In some respects, the June 16 march planned by AR was a success. While it can be argued that the turn-out was far lower than many had expected,
given the level of response to last year’s applications for plots, the level of social media exchanges against building a new parliament and the overall level of national conversation about AR in general, we, however, feel that the march’s success lies in the fact that AR’s goal was to protest spending billions to construct a new parliament building in the midst of an underfunded anti-poverty campaign; this message seems to have been received.
In fact, State House has said that there is no money to build a new parliament building at this time. The administration itself has asked questions about how the budget ballooned from the N$800 million original price tag to the reported N$2.7 billion estimate.
In any event, the money overtly allocated so far is pitifully low (N$58 million over three years) and only a ‘feasibility’ study seems to be on the cards. While we don’t even believe such a study at any price is necessary, we see that apparently, there seems to be no money set aside in the budget to build a new parliament which is exactly what AR has been calling for.
And yet, government’s message on this point remains unclear. Responding unequivocally and without errors that require ‘clarifications’ on this point may have gained much ground in the eyes of a public that still believes government is ‘going to build a billion dollar parliament with a fitness centre and restaurant.’
If construction of a parliament building is postponed then this should be the blunt statement from government. Otherwise, we must keep watch on the matter lest it be ‘slipped in’ after the furore dies down.
We believe that AR’s efforts along with outcries from all sides of civil society did force a shift on this point. Four or five months ago, the new parliament was coming and this was seen as an uncontroversial fete accompli. However, as soon as voices opposed to the idea grew, the project became disputed and the discussion around the issue changed.
The blame got passed to the speaker and parliament itself as the culprits that ‘approved’ such an expensive design for themselves. Committees were established to ‘investigate’ the costing and government’s verbal back-peddling on the entire project began.
We are also concerned about the actions of our esteemed Speaker of Parliament Peter Katjavivi at a key moment during the march.
We are under the impression that an agreement was reached with the relevant authorities to shift the destination of the march as a concession by AR, provided that Katjavivi would receive their petition. We understand that the speaker was designated to receive the petition, but he attempted to renege. The honourable was a bit dishonourable on that day.
The speaker’s actions to first send his clerk (rather than deigning to descend from the heaven of his office at parliament and stand too close to the rabble) to collect the petition was soundly rejected.
His actions could have sparked riots. Imagine if the crowed turned on that clerk violently or tossed a bottle in the speaker’s face due to his insulting actions.
Crowds can be volatile and unpredictable. Whether 100 or 1000 people, emotive groups can become mobs with only a little push. The speaker’s actions that day were a push.
As a former SWAPO representative in the UK where he participated in marches, rallies, and petition hand-overs when he was on the other side of the power equation, the speaker should know well the aspirations of those assembled with AR that day.
We believe he owes AR an apology as he risked the safety of every single person there by being disrespectful to this group of Namibians, whether he supported what they had to say or not.
If the speaker disrespects democratic processes and is not called on it, then what can we say when others do the same thing.