Sunday, October 1, 2023

It is just a matter of time before MPs exchange blows

“Mr Speaker, it is very unfortunate that a new culture is emerging in this house,” said Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi minutes after the Molepolole North MP, Mohammad Khan was ejected from the house.

Masisi had been taking pot shots at the Leader of the Opposition, Duma Boko, from across the floor and Khan felt compelled to defend Boko who was not in the house. The exchange turned testy then outright nasty, at which point the Deputy Speaker, Kagiso Molatlhegi, ordered Khan to leave the house. The MP didn’t move as fast as Molatlhegi wanted and he instructed security personnel to throw Khan out ÔÇô which they literally did.

Another opposition MP, Dr. Phenyo Butale, suffered similar fate in 2016 on the very first day of the winter session of parliament. The MP sought to table a motion without notice on the water and power crisis. Molatlhegi, got into a protracted verbal joust with Umbrella for Democratic Change MPs. The result was the sensational, unBotswana incident immortalised in press photographs of an honourable member of parliament being dragged out of the chamber by security guards kicking and screaming.

“It is shameful for us to be doing this and utterly childish,” said Masisi, once Khan had been ejected. “I would plead that whoever is doing it on either side of the house stops.

Masisi, who has been sounding more and more presidential as April 1 draws nearer, was right about either side acting in an immature manner. On an objective basis, “either side of the house” would also include the speakership because both are members of the ruling party and have made patently biased rulings that rankle with members of the opposition. One of the reasons why previous parliaments were spared spectacles like last week’s was because, just by following the proceedings, a stranger would never have been able tell what party the speaker belonged to. That is not the case nowadays.

The South African experience suggests that a biased speakership risks losing control of the house. To all intents and purpose, the Economic Freedom Fighters have more power over Speaker Baleka Mbete because she dug herself into a hole with a series of biased decisions.

Beyond biased rulings, the speakership of the Botswana parliament passively aids the toxicity of the chamber’s atmosphere by failing to rein a culture of ribbing that can go overboard and arouse emotions. Board of directors’ meetings would degenerate into chaos if this same conduct was allowed in the corporate sector. During last week’s fracas, the Molepolole South MP, Dr. Tlamelo Mmatli called on Molatlhegi to reprimand an unnamed “small-eared” ruling party MP (“wa ditsebenyana yo”) whom he felt was being disrespectful towards him. Impossibly, the Minister of Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development, Thapelo Olopeng, believed the words were directed at him and rose on a point of order to protest bitterly.

Another deeply disturbing aspect is what instructions security personnel – who could well be armed – have been given by their superiors. For a security officer to manhandle an on-duty MP with obvious impunity strongly suggests that he is definitely certain about his job security.

The gravest concern about what is currently happening in parliament is what it could mean for Botswana’s much-touted peace and stability. How long before the fighting turns physical and spills out onto the streets along partisan lines?


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