Thursday, July 18, 2024

In the circus parliament last week

Last week, the Circus Parliament guest-starred an MCP from the unlikeliest place – the second highest office at the Office of the President (OP). Through a question, the Maun West MP, Dumelang Saleshando, asked Vice President Slumber Tsogwane “if public statements made by the President using inappropriate or uncouth language and uttering false statements do not demean the stature of the high office and undermines concerns expressed through Parliamentary statements on respect for the Presidency. Specifically, the Vice President should address himself to the statements the President made publicly at the following incidents/occasions: statement made by the President demeaning a former Member of Parliament in Serowe during 2022 following a suspected arson attack at a Minister’s residence; statement made at a Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) conference in Tsabong alleging that one opposition Member of Parliament may be mentally unstable; statement made by the President at a BDP rally on 12th February, 2023 at Moshupa village on COVID-19 vaccination by members of the opposition; and statement by the President denying allocation of tenders to his sister when Parliamentary answers to questions have confirmed the award of the tenders.”

Plot twist: the former Member of Parliament Saleshando that Saleshando referred to in his question is his own father, Gilson Saleshando, who served as Selebi Phikwe MP between 1994 and 1999.

Masisi had gone to Serowe to comfort the family of Kgotla Autlwetse (the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development) which had been attacked by arsonists in the early hours of the April 8, 2022 morning. The arsonists burnt a vehicle that was parked in front of the house to ashes but a rapid-response team managed to put out the fire that was just starting to consume the house as well. Speaking in front the house, Masisi chose to address issues that were not related to the arson.

He accused opposition MPs of being in the habit of insulting him in parliament. He singled out the “so-called” Leader of the Opposition (Saleshando at the time) “who once attempted to burn down parliament and uses spine-chilling language”, as the main culprit. The “attempted arson” was in reference to antics of a mob of striking University of Botswana students who invaded parliament in the early 1990s. Saleshando was a UB student at the time.

Some students did actually invade the chamber itself during a session that then President Sir Ketumile Masire was attending. Following this incident, the security of parliament was upgraded by deploying a contingent of Botswana Defence Force members to guard the National Assembly when parliament is sitting as well as by posting security guards at the doors of the chamber. During his term as Mmadinare MP, Ponatshego Kedikilwe, also implicated “a certain opposition MP” for having attacked parliament while he was still a UB student. Unlike Masisi, Kedikilwe was actually in the house when the invasion occurred. 

In his Serowe speech, Masisi said that if one reads back issues of the Hansard, they would learn that Saleshando takes after his father: “Yo go ka bong gotwe moeteledipele wa kganetso yo, rre yo o se nang botho le maitseo yo (inaudible) yoo o kileng a re o tshuba palamente, a e tlhasetse, yo o mahoko a a sisimosang mmele, mme ha o tsaya di-Hansard tsa bogologolo, yo a mo tsetseng o ne a bua mahoko a a tshwanang le one a.”

Beyond the out-of-context attack on the senior Saleshando, some have pointed out that the word “tsetseng” (caused the birth of) is deeply offensive because it is ordinarily used for animals. The more polite word would have been “tshotseng.”

Tsogwane began his answer by stating that the Maun West MP couldn’t claim any moral high ground because he has himself used insulting language on the Deputy Speaker, Pono Moatlhodi, calling him a liar. In indigenous culture, calling someone a liar, especially one older than you, is a gross insult. Tsogwane said that not only did MCP Saleshando call Moatlhodi a liar, when he was called to order by other MPs who pointed out the said standard of indigenous decorum, he still insisted on using such language, asking how an elderly person’s lies should be described. 

In defending Masisi’s inferred like-father-like-son statement in Serowe, Tsogwane did himself use that term. He argued that there was nothing wrong with pointing out such similarity because some children take after their fathers, in both conduct and physical appearance. Interjecting on a point of procedure, Ngami MP, Caterpillar Hikuama, said that it was highly anomalous to determine whether an MP has moral authority to ask a particular question on the basis of his character. Mahalapye East MP, Yandani Boko would also rise to make the same argument, warning that ministers would henceforth develop a standard for factoring in an MP’s character to determine whether he could legitimately ask particular questions.

“We are setting a very bad precedent,” Boko said.

When the debate sort of got back on track, Tsogwane sought to justify Masisi’s use of a class insult – “go tika lerago” at a BDP meeting in Moshupa. Earlier, he had dramatically waved a sheaf of papers which he said were copies of the Hansard from when Gilson Saleshando was still MP. He quoted, from one, a statement in which Saleshando had used “lerago”, being the plural of “marago.” The problem with this comparison was that while Masisi had referred to members of the opposition, Saleshando had referred to taxes which, unlike human beings, can’t be hurt because they are inanimate things without feelings. Tsogwane would also make the incredulous claim that “go tika lerago” – which can be a sign of obesity, is actually a sign of good health.

Another ruling party MCP (Sethomo Lelatisitswe from Boteti East) rose on a point of procedure to state that Saleshando’s question didn’t serve the interests of his constituents and that issues from “freedom squares” (open-air political rallies) should be kept out of parliament. Skelemani ruled Lelatisitswe out of order. Earlier, Boko had factually stated that Saleshando’s question was a reflection of what members of the public feel about the president’s conduct. Saleshando would later quote something that actor and writer Donald Molosi had published somewhere. The latter lamented that “the manner in which you speak is below the dignity of presidential office… We demand better … We demand botho.”

Tsogwane never got to read everything else in the past issues of the Hansard relating to what Gilson Saleshando had said. Waving the sheaf of papers once more, he announced that he will give them to “his son so that he can read for himself.” What the MCP from OP said next was most incredulous: that what Masisi typically says reflects “rich” linguistic culture that “though can be perceived otherwise, also enriches our rhetoric on the campaign trail or freedom square.” He added that the use of such language can’t be said to be demeaning the stature of the office of the president and that rather than be “questioned”, it should be “celebrated.”

While its times are indeterminate, the Circus Parliament sits every day that Parliament proper is sitting. Both parliaments share the Speaker.

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