Gaborone - Trade unions in the normally stable African state of Botswana are gearing up for a rare showdown with the government this week unless it bows to demands to reinstate one of their leaders.
The sacking of Japhta Radibe, president of the Botswana Teachers Union (BTU), has already provoked demonstrations throughout the country and the labour movement is now planning to step up protests and fight the case through the courts if the government does not reverse its decision by Tuesday.
Radibe was relieved of his duties as a headmaster last week in a move widely seen as an effort to muzzle his criticism of the education and economic policies of President Festus Mogae.
Hundreds of people took part in demonstrations in the capital Gaborone and other towns last Thursday where they called for Radibe's reinstatement by Tuesday.
Industrial unrest on a national scale is almost unheard of in Botswana, regarded as an oasis of stability in southern Africa since its independence 40 years ago, and the size of the protests caught the government unawares.
"We put the message across that we want our president back and we want him back now," BTU spokesperson Canie Molema Kwante told AFP.
The demonstration in Gaborone, which attracted around 300 people, culminated in protesters presenting a petition for Radibe's reinstatement to the Teaching Service Management director, Opelo Makhandlela.
The BTU was joined by the other national unions, the Botswana National Front (BNF) and the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) as well as the country's human rights watchdog Ditshwanelo.
Radibe had criticised the government for reintroducing school fees in January, arguing this would put education beyond the reach of ordinary citizens in Botswana.
He has also spoken out strongly against teachers' working conditions and the introduction of a double-shift system.
Unions such as the Botswana Secondary Teachers' Union (BOSETU) have alleged the existence of a government hit-list to eliminate vocal unionists and weaken the country's labour movement.
The BOSETU president, Eric Ditau, told a press conference last week he believed his name was on the alleged hit-list.
The government has said 50-year-old Radibe is not being dismissed but merely retired from the civil service. However Makhandlela has also hinted that the situation is indeed more personal.
"What I can say is that we have come to a point where our relationship has come to a halt," he told reporters.
The education ministry does allow long-serving teachers to take retirement at the age of 50 but such a move is rare and only done with the agreement of the teacher concerned and with advance warning.
Radibe has made clear he is not going voluntarily and claims to have been handed a letter giving him only a matter of hours to clear his desk at a secondary school in the town of Mocehudi, 40km south of Gaborone.
"When we say people are suffering, they say we are talking politics. I have evidence that the fight they are waging against the union is because they believe we are going into politics," he told AFP.
Radibe and his union supporters say they are quite happy to pursue the case through the courts, although the few senior civil servants who have challenged their dismissal in the past have lost.
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