiss us they should go ahead.

Mind you the strike was now fever pitch.

You see, the strike is like a train on its way, you can not just bring it to a halt.

They literally refused. But I still ask myself what is it that we could have done to convince these people to go back to work.

It comes back to me, to say was there anything that we didn’t do to convince the comrades to go back to work.

Q. On a personal level, how did the strike affect you and those close to you?

A. During the strike, I hardly slept peacefully.

I was staying in Otse because my wife was teaching there and I was at Moeding.

After long nights of meetings with DPSM or planning as BOFEPUSU, while driving home there were times I would feel my hair cringe and have goose bumps.

I felt someone was following me.

On two occasions there was a car that trailed behind me.

Each time I slacked the trailing car would also reduce its speed.

When I turned into Otse, the car would pass as if going to Lobatse.

My wife would always ask if we are safe and I would say, ‘what can possibly happen to us?’.

What also irritated her most was that everyone across the country had my cellphone number and I would receive calls in the middle of the night.

She also complained of me bringing work issues home. All these issues nearly cost me my marriage.

My mum on the other hand feared for my life and wanted me to quit my job, but with time she warmed up to the idea and is proud of the cause I’m fighting for.

But at times deep down, I would question myself if we should continue or call off the strike.

But the mood of the people kept us going as the leadership?

Q. Compared to other countries, how do trade unions in Botswana fare?

A. We are still lagging far behind. If it was a flight I would say trade unionism in this country is still at take off stage.

Even though we are hundreds of years behind other countries, we will get there although we are still experiencing some challenges.

However, I always say, we must never to expect to get what we want in terms of the process of bargaining on a silver platter.

NEVER! I believe very strongly this phase will pass.

We are in the right direction, even though we are facing a lot of antagonism.

Government is in denial.

In Australia trade unions are losing members because the government has encompassed trade unions and is taking good care of the workers’ conditions and terms of service.

Q. Currently there is turbulence within BOFEPUSU. What is your dream going forward?

A. My wish is for public sector unions to be united. It is true there is turbulence within the federation.

It could be correct to say BOFEPUSU has been infiltrated. And we should not expect the employer to sit and watch, particularly after unions took a stand and backing the UDC in the 2014 general elections.

But I hope workers will always want to dissect issues to whoever wants to listen to them.

Q. Do you miss the classroom?

A. Very much, because dealing with students is a much more fascinating experience.

Students are not like computers, but they still like to play computer video games, like League of Legends or Wow with the best gaming mouse for wow or other specialized hardware and boosting sites which you can get more info online.

Each day you spend with them one gets a new sort of challenge than sitting calling you to think and address the challenge.

In some instances, they raise issues that are beyond you.

Q. You do not talk of going back to the chalk and blackboard. Why is that so?

A. I think I’ve done my part. I have taught since 1991 and only left the classroom in 2011, when I was elected as Secretary General of BOSETU.

I can’t deny that teaching is a fascinating profession.

But when I’m done with being Secretary General I would rather go somewhere else and not back to teaching.

Q. As teachers exercise their right of being in the trade union, are they not jeopardizing the future of the students?

A. That is a question which journalists always ask each time, that we are using the students to fight our battles.

But a teacher is a worker like anyone else.

The difference with other workers is that teachers are dealing with young minds, and future leaders.

If they don’t assist them properly we are bound to have a bleak future, because the nation will not have future drivers and leaders.

That is the only difference but the right which should be extended to any other worker must be extended to the teachers as well.

The only weapon that is legal, which is used against a stubborn employer is withdrawal of labour.

So when teachers withdraw their labour, they are not targeting pupils or students, but simply saying, ’employer listen to us’.

Strikes are meant to inflict pain on the employer.

Q. You have indicated that you have no intentions of going back to the classrooms. Where next then?

A. I am aspiring to be a member of parliament some day where I will shape policies at national level.

I’m not so sure if I’ll stand in 2019, but it is something I will decide on with time.

I think I have garnered a lot of experience and leadership skills which should not go to waste.

I should use them somewhere to shape the laws of the country, particularly for the benefit of workers.

What legacy do you intend to leave as a trade unionist?

There is need is to have a confederation.

I will be happiest to see BOFEPUSU and BFTU work together.

I would also like to leave trade unionism when the bargaining process in Botswana is fully functional.

I would like to see the laws of the country clearly state that the President of the country should not interfere in the process of bargaining.

Or there are no two centres of power which deal with terms and conditions of workers.

Personal Profile

Names: Tobokani Rari

Date of Birth: 21 March 1970

Past times: football, reading, experiencing nature

Favourite Drink: Red grape juice

Favourite foods: Traditional cuisine

Favourite Colour: Navy and white

Favourite football team: Township Rollers