Thursday, 27 February 2014

Mr. Speaker Sir. Parliament is not a University

By Takura Zhangazha*

The Speaker of the House of Assembly, Mr Mundenda recently made some startling remarks when he addressed students from the National Defence College.  He is reported in the media as having  decried the ‘limited academic qualifications’  of some Members of Parliament (who incidentally elected him to office).

He is of the view that his colleagues are not educated enough to understand bills that are brought before the House. He has therefore  announced his office’s intention to undertake  some ‘strategic programme’  to enhance their skills.

Apart from falling short of telling our MPs to go back to school, the Speaker has demonstrated an unfortunate superiority complex that has been the bane of our politics since independence.

Nay, since colonialism. This being that it would be preferable (though rarely said even in the nationalist movements) to have those that are coherent/ informed/ sophisticated by way of education in the modern day order of things being closer to power.

In his evident preference for educated legislators he makes reference (with disdain)to  the fact that there is no specific qualification required to be an MP except that one has to be an adult and a registered voter. (This being one of the basic reasons for the waging of the liberation struggle in our country.)

Given the political gravity of his public opinions, it may be necessary to  outline some basic standing orders and rules for the Speaker. Only in order for him to understand and possibly reconsider the premise of his flawed argument.

Firstly Parliament is a receptacle of the peoples representatives through direct elections of individuals via our constituency based system.  The persons that win such elections are essentially chosen representatives (regardless of the ongoing legal challenges to some of their seats) by ordinary citizens, and dare I say, people who wouldn’t understand the three stages of a bill.

To publicly state that these representatives are not up to scratch when they become members of the legislature (even if it’s the Lower House) is to inadvertently denigrate the peoples verdict. Or to seek to judge it unfairly.

The processes that led to their elections may have been callous, money driven and in some cases, riddled with allegations and victims of political violence. But until a competent court of law overturns a specific MPs election, then the Speaker essentially has no business seeking to qualify, on the basis of educational qualifications, a verdict he has no mandate to do so.

Secondly, the Speaker conveniently phrases his opinion in the language of capacity development  of sitting MPs while somehow hinting that if he had his way, there would be a qualified franchise for one to be a legislator in the future.

While he does not specify whether he thinks one needs Ordinary or Advanced levels to be one, given the fact that he is a lawyer, one would be forgiven for speculating that he would most likely insist one becomes a paralegal to run for a seat in Parliament. And in the process defeat the whole point of representative democracy.

Thirdly, our politicians have taken on the habit of making statements that appear well thought out but in effect not reflective of our political realities. The Speaker in making disparaging remarks about his colleagues unfortunately made the vainglorious mistake of thinking he is above the fray of those that elected him.

He forgot that Parliament reflects the political inclinations of our society, warts and all. To call some of his colleagues ignorant is tantamount to referring to Zimbabwean society as being the same. Or at least missing the evident point that the electorate's decisions can only be referred to as ignorant by the electorate itself. And with hindsight. Hence we vote every five years.

The greater truth of the matter is that no matter how uneducated you might be, if the intention of a Bill of Parliament is brought before you, you will be able to decipher its meaning. Perhaps slowly but inevitably on behalf of the best interests of your constituency and country. Even if these interests were limited to those of your political party's principles and values.

Finally, the tasteless remarks by the Speaker forget the fundamental constitutional task of Parliament. There will be many MPs and Speakers of the House of Assembly as has always been the case. Some will be rich, others will have university degrees while others still only their community and people centered track record to show for it.

But so long as there is a professional and competent civil service Parliament will carry out its democratic constitutional mandate even as a full reflection of the true (educated or uneducated) character of our country.

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity.