The Rise and Fall of Trade Unionism in Botswana: Navigating a Changing Landscape

By learning from the past and embracing the future, trade unions can once again become a powerful force for positive change in Botswana’s society 




Botswana, once a beacon of stability and economic growth in Southern Africa, has witnessed a significant transformation in its labour movement over the past few decades.

The rise and fall of trade unionism in this country reflect broader trends of economic liberalisation, political shifts, and evolving societal values. As we examine this trajectory, it is essential to consider both the historical context and the future potential of trade unions in Botswana.

The Rise of Trade Unionism

In the early years following Botswana’s independence in 1966, trade unions, which were then only associations, played a pivotal role in shaping the nation’s labour policies and advocating for workers’ rights. Most significantly, the 1975 Selibe-Phikwe miners’ strike was a watershed moment that pitted workers against Western multinationals.

The formation of the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions (BFTU) in 1977 marked a significant milestone, uniting various sector-specific unions under a single umbrella. This period saw a surge in union membership and activism, driven by a collective desire to improve working class conditions, secure fair wages, and influence labour policy-making.

Despite stringent labour laws which restricted bargaining power and severely limited the right to strike, trade unions were instrumental in negotiating better labour laws, fighting racism, advocating for social protection measures, and promoting industrial harmony.

The success of these early efforts was largely due to the collaborative relationship between the unions, the government and employers who recognised the mutual benefits of a stable and satisfied workforce.

The Decline of Trade Unionism

However, the golden era of trade unionism in Botswana began to wane towards the end of the 20th century. Several factors contributed to this decline:

Economic Liberalisation: The government’s shift towards a more market-oriented economy reduced the influence of trade unions. Privatisation and the influx of foreign investment brought new challenges, as multinational companies often resisted unionisation efforts.

Flexible Labour Market: As part the neoliberal agenda to weaken the power of trade unions, the government relaxed labour policies which guaranteed full employment. As a consequence, companies opted for precarious employment to reduce costs of production, hence outsourcing part-time working and casualisation.

Chain contracts, subsequent short-term contracts for a long period of time, are a case in point.  Workers in such employment are vulnerable to exploitation and do not have job security, which makes them fearful of joining trade unions.

Political Dynamics: The relationship between trade unions and the government became increasingly strained. Instances of union leaders aligning with opposition parties led to perceptions of unions as politically-biased, even though their impartiality is not questioned when they align with the ruling party. Nevertheless, this is perceived to be undermining their credibility and effectiveness.

Internal Challenges: The transformation of workers’ associations into formally recognised trade unions was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it was a step forward as trade unions were recognised as bargaining structures. On the other hand, formalisation paved the way for full time union officials and business trade unionism.

As a consequence, internal issues such as leadership disputes, lack of transparency, and financial mismanagement became more and more prominent. These problems eroded rank-and-file membership trust and weakened their ability to recruit more workers to join the unions.

Defeats: Much as the strike can be a weapon in the hands of workers, it can also result in defeat and despair as the balance of power tilts to the employer. This was the case during the country’s, incredible mass protest,  the ‘Mother of all Strikes,’ as the public sector workers’ strike in 2011 was popularly styled, brought the best out of union cooperation and showed the strength of a broad union federation.

However, the strike ended in a defeat, with many worker’s having lost their jobs. The shock about the brutality of the state apparatus, when challenged, was and still is not easy to overcome.

The Present Scenario

So let us look at the numbers. There are 26 registered trade unions with a combined membership of 106,000 in 2016. While it is necessary to know what percentage of the formal workforce is unionised,  the numbers of formally the employed needs determination first.

There are 750,000 people employed  2022, (refer to While in 2013, the level of employment was 900,000 (refer to (These links to the sources can be followed by simply clicking on the address), in 10 years employment has reduced by 150,000 or 17% while the population has increased by 19% from 2.22 million in 2013 to 2.63 million in 2022.

This means that all employment has fallen from 40% of the population in 2013 to just 29% of the population in 2022. It reveals that 71% of the total population of Botswana does not have jobs. The significant reduction in employment in Botswana partly explains why trades unions are declining.

To estimate level of unionism, adjustment needs to be made for the informal sector. It should be noted that the informal sector is estimated to employ 190,000. It can be expected that informally the employed do not belong to trade unions. So after deducting, informally employed trade union participation accounts for about 20% of the formally employed workforce.

The Role of Trade Unions in Society

Trade unions play a significant role in society. Workers join the employment ranks from their respective communities with the expectation that they provide livelihoods for their families and contribute to the broader societal good. The fight for decent pay and better conditions of work goes beyond the boardrooms and workplaces as it extends to the consumer market and reaches households.

In this context, the role played by trade unions in society is extensive. However, it is limiting to confine the mandate of unions to mere economics since they are embedded in the political context which shapes trade unionism.

A worker does not stop being a worker when he/she knocks off. Working conditions determine how a worker is able to secure housing, pay school fees, cope with cost-of-living crises and to map out a future for the next generation. Hereby, working relations are not only the result of a local context.

The global capitalist system impacts on the global labour movement in relation to the neoliberal policies that are crafted by global institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMFF), the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

There is need for conscience about the framework in which Botswana labour relations are embedded and consequences for the workplace is crucial. Despite their challenges, trade unions still have to play a vital role in Botswana’s socio- economic landscape. Here are a few ways in which they can benefit society and why each worker should join a union:

Advocacy for Workers’ Rights: Unions are essential in advocating for fair wages, safe working conditions, and reasonable working hours. They serve as a voice for workers, especially those in vulnerable sectors. You need support if you demand worker’s rights and you cannot strike alone.

Social Dialogue: Effective unions facilitate dialogue between workers, employers, and the government. This tripartite partnership can lead to more inclusive and sustainable economic policies.

Economic Equity: By pushing for fair labour practices, unions help reduce income inequality, which is crucial for social stability and cohesion.

Skills Development: Unions can collaborate with employers and the government to offer training and development programmes, enhancing workers’ skills and productivity. And indeed, through tailor made cadre educational courses for the rank and file and leadership in liaison with the Institute for Labour Employment Studies.

A Path Forward

For trade unions in Botswana to regain their former influence, several strategic actions are necessary:

Rebuilding Trust: Transparency and accountability in union leadership are paramount. Addressing internal issues and fostering a culture of integrity will help restore member confidence.

Adapting to Change: Unions must evolve to address the needs of a modern workforce. This includes embracing technology, advocating for workers in emerging industries, and focusing on issues like job security in the gig economy.

Strengthening Partnerships: Collaboration with the government and employers is crucial. Unions should work towards a cooperative rather than adversarial approach, emphasising mutual benefits.


The rise and fall of trade unionism in Botswana offer valuable lessons on the importance of adaptability, collaboration and integrity in labour movements. By learning from the past and embracing the future, trade unions can once again become a powerful force for positive change in Botswana’s society.

But there needs to be change. Unions need to build active rank-and-file structures to whom the leadership is accountable. A clear vision and a commitment to the well-being of all workers must take priority over business trade unionism.

Lastly, unions need to be innovative in attracting and recruiting workers in the face the new, flexible, precarious and decentralised workplaces.