The Botswana Worker’s Strike – Part 2 – Effects of the Long Strike

The strike was seemingly unending.  Since the first 10 days ended almost two months ago daily questions still float around the office: What’s going on with the strike today? Any progress? News? As the days passed the government publicly and repeatedly stated that money wasn’t available for a salary increase, but this didn’t seem to pacify anyone. Increasing the strike’s intensity was the fact that the unions couldn’t hold their promise to pay the strikers a salary when the government refused.  The workers fighting for a raise began to realize that they may not be receiving any paycheck at all.

A few weeks ago in Molepolole (the village where I spent pre-service training), students who were left without teachers to teach them began vandalizing schools and looting shops, demanding that the government end the strike. This caused schools to close throughout the country for about a week, and reopened only when they could be patrolled by police. Aside from a skeletal staff that was not allowed to strike, hospitals and clinics also shut down. Subsequently, government employed teachers and nurses on strike started getting fired.

Later, Ministers of Parliament held public meetings in various villages to address the issues surrounding the strike. Probably a well intended outreach, but the people only got riled up and angry and ended up physically running the ministers out while chanting and exclaiming that they would “rather be led by President Mugabe.” (this article link is from a Botswana newspaper and is especially colorful and dramatic)

Just a week ago on Tuesday, things culminated towards what I hope was the worst of the whole ordeal. Supposedly June 7th was the day an agreement was to be finalized – a 3% increase across the board for all government employees – and the strike was to end.  A 3% increase, however, for someone making one of the the lowest pay grades of P1200/month ($185), would be a raise of P36/month ($5.54). To put it in perspective that’s about the cost of a large bag of rice.

So Tuesday the strikers returned again to the forefront, but this time with a different attitude. Instead of peaceful protesting outside Ntshe House, Ntshe House employees fled from the building when rumors surfaced that the strikers were heading there for a confrontation.  I left with my coworkers.

Though my supervisor, Mma Mathumo, was running in jest, it was because none of us were quite sure what to expect. I exited the building and could feel the air of the city change as I walked down the street. Cars honked loudly at each other, taxis sped through intersections, and people’s pacing seemed quicker and more deliberate. All of a sudden I noticed the ladies who perch at tables surrounding the perimeter of the building to sell fat-cakes, boiled eggs and candy were hastily packing up their tables.  People were hurrying to get out of the strikers’ way.

I passed through the popular nearby shopping center, Galo Mall, on the way home and came across a woman repeatedly sneezing and crying in what looked like a painful allergic reaction. Once I got to Galo I learned that the civil unrest prompted the use of tear gas, forcing the stores to close early. Strikers charged down the streets and trashed another popular shopping center down the road, setting car tires on fire.

This video was not taken by me, but by someone down the street from where I was.

That afternoon Peace Corps told me to stay home and not come back to work the next day if the civil unrest persisted. They also put a temporary travel ban on FTown for all traveling volunteers. What’s interesting about this event (and all previous related events) is that Botswana is such a peaceful country, so this feels uncomfortable for everyone. No one is used to seeing Batswana react like this, and I think it’s clear the strikers themselves don’t want this to escalate into violence. All of this drama happened and then it stopped, as if it was a mid-morning mini riot and then people broke for lunch. Afterwards Francistown became calm, and I went to work the next day.

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Update: Union leaders met with the Directorate of Public Service Management (the Government Employer) on Sunday, June 12th to agree to temporarily suspend the strike, but a portion of the strikers are refusing to go back to work. Though the decision might have caused a chasm within the striking population, it seems most agree the strike is essentially over for now. Those who lost their jobs are requested to reapply, and workers can expect a 3% increase in salary starting in September. More later…