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Botswana : LABOUR TRANSFORMATION, THE DYNAMICS AND CHALLENGES IN A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY

Paper presented at the Botswana Secondary School Teachers Union (BOSETU) Congress held at the Mmadinare Senior Secondary School,

D 28 octobre 2011     H 04:33     A Richard Tabulawa     C 0 messages


Protocol Observed

Introduction

I feel very honoured to have been invited by yourselves to come and deliver this key note address at this congress. When I was approached by your Vice secretary general, mr tobokani rari, I was not sure whether to accept or reject the request to come and officiate at this congress. I gave myself time to think about what I was being invited to come here and talk about, being the theme of the congress : ‘Labour transformation : the dynamics and challenges in a democratic society”. What do I know about labour issues which I can share with unionists, I asked myself. Not much I told myself. After a prolonged consideration of the request I decided to take up the challenge. I thought deeply about how I was going to approach the theme. This was not an easy thing to think about since It was not very clear to me what the theme required of me. I decided to treat the assignment the same way I treat challenges I encounter in my academic pursuits – never to retreat from an academic/scholarly challenge.

By isolating the main concepts in the theme – which are ‘labour transformation’, ‘dynamics’, ‘challenges’ and ‘democracy’ – I interpreted to theme to mean simply how labour was being transformed by contemporary social, cultural and political developments taking place both locally and globally. I settled for this interpretation of the theme not necessarily because I felt comfortable with it but because there has been so much happening in the past 15 to 20 years that has transformed all the domains of our lives, labour being one such domain. I felt that this would be worth sharing with you. I must confess that I am not as knowledgeable as you are in labour issues. Many of you gathered here are not only members of BOSetu ; they are also activists of the organization. It would therefore smack of arrogance on my part to stand before you and start lecturing at you, activists, on labour issues. The best teacher on such matters is experience. You have experienced it all. I am therefore here to be educated by you.

A lot has been said about the recently-ended industrial action by public servants, a strike in which you were very actively involved. Some say you emerged from the strike bruised while some say you emerged victorious. I am not here to apprise you of the outcome of the industrial action. You may have emerged seriously weakened or emboldened, I do not know. What I know for sure is that you emerged more educated about labour issues than when you went into the strike. It is this education you acquired that I want to locate in the context of broader developments affecting you as teachers.
To accomplish this I adopt my favourite approach to issues in this era of intensified globalization – the global/local dialectic approach. This approach, simply put, says that in a globalizing world labour/education/economic/political issues cannot be adequately appreciated through approaches that fail to embed these issues in both their global and local contexts – labour transformation in Botswana has both global and local dimensions. These dimensions are inextricably intertwined. Treating one in isolation of the other only yields a very partial understanding of the issue at hand.

A shrinking democratic space

Labour transformation in Botswana and indeed in the world as a whole is taking place within the context of globalization and the emergence of a global economy. These two developments have ushered unprecedented transformations of the workplace and what it means to be a worker. Globalization has led to a more interconnected and inter-dependent world, whilst the global economy has meant intensified integration of national economies into a globally- encompassing system. The benefits and dangers of these developments have been debated extensively in the literature. Those who support globalization argue that the advent of the global economy has availed opportunities for wealth-creation. Indeed wealth has increased dramatically since the late 1980s. unfortunately, it is concentrated in the hands of only a few. For the majority the global economy has meant increased poverty and untold misery. Poverty has increased in the first world, curiously creating pockets of third-worlds in the first-world. Fourth worlds have appeared in the third-world. I shall touch on these issues later on in my presentation. A more important result of globalization and the global economy in my view has been the attenuation of the democratic space. The welfare system which is systematically being eroded by introduction of neo-liberal policies all over the world represented a compromise between labour and capital ; some would say that the compromise was a victory for labour over capital. The compromise meant that labour had a say (through collective bargaining) in economic and other policies. The growing dominance of the neo-conservatives since the early 1980s has led to the dismantlement of this compromise, with capital gaining dominance. The dominance of neo-conservatives/neo-liberals aided by globalization has ensured the rise to unprecedented prominence of trans-national corporations (TNCs) in the global production system. An integrated global economy facilitates global mobility of capital ; in the language of global economists, capital is ‘footloose’ i.e. investors are able than ever before to invest (and disinvest) in any part of the world where conditions are most suitable/are unsuitable. This makes tncs to wield immense powers over most states, dependent states in particular. To attract this ‘footloose’ capital countries have to promulgate economic and labour policies that are tncs-friendly. These are policies that (1) curtail powers of unions and (2) that keep production costs (including labour costs) to the minimum. A country that fails to do so cannot be competitive in attracting FDI. So states are compelled to adopt an adversarial stance towards labour. Democratic participation of the workers in policy promulgation in this context is severely attenuated. Tncs’ global operations are aided by supra-national organizations, such as the International Monetary fund (IMF), the world Bank (WB), the organization for economic cooperation and development (OECD) and many others, the main purveyors of neo-liberal policies that in essence are anti-labour. Policies on privatization, deregulation, liberalization and cuts in public spending are prescriptions from these institutions. But who benefits from them : tncs in collusion with national elites. Privatization, for example, has very little to do with improved efficiency and effectiveness. It has more to do with removing state participation in the economy ; the space vacated by the state is filled up by private capital, whose sole interest is profit and not much else. The state assumes the role of regulator i.e. a promulgator of policies friendly to capital (respect for private property, a stable labour environment etc). in short, under globalization, state power and its ability to control policy is attenuated.

It is only fair to say that most countries today do not own their economic policies. In many cases these policies are ‘dictated’ from Washington. In such an environment people’s participation in policy formulation e.g. budget-making process has no room. In other words their meaningful participation in the governing of their lives has been taken away. The power to influence policy is transferred to tncs and supra-national organizations. All this is an affront on democracy. In other words, the world seems to be getting less and less democratic with the intensification of globalization and global economic integration – democratic space is being constricted. This is a serious challenge for labour.

Global effects of constricted democratic space

The emasculation of the state, leading to a constricted democratic space and increased poverty has prompted protests by the marginalized in the global economy. We see this every time the g7/8 hold their meetings ; who can forget the 1999 ‘battle of seattle’ ? britain today is burning and it has been called thuggery and thieving and yet the protests have all the hallmarks of a spontaneous uprising by the marginalized. The irony of all this is that it offers an opportunity for labour to mobilize the marginalised to rise against the world system – while the global economic system has weakened labour the current crisis engendered by the same system provides fertile ground for labour to thrive.

To summarise this global dimension of labour transformation I would like to reiterate the point that globalization and the emergence of a global economy are posing serious challenges to labour. Democracy is receding and the people’s role in shaping their own futures by way of participating in national policy formulation has been considerably attenuated. Prospects for labour are not looking good.
I now want to descend from the global to the local, to come nearer home and appreciate how these global trends are playing themselves out in the local scene.

I made reference to the ‘mother of all strikes’ in my opening remarks. So much has been said about the strike. However, not much has been said about its global context. How can we relate this local happening to the global developments sketched above ? It is unfortunate that no one, not even social scientists at the UB, has cared to address this question. Yet it is the real question to answer. To understand the actions of the protagonists in that strike requires that they be placed within a framework that appreciates impact of globalisation and the global economy on dependent countries such as Botswana.

Democratic space has been shrinking in Botswana since the early 1990s, to be precise with the implementation of national development 7 (1991-1997). This plan represented a fundamental change in the country’s macro-economic policy. We see in that policy the beginning of the mainstreaming of neo-liberal thinking in both economic and social policy. The plan emphasized the need to cut public spending (introducing cost-sharing), liberalizing and deregulating the economy, privatizing publicly-owned enterprises etc. the latter is detailed in Ndps 8 & 9. By the early 1990s many sub-sahara African countries were choking in structural adjustment programmes imposed on them by the IMF and the World Bank. For reasons I cannot detail here Botswana had avoided the saps. She nonetheless decided to structurally adjust, meaning mainstreaming neo-liberal thinking in her development planning. As an aid recipient Botswana was just as vulnerable to external influence as many other sub-sahara African countries. With the advent of sector-wide approaches to international aid, the international donor community could influence directly budgeting allocations in recipient countries. This ensured intensification of the activities of bodiessuch as the IMF and the world bank, institutions Botswana relies on for policy advise. These institutions are now emboldened than ever before and do not shy from giving prescriptions to a country on a take-it-all basis. They have been involved in the country’s privatization policy, for example. They have become more vocal now. They now tell government to down-size so as to keep the wage bill within ‘permissible’ ranges, to avoid budget deficits and to privatise. These are not policies promulgated with the democratic participation of the people, labour included. They are agreed upon between these institutions and the local elite, which is a part of a global network of elites setting the agenda for the rest of the world.

