Parliament on strike

28 September 2012

Director-General of the National Planning Commission Tom Alweendo this week expressed concern about the country’s precipitous decline in international business competitiveness rankings.

The low rating of the country’s business competitiveness is perhaps not the only thing he should be worrying about, but also the lack of productivity and a competitive edge in the country’s politics.
One of the reasons experts often cite as a factor in our lack of business competitiveness is the extraordinary number of public holidays we have in a year.
It doesn’t help matters much that our houses of parliament – the National Assembly and the National Council – have been on an almost two month long hiatus.
The long breaks our parliamentarians take are not unusual, and it often feels as though the parliamentarians are on holiday more often than they attend sessions.
It has become the rule rather than the exception.
It is not as though the country does not have urgent matters to attend to.
There are conditions of near famine in some parts of the country and high unemployment remains a persistent problem – no matter which way people try to massage or cook the figures.
In fact, we don’t need statisticians, economists or labour force surveys to tell us that unemployment remains at distressingly high levels.
We know it from the desperation of our own family members, friends, residents of our own neighbourhoods and the communities around us.
There is a worrying degree of labour unrest in the country, particularly at public institutions.
First, we saw the strike at the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation, and then came Agribank and most recently this week the Polytechnic of Namibia.
In all these cases, the root cause appears to be poor planning and budgeting by the Government.
Both houses of parliament rubber-stamped the national budgets that have led to these unnecessary crises, with little debate or forethought.
To resolve the strike at the NBC, Government apparently had to take the desperate, and highly irregular, step of dipping into the capital works budget of the Ministry of Works and Transport.
That is no way to run a Government or a country.
The whole point of preparing a national budget is to plan properly and meticulously for the year ahead – including any unforeseen eventualities.
The problem with labour unrest is that once it starts it can spread like wildfire, and soon a situation such as the shootings at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in South Africa could confront us.
Even when parliament eventually does start its sessions, both houses struggle to achieve a quorum because of widespread absenteeism.
On Monday this week, the National Council had to cancel its proceedings because only 12 out of 26 members bothered to turn up for the sitting and the situation is usually not much better in the National Assembly.
Members of Parliament often tell us that they need their long breaks in order to travel back to their home regions to give their constituents feedback and listen to their concerns and problems. However, if this is true, you wonder why it is that they could not have acted more quickly on the food crisis in the Kunene and Omusati regions.
Why could they not have predicted the dissatisfaction over salaries in the public sector and why do they generally seem so poorly attuned to the pulse of the nation and the people they supposedly serve?
The more probable reality is that when they take their long leisurely holidays they rush straight to their farms or spend their time brokering private business deals or finding other ways to accumulate wealth.
Others go on junkets, supposedly to attend important conferences while living it large in luxury hotels at taxpayers’ expense with precious little to show for it in the end.
Meanwhile, when others travel to their constituencies they seem more interested in spending their time basking in the glory of their status.
There are those few conscientious parliamentarians who genuinely work hard during the breaks.
Members of standing committees, in particular, often travel the length and breadth of the country to familiarise themselves with the problems people face.
But listening is not enough! They have to translate what they learn into action.
We are now into the tenth month of the year, and most of us would have to think long and hard to come up with any meaningful legislation parliament has passed this year – except for perhaps the Labour Amendment Act.
It also seems slightly odd, that the party of Government feels that holding its own party policy conference constitutes a legitimate reason for suspending the work of the legislature.
Will it afford the same privilege to other parties when they hold their policy conferences or congresses?
For Prime Minister Nahas Angula to openly acknowledge that public servants could go AWOL from their jobs at taxpayers’ expense in order to attend the Swapo policy conference somehow did not strike the right note.
Whenever workers go on strike, politicians and employers are always quick to appeal to their sense of patriotism.
They warn them about the damage it could cause to the country’s economy and the chilling effect it might have on foreign investment.
The most important leadership quality – in whatever field of endeavour – is the ability to lead by example.
Parliamentarians and ministers need to start leading by example by putting their noses to the grindstone and start actually doing the important work of the nation.
How do we teach young people not to bunk school when members of parliament appear to be the worst offenders?
Why should workers not go on strike when parliament seems to be on a permanent strike or at best has the lowest productivity of any section of the workforce?
Speaker of the National Assembly Theo-Ben Gurirab and Chairperson of the National Council Asser Kapere should start docking the pay of habitual absentees from their respective houses.
Legend has it that the late Geelbooi Kashe – may his soul rest in peace – only ever opened his mouth once to speak in parliament.
His famous contribution to debate in the house was to request someone to turn down the air-conditioning because he said he was freezing.
We have many, many Geelbooi Kashes in parliament, even today.




The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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