Slap in the face for the el­derly

...This brings me to the point about this de­bate over the MP’s an­tics in this mat­ter. What this has done is mask the fun­da­men­tal point about gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to pro­vide the so­cial grants for the el­derly, not least that these are not avail­able ev­ery mo

Sunday Observer - - FEATURES - BY MