NOT SO PERFECT AFTER ALL
1 For the past four decades or so, Botswana has been Africa’s golden boy. The former British possession has grown as fast as almost any country in the world. It has built an enviable reputation for good governance and political stability. It has a decent record on civil liberties and a relatively free press. Once one of the world´s poorest countries, it now ranks among the richer middle-income ones. A lot has to do with the discovery of diamonds, of which it is the world´s biggest producer, soon after independence in 1996. But unlike many other mineral-rich countries, it has invested wisely. It has been ranked as Africa’s least corrupt country.
2 But for the past two months it has been shaken by its first nationwide public-sector strike. Botswana´s 2m people, generally a deferential lot, were shocked when their normally unarmed police used tear-gas and rubber bullets to disperse rioting secondary-school pupils after they went on the rampage in April. The government closed all state schools, though they have since reopened.
3 The affair started as an ordinary pay dispute. Permitted for the first time to join trade unions under a new law, the country’s 120,000 public-sector workers promptly demanded a 16% pay rise after a three-year wage freeze. The government, pleading poverty following a slump in the diamond market during the global recession, offered just 5% conditional on future economic growth. Eager to flex their muscles, the newly formed unions stood their ground. But the government, the country´s biggest employer, accounting for 40% of formal jobs, also refused to budge.
4 On April 18th the unions called an all-out strike claiming that 80% responded. Even at its peak, says the government, no more than half of its employees walked out, leaving most ministries and services operating more or less normally. But the government has dealt with the dispute with a heavy hand, firing 1,400 striking health workers, including some 50 doctors, claiming they were providing an “essential service” and as such were banned under the constitution from striking. Worn down by almost two months without pay, the unions have agreed to accept the government´s revised unconditional 3% offer, provided all sacked workers are reinstated. This the government is refusing to do.
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