Sunday, June 16, 2024

Cameras in parliament a mixed blessing for opposition

Three decades and as many presidents after the opposition first demanded live coverage of parliamentary debates, that is finally happening – and not going quite as well as the opposition had hoped. There are bright spots though.

Unlike the “freedom square” (open-air political rally) where, alongside the choir, speakers make the most impact by doing little more than entertain the crowd, parliament floor is where elected officials make the most impact by advancing reasoned arguments to what are often complex policy debates. That is because if you claim to be the alternative, you must be able to demonstrate thorough understanding of policy and be able to offer alternative policy solutions. Some opposition MPs, notably the Leader of the Opposition, Dumelang Saleshando, are doing remarkably well in the latter regard.

Much like investigative journalists, MPs are often favoured with highly confidential information about the machinations of those in power by patriotic citizens. When such information reaches the floor of parliament via a question or motion, ministers always find themselves in an extremely difficult position. Presenting information of this nature to parliament raises the profile of the MP doing so. The information that Saleshando provided with regard to a multi-million pula tender involving a company owned by President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s sister was certainly provided by patriotic civil servants. In revealing information on under-handed dealings, Saleshando not only exposed the rot in public procurement but also burnished his own credentials as an MP. There are people who would vote for him at the next elections precisely because he is exposing corruption. Thanks to cameras in parliament, these people saw him carry out his duties as MP.

After two centuries of colonialism and neo-colonialism, Batswana have come to fetishise English, which anomaly is seen throughout Africa, with the only difference being that in Francophone and Lusophone Africa the exalted languages are French and Portuguese respectively. The extent of such anomaly is such that some Batswana have adopted English as their principal conversational language. The freedom square doesn’t give candidates much of an opportunity to show off their mastery of English – if they are so endowed. The parliament floor does and MPs who speak good English earn a lot of cool points each time they take the floor. There can be no denying that the president of the Umbrella for Democratic Change, Duma Boko, earned many such points when he was Gaborone Bonnington North MP. Indeed, some of his fans remember him for what some have described as his “big English” than for his legislative achievements.

However, beyond the frivolous aspects, mastery of English has practical value: it is a means of being logical and connecting with people in a profound way. In that way, live coverage of parliament is helping to raise the profile of MPs who both have substance and can handle the Queen’s well. Opposition MPs have a peculiar advantage over Botswana Democratic Party MPs in this regard.

With four Yale University degrees under his Gucci belt, Kefentse Mzwinila, the Minister of Land Management, Water and Sanitation Services is probably the most highly western-educated MP. On the whole and numerical strength aside, the BDP has formidable intellectual firepower, partly because the opposition has no means to recruit and cater for the financial ambitions of the highly educated. Mzwinila couldn’t use his Ivy League education to competently explain why virtually all the people he appointed to land boards were BDP members when he was tackled on that issue last year. So, while BDP ministers may twang/explain away some issues, they often find themselves on the back foot when trying to defend the indefensible.

Cameras in parliament are also exposing the weaknesses of opposition MPs, which state of affairs manifests itself in the reverse of the virtues stated above.

Some very well-known freedom-square firebrands have revealed themselves to be utterly useless when it comes to ably discharging the duties of elected office. Two parliaments ago, an MP flew into self-righteous rage about the fact that the Bank of Botswana had hired a Zimbabwean as a security manager. The MP said that a Motswana could do the job because all that position required was a “cap and baton.” The information he had failed to gen up on before putting his ignorance on full public display was that the job description for a BoB security manager specifically requires IT expertise backed by advanced degrees in IT security.

In desperate search for a comfort zone, these MPs resort to doing what they know best: engaging in freedom-square antics when they should really be analyzing policies presented to the house for debate. All too often, this group is the source of schoolboy conduct in the house. In an era when there were no cameras in the house, constituents wouldn’t get to see their MP making unnecessary disruptions or putting their ignorance on full public display. However, the cameras are there and exposing some MPs. To be clear, this happens with the Government Bench as well because the MP who asked about the BoB security manager was from the BDP.

The cameras are also exposing the character of MPs and those who follow parliamentary debates are able to draw up a list of those who don’t have good personal conduct – which indigenous culture exalts. Granted, part of it is political showmanship but it is more than likely that how an MP talks to his/her colleagues is a pretty good indication of how such MP will talk to his/her constituents. The evidence thus far reveals bad apples on either side and online there has been debate (such as it is) about botho. Where some opposition MPs have been called out for unbecoming conduct, the defence (from mostly young people) is that botho, which is actually one of Botswana’s national principles, is worthless and is the reason the BDP has been in power for as long as it has. To demonstrate such worthlessness, they point out that if botho was useful in the political realm, Ndaba Gaolathe would have won in 2019. This point is made in contrast to and defence of Boko who used language during the televised presidential debate in that year.

Once before, the opposition has failed to call out a Botswana National Front official for attempting to incite a mob to violence. Such silence amounts to a wink and a nod and if nothing else, the Trump presidency showed that the language of violence leads to actual physical violence. The de-prioritisation of botho in public discourse will necessarily lead to a situation where the opposition inherits a violent, disrespectful society when it assumes official power. As the government, it will expect and in some cases demand respect and peaceful conduct from that same society.


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