Traditionally, all Botswana fashion has come from black South Africa. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Batswana young men pimp-strolled through the streets, that was because their South African peers had pimp-strolled first. When, in the early 1980s, street thugs pulled out their front teeth to look dangerous, that was because Soweto street thugs were also doing so. When economic activity in Botswana diversified to armed robbery, the businessmen were merely copying what was being done in Johannesburg. Today when “mourners” have an after-tears session after a funeral, that is precisely because urban black South Africans originated the trend in the early 1990s. When South African newspapers start referring to the state-of-the-nation address as “SONA”, you can bet every thebe you have that Botswana newspapers and reading public will be doing the exact same thing in the next news cycle.
On the basis of the foregoing, what is likely to happen when young men in the South African parliament routinely and aggressively challenge a perpetually biased speakership?
A fortnight ago and amid a table-banging orgy, Okavango MP, Bagalatia Arone, was thrown out of the house after he literally crossed the line and switched off the microphone of the Minister of Lands and Housing, Prince Maele. Police officers escorted Arone out not through the usual front door used by members but the back door they never use. The following day he joked that he was the first MP to use the back door. There is another first that the MP can claim dubious credit for.
Largely as a symbolic nod to the traditions of Botswana’s past colonial master, the parliament floor has a white line that divides the ruling party from opposition parties. This tradition dates back to the early 15th century when the United Kingdom’s House of Commons introduced red lines in front of the government and opposition benches. These lines served a practical purpose – to prevent either side attacking the other during a debate. The benches were two-sword lengths apart, more than the distance a man can reach with a sword. This rule was made because members were allowed to carry weapons into the house in its founding days.
Arone’s actions marked the first time in the history of the Botswana parliament that the dividing line had been breached and could portend to a more eventful future. As other opposition members, Arone is aggrieved about the manner in which the speakership conducts proceedings. This is itself a first because there is no documented evidence of the opposition collective continually complaining about the speakership. Whatever the merits of his argument, what Arone did was wrong but he has threatened to re-offend the house’s decorum.
“I want to tell you that the police will take me out every day,” he told Speaker Gladys Kokorwe the following day. “I am going to defend the rules of procedure of this house whenever I believe they are not followed. Please let us take this parliament as parliament of Botswana not on partisan lines; otherwise this House will be ungovernable.”
To the south of Botswana is a really ungovernable house and credit goes to a party called the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) which is led by an ultra-militant youth called Julius Malema. Party members refer to Malema not as “President” but “Commander-in-Chief” and the “Fighters” in the party name is more literal than figurative. The transgressions of EFF in the South African parliament are too numerous to enumerate. They reached their dramatic highpoint last year when party members had to be ejected from the chamber in the same way that nightclub bouncers eject unruly revellers at one in the morning of a month-end Saturday. The EFF MPs actually got into a little dust-up with bouncers are said to have been specially hired to deal with the law enforcement challenge that the party had indicated it would create unless President Jacob Zuma announced when he was going to pay back themoney towards the costs of security upgrades deemed by the Public Protector to have unfairly benefited him and his family. At almost every sitting, Malema and his commanders are arguing with the Speaker over this, that or the other and the language used by the former group is not always parliamentary. In his contribution to this year’s SONA, Malema literally undressed Zuma, using unparliamentarily blunt language to describe his sexcapades. Referring to a rape charge that Zuma was acquitted of, Malema said that the former slept with an HIV-positive woman on the belief that a shower would cure the virus. Malema added: “This is a man who knowingly impregnated a friend’s child, knowing he had other wives at home.”
The EFF has obviously overstepped the mark but the speakership (especially the Speaker herself, Baleka Mbete, who is also the ruling African National Congress’ Secretary General) gives the party an excuse to do so because of the biased rulings it makes. The party has actually challenged one of her rulings in court and triumphed. Mbete, who sought refuge in Botswana during the liberation struggle years, has expressed intent to omit the HIV-positive woman and impregnating part of Malema’s speech from the Hansard but the legality of that being questioned.
Botswana’s parliament has not degenerated to this level but there is every indication that levels of decorum and basic civility are on the decline. A day after the Arone incident, the Minister of Justice, Defence and Security, Shaw Kgathi, expressed concern that “this Parliament is now degenerating into a General Assembly”. The latter is a closed-door forum for MPs where standing orders (parliament rules) don’t apply and would probably resemble a non-physical street brawl.
This is indeed unprecedented in the Botswana parliament and when blame is apportioned, the speakership will get a large portion of it. According to the grapevine, the executive orchestrated the election of Kokorwe and Kagiso Molatlhegi as Speaker and Deputy Speaker respectively in order that it could suppress parliamentary democracy after an overly assertive stewardship by Margaret Nasha and Pono Moatlhodi. If what the grapevine says is true, then parliament would effectively have become an extension of the executive.
There may be some truth to such allegation because some of the rulings made by the current speakership defy logic and are evidently designed to protect the executive. On the first day of the winter session last year, Molatlhegi refused to allow a motion without notice by Gaborone Central MP, Dr. Phenyo Butale on the water and power crisis. This happened at a time that the water and power crisis was at its worst in the nation’s history. When Butale stood his ground, Molatlhegi had him thrown out of the house. The front page picture of an MP carried out of the chamber kicking and screaming will eternally shame not just parliament but the nation as well.
Interestingly, both sides feel that the speakership is not fair. Arone was protesting a statement by the Minister Maele that the Leader of the Opposition, Duma Boko, had plagiarised his ministry’s land policy when he contributed to the budget speech debate. On Kokorwe’s instructions, that particular Hansard (record of parliamentary proceedings) has not been released to both MPs and the public. Francistown West MP, Ignatius Moswaane, has stated that the Speaker’s decision doesn’t align with what is legal.
“I do not think, with due respect Madam Speaker, that you have the powers to suspend the printing of the Hansard,” said Moswaane who is a member of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party.
Arone may not be bluffing about the house becoming ungovernable and if the speakership continues to generate controversial rulings, the Opposition Bench will most likely assume an EFF character. Botswana’s constitution concentrates a lot of power in the executive and as MPs themselves admit, parliament is merely used as a “rubberstamp”. While they never had power, MPs always had a voice and if the current dispensation seeks to take away that voice, there is a 100 percent guarantee that they will resist.