There is so much to lament about our democratic Parliament that it is easy to overlook that which is worth smiling about, if not to giggle about.
The recent tussle in Parliament between the Honourable Dr. Butale and the Deputy Speaker of Parliament Kagiso Molatlhegi, points to a dire need to deepen our society’s democratic culture, starting with Parliament. The need for collective self- governance remains high in a time of several unfortunate crises. The power and water crisis hasn’t been different, looking at how Batswana were so accommodative, as if it’s a normal thing to accept and move on. Dr. Butale, whether he was acting within the limits of procedure or not, brought a glimmer of hope in changing that perception.
In fact, levels of public interest are now sufficiently high, exemplifed by how media publications and social media have been running endless threads on the issue. We know the facts as they happen. We now tune into Parliament with the reporters who have been seconded there. In that kind of context, it is the search for meaning, or backstories to surprising or interesting events, like the Butale incident, that become more important reading, listening or viewing within minutes of it happening. I guess that’s our version ‘Parliament live’.
It is easy to be glib, and dangerously so, about the ideals of democracy that we strive towards constitutionally. But the legitimacy of our democracy depends on many factors, and two of those include the highest possible level of participation in political processes and deliberation among citizens, and between citizens and political office holders.
These ideals of a participatory and deliberative democracy become increasingly meaningful when citizens become interested in what our members of parliament deliberate on, participate in the political processes, learn more about what the government is doing or not doing, and so can then make informed decisions about their political preferences - who to keep in government; who to kick out.
This, for me, is an exciting, constructive outcome already of the unprecedented public interest in our Parliament.
Of course we would all rather have a much better functioning state with a self-evidently brilliant CEO of Botswana Pty. (Ltd) whose leadership skill is proven by better data on levels of equality, uninterrupted power and water supply, poverty alleviation, employment, and other crucial determinants of social justice. But, I’m afraid, as tedious as process-focused discussions are, over the long term it is a set of well-established institutions, democratic culture and respect for constitutional processes that will help us through stormy developmental weather.
And that is why, despite having lots to say about the substantive issues that were raised in yesterday’s debate, I do think it is crucial we do not, in the first instance, take for granted that the entrenchment of a democratic culture, one still sorely lacking in Botswana, begins with democratic habits being formed, like the executive being grilled on the power and water crisis, without the use of police force or house security to jam the accountability mechanism.
We can sleep somewhat peacefully, armed with the knowledge that we are rehearsing this thing called ‘democratic culture’, bucking the post-colonial trend in the region that suggests, erroneously, that democratic roots cannot be anchored in African soil. But what, then,
I think it’s a great thing that the UDC MPs are desperately keen on testing government’s commitment to resolving a crisis that may as well be a threat to the country’s human and national security, and their appetite for increasing the pressure on the cabinet’s somewhat procedural approach to a nationwide crisis.
There is ambiguity in how the whole government hasn’t been forthcoming in waging a positively crafted PR war to at least try and paint themselves as proactive in putting our worries at rest. But the team of opposition members itself, sometimes gets so caught up in waging a PR and Media war, forgetting that the real war is in making a compelling case before parliament.
The Dr. Butale vs Deputy Speaker incident, was a crucial moment that in many ways goes to the heart of an unresolved question of how weak our parliament is in contrast to its cabinet. The case for procedure remains feeble as an attempt to try and justify ‘manhandling’ a sitting member of parliament. The deafening silence of the governing party MPs has been somewhat inconsiderate as well, and here’s why I think they shouldn’t have sat back without doing or saying anything.
Firstly, representation in parliament should seldom be about party colours when it comes to the urgency of the power and water crisis.
Although all MP’s were voted by their respective party followers, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a member of parliament only represents the interests of his party followers at the exclusion of the general population. Secondly, that governing party MP’s chose to not act in solidarity with the opposition MP’s makes them morally culpable in the eyes of their electorate. It wasn’t the time nor the place to be the proverbial voice of reason and I’m afraid, in the process, a tangible moment to prove its strength in compelling government action was lost. It in turn meant that the Honourable Members painted an image that they were happy to defer the power of accountability to the speaker of Parliament.
There’s nothing wrong in simply wanting a commitment by the House of OUR representatives in compelling government to action.
By all means, parliament’s apparent inaction on the matter for all these years was disruptive to the democratic process and here’s why. It denied the people the time and space, as voters, to decide what they want to do with the knowledge of the government’s evasiveness and inaction in substantively dealing with an apparent crisis.
There’s a need to do away with misplaced perceptions that the executive branch of government does Parliament a favour by appearing before it and sufficiently answering questions and engaging with other Members. Parliament shouldn’t be portrayed as a blunt instrument that we’re so fortunate to have.
The water and power crisis shouldn’t break parliament and Botswana’s democracy with it.
Our democracy needs both the Honourable Dr. Butale’s persistence in getting answers and the Honourable Deputy Speaker’s insistence on consistently following procedures.