Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Tsogwane proposes amending standing orders to lesson friction between MPs

As ex-officio Leader of the House, Vice President Slumber Tsogwane is the very last MP to speak when parliament goes to recess. The Speaker calls upon him to “move adjournment” and before doing so in Medieval language (“Mr. Speaker, I move that this House do now I adjourn”), he also has leeway to say whatever he wants to say. Called upon to discharge this function on the very last day of the last meeting of the 2022/23 parliamentary year, Tsogwane proposed that before the beginning of the next parliamentary year, MPs should block aside at least two days to rework the standing orders.

“They are driving a wedge between us,” he said and would ignore an MP who wanted to make a point-of-procedure interjection. Interestingly and contrary to what Tsogwane believes, amending standing orders will not bring peace. The Vice President would have been referring to standing orders that are already in force and effect but there is another, new set of standing orders that have been proposed but haven’t even been debated. One particular standing order will certainly drive a wedge between the Government Bench and the Opposition Bench. Through this standing order, the Botswana Democratic Party plans to use its control of parliament and its processes to protect President Mokgweetsi Masisi. Such protection will come in the form of a controversial provision in the amended standing orders that states that “the name of the President shall not be used disrespectfully during all debates.”

While developed by the Standing Orders and Reforms Committee, this provision echoes sentiments similar to those that the Minister of State President, Kabo Morwaeng, expressed in his statement to parliament at the end of the meeting that debated the 2022/23 budget. At face value, there is nothing controversial about not using the name of the president disrespectfully during debates but the current president has complicated matters. Masisi has himself used highly objectionable language against opposition MPs, elderly people at kgotla meetings and even members of the De Beers negotiating team. At this point, nothing suggests that he is in the least bothered by public disquiet about his foot-in-the-mouth condition.

Speaking in Serowe last year, Masisi used rough-edged language about then Leader of the Opposition and Maun West MP, Dumelang Saleshando, having learnt bad manners from his father, Gilson Saleshando. The latter served as Selebi Phikwe MP between 1994 and 1999. Masisi said in Setswana: “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.” In Setswana culture, the word “tsetseng” (caused the birth of) is deeply offensive because it is ordinarily used for animals.

The polite word would is “tshotseng.” At that same meeting, Masisi said that opposition MPs are “servants” to the ruling party: “… re ba ruile.” He also made the false claim that he wouldn’t insult them back because “ba a ineelela” (they are bringing misfortune hex upon themselves). Having stayed silent for a year, Saleshando resuscitated the issue in the form of a parliamentary question in the just-ended meeting. The ensuing debate included another set of problematic language that Masisi has used about members of the opposition – that, as a result of the Covid-19 vaccines he secured for them, their buttocks now bounce up and down when they walk.

Tsogwane finds himself having to defend the indefensible when this issue comes up in parliament. In defence of the bouncing buttocks remark, he incredulously stated that the president uses figures of speech (“dipapisapuodinatetshapuo” – metaphors, euphemisms) that “enrich our political discourse.” However, he could not explains how peperepepere, a fart onomatopoeia that Masisi has used with regard to De Beers, is a figure of speech that enriches public lexicon. Speaking at a kgotla meeting in Sese following talks to renegotiate diamond sales agreement, the president said that De Beers had attempted to push a hard bargain (“ba kile ba a re peperepepere”) but the government ultimately prevailed.  

In his statement to parliament last year, Morwaeng read a prepared statement in which he cautioned opposition MPs against using insulting language on Masisi. In the statement, the minister lamented the use of “inflammatory”, “derogatory” and “disrespectful” language in parliament, especially when one used against the president. As became apparent, what was supposed to be general counsel against use of offensive soon turned into counsel against use of such language on Masisi. When MPs got a chance to speak after Morwaeng made his statement, those in the opposition (Umbrella for Democratic Change and Alliance for Progressives) attacked Masisi for what he had said about the elder Saleshando while those in the ruling party defended him. The defence was itself disingenuous because the BDP MPs never dealt with the substance of what opposition MPs had actually said about the Serowe incident.

Francistown South MP, Wynter Mmolotsi began his contribution by asking Morwaeng whether he was serious or was just mocking the president. “Do you know that people have complained about the way he speaks to them, as he did a few days ago when he insulted someone much older than he is, Dumelang’s father, Honourable Saleshando?” posed Mmolotsi rendering the second part of his statement as “… jaaka maloba a roga motsadi hela yo motona mo go ene, RaDumelang, Honourable Saleshando.” Ngami MP, Carterpillar Hikuama, who said that while Morwaeng’s counsel made perfect sense, he should also be concerned about Masisi’s own public conduct. “The nation also deserves respect,” said the MP quoting an incident in which the president used an ill-judged term (“nywee”) at a kgotla meeting in an effort to discourage begging where self-reliance would be desired.

Masisi actual words were “Le mogolo wa maloba o tla a bo a tsena ko kgotleng a re ‘nywee tautona ke batla terata.” [Even an elderly person can say ‘I want a wire fence roll.’] “Nywee-nywee” is an ethno-cultural buffer term that combines hyperbole and onomatopoeia and is used to mock someone. Its equivalent in English speech would be exaggerated verbal mannerisms that are also meant to mock. As used by the president, the “nywee-nywee” contrived to imitate the crying sound of an elderly beggar asking for the fence roll. This issue is interesting in another dimension.

After the Umbrella for Democratic Change lost the 2019 general election, some were quick to say that voters had been repulsed by the sort of language that the party’s leader, Duma Boko, used at a pre-election debate that was broadcast live on Btv. If voters did indeed punish Boko for the language he used, then they will do the same with Masisi in next year’s general election.

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