The local elite has a very constricted room for maneuver. Failure to comply may lead to its delegitimization as has happened to those who have dared these institutions. The leadership of the country cannot be seen to be defying the IMF ; this would be foolhardy of it. Government today is being criticized for no longer meaningfully consulting with the people. As dissenting voices grow louder the state is forced to act in ways meant to preserve the little there is of the country’s global competitiveness. Authoritarianism (not necessarily dictatorship) begins to raise its ugly head leading to even more dissent ; with rising dissent is intensified authoritarianism. The democratic space shrinks and labour feels the effects.

Implications for labour

These dynamics pose serious challenges for the labour movement in Botswana, teacher movements especially. The gradual integration of Botswana into the global economy (combined with its undiversified economy) has been accompanied by cuts in public spending. For education, this means over-crowded classrooms and over-worked teachers. The slowed expansion (due to spending cuts) of the education system has built a large reserve of unemployed qualified teachers. This in my view is the biggest threat to the viability of teacher labour movements in Botswana. This reserve of qualified teachers is a boon to government. This is a group of people desperate to work, and naturally would seize any opportunity that arises. It is outside the loop of organized labour. It can be relied upon by the state in times of need and disposed of anyhow when no longer needed. This ‘free’ labour gives the state flexibility in dealing with teacher unions ; they can dismiss and replace you with these unemployed qualified teachers ; they are cheaper after all. Your challenge therefore is how to deal with this growing pool of employed qualified teachers. We must work out strategies.
Secondly, at the centre of global competitiveness is a well-educated and trained workforce. This makes education a driver of economic development. It is for this reason that education has attracted so much of the attention of governments, including ours. Education is now too important to leave to the teachers. But to be in total control of education government needs to first assume total control of teachers by way of deprofessionalising them. There are a number of ways to achieve this. I will touch on two of these.
1. Making sure that teachers are not in control of the content of their work. A national curriculum is a potent instrument in achieving this. He/she who is not in control of their work is not a professional. You struggle for teacher power needs to involve control of the curriculum.
2. By essentialising teachers’ services. Well, I do not have to say much on this one save only to observe that the move to make your services essential has nothing to do with the definition of ‘essential services’ in the labour dispute act but more to do with your centrality in making Botswana a globally competitive country – in other words you are a very important cog in the global economy machine. You must be kept under tight control. This a major challenge for you. How you respond to this will demand creativity and ingenuity on your part.

However, it is not possible to emasculate teachers completely. Government would be well-advised to take note of this. Teachers have a modicum of control of their work. Teaching is often a solitary activity for the teacher. What the teacher does behind the closed door of the classroom is not usually accessible to those supposed to be keeping an eye on him/her. An unhappy teacher can cause a great deal of harm. No amount of surveillance can arrest this. As teachers you know this better. Dialogue and only genuine dialogue is the only way out. I have in fact been shocked by the militancy of teachers. And even at this moment I am still searching for an explanation. But whatever is that is responsible for the militancy it must be really very grave.

How may you respond ?

There are no prescriptions to offer. However, it is important to realize that the challenges you face as a labour movement are of a global nature. It goes without saying therefore that global challenges demand global responses. Teachers across the world have long realized this. The formation of education international in 1995 was testimony to this realization. In the same way capital has acquired dominance through tncs and supra-national organizations labour too needs to form supra-figures if they are to influence education policy in the global age. If already you are not members of a body such as education international, I urge you to do so as a matter of urgency. Also consider regional bodies. In my mother language we have a saying “tjinyunyi babili, Nkomba woga tjowuluka”.

Richard Tabulawa

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