Gaborone – An indefinite strike by public-sector workers in diamond-rich Botswana is threatening the ruling party’s 45-year grip on power and denting its image as the steward of one of Africa’s success stories.
The main public employees’ union said more than 90 000 workers have joined the strike, which has ground public services to a near halt and forced schools, clinics and government offices to operate on skeleton staff.
The work stoppage, which began on April 18, has caused something of an identity crisis for the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which has ruled the southern African country since independence from Britain in 1966.
Under the BDP, Botswana has come to be known as a model of good government in Africa – a peaceful democracy with a stable economy and one of the highest growth rates on the continent.
But signalling its concern, the BDP wrote on its official Facebook page: “We cannot pretend that the strike had no effect in our country. It did. Up until that point the world trusted us totally as a nation for stability.”
The BDP accuses the opposition of undermining that stability by exploiting the strike to try to spark a north Africa-style popular uprising.
The country’s three largest opposition parties have moved to capitalise on the unrest by throwing their support behind unions, giving fiery speeches at workers’ rallies and urging the ouster of President Ian Khama’s government.
Duma Boko, head of the opposition Botswana National Front, called on Botswana to replicate the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
“There are different ways to take over governance, and that includes by force,” he said at a recent press conference in support of the strike held by the opposition parties.
“If we can come together we can take our government as it happened in Egypt and Tunisia.”
For the Botswana Movement for Democracy, a breakaway party from the BDP, the strike undermines the ruling party’s contention that Botswana is a model democracy.
“This is clear from the government’s refusal to accept workers’ demands for a pay hike, under the pretext that the economy has not yet recovered from the recession,” said its leader, Gomolemo Motswaledi.
Political analyst Zibani Maundeni, a lecturer at the University of Botswana, said the strike has introduced a new element to domestic politics since opposition parties had not previously counted unions as a constituency.
“Opposition parties are now openly involved in labour issues and the workers have also struck a relationship with the parties. But it remains to be seen how this relationship will work in future,” he said.
Public workers are demanding a 16% raise after a three-year freeze on salaries that the government blamed on the global economic crisis.
But while the economy bounced back from recession last year with 7.2% growth – after shrinking 4.9% in 2009 – the government says it cannot afford more than a five percent salary increase.
Botswana, whose economy relies heavily on diamonds, was hit hard by the global economic crisis as demand for its gems plunged and revenues from a regional customs union dived.
The government is fighting to cut a budget deficit that stands at about 11.5% of gross domestic product, but public employees complain their buying power is shrinking in the face of rising inflation that hit 8.5% in March.
Unions originally called the strike for 10 days, but extended it indefinitely after failing to reach an agreement with the government.
But political analyst Maundeni said that while the strike has given opposition parties a new voice, it is unlikely to bring them to power.
“The fact that opposition parties are sympathising with workers does not mean a weakening of the BDP,” he said.