Lessons from Botswana

Issue: 138

Andy Wynne

Motsomi Ndala Marobela, Political Economy of Botswana Public Sector Management: From Imperialism to Neoliberalism (VDM Verlag Dr. Muller, 2010), £68

Motsomi Marobela provides a comprehensive review of the suite of reforms that have dominated the public sector in sub-Saharan Africa as well as Europe over the last three decades. As such, this book deepens our understanding of this process and so provides valuable lessons on how these reforms can be fought. The major public sector strike in Botswana in 2011 and the ongoing public sector disputes in Britain demonstrate the continuing relevance of the issues raised. Motsomi writes: “The central thesis of this book is that public service transformation has become another area for capitalist accumulation and this forms part of the core capitalist strategy of imperialism, now unfolding under neoliberal globalisation of liberalism and privatisation. Hence the public services in Botswana are adopting private sector management practices such as public private partnership, contracting and outsourcing, as ways of improving efficiency and delivery.”

Motsomi connects particular public sector reforms in selected organisations (the Botswana police), through the specific activities of the relevant national and international bodies in advancing the reform agenda set by the global institutions such as the World Bank. It also uses our tradition of Marxist political economy to assert that the labour process is governed (but not determined) by wider political economic forces.

He proceeds from the general to the particular with the first chapter considering the philosophy, critical realism, that is needed for this type of research to be effective. But Motsomi develops this to form a new perspective based on dialectical materialism.

The second chapter situates the history of Botswana within the more general history of capitalism. “This global picture and trajectory is essential for the understanding of profound changes in labour process in Botswana generally and the restructuring of the public sector specifically.”

Across most of sub-Saharan Africa neoliberal reforms were forced on heavily indebted governments through the structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s. Botswana was different as the revenue from diamond exports allowed its government to avoid the build-up of public debt. As a result, the strategy for implementing the neoliberal policies of privatisation, competitive tendering, contracting out and pay and employment flexibility in Botswana was different. It was more dependent on winning at least a section of public sector senior managers and leaders to the necessity of implementing such reforms.

Senior civil servants were co-opted to support the reform process through the provision of training, seminars and the use of international consultants. The reforms were further promoted through the inter-relationships between global institutions (the World Bank), international bodies (United Nations Development Programme, Commonwealth Secretariat) and national organisations (Directorate of Public Service Management, Botswana Institute of Development Policy Analysis). One challenge was the need to gain acceptance that fundamental reforms were necessary, even in a country with a successful economic history and a public administration which has been widely accepted as being one of the best in Africa. This was made easier by the benefits that the local elites gained from such reforms and the fact that they were simultaneously being implemented in the neighbouring countries.

Thames Valley Police worked with the British government’s Department for International Development, the Adam Smith Institute and the local Central Police Training and Development Authority to reform the organisation and management of the Botswana police. However, these reforms were “contestable and therefore complex to implement because long held values of managing public service cannot be simply transposed with those of the private sector”. Resistance was likely, as “these neoliberal reforms…cause more harm than benefit to the majority of workers, for instance, job losses and work speed up”. While senior management were persuaded and gained from higher salaries, “ordinary workers have to feel that they too have a role to shape such change to meet their needs”.

This was not widely achieved. As a result, there was a wave of strikes by primary school teachers in the 1980s organised as the Job-Evaluation-Unsatisfied Teachers. In 2002 it was the turn of the secondary teachers and local government workers. Their mass strikes were based on concerns over a job evaluation exercise. Even within the police there has been resistance, as manual workers refused to be outsourced and demonstrated against privatisation in 2000.

Since the publication of this book discontent by public sector workers in Botswana erupted with an eight-week strike from April to June 2011 of up to 100,000 workers. This was the first legal public sector strike in Botswana. Although they won a pay increase of only 3 percent, the implications have been far fetched. In June 2012 the mass dismissals were judged illegal by the High Court and all the affected workers were ordered to be reinstated.

In places Motsomi may uncritically accept the dominant terminology, for example, considering Botswana a “peripheral” country. In reality, the centre-periphery relationship operates on many geographically complex levels. Parts of London are certainly not central to global capitalist accumulation. In contrast the Johannesburg-Pretoria axis of South Africa plays a key role across Southern Africa and beyond. Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, could be considered to be a suburb of this regional centre of capital accumulation.

However, as public sector strikes reappear in Britain, this detailed analysis of the specific approach to public sector reform in Botswana contains important lessons for public sector workers here. It also highlights the common challenges that public sector workers face in both countries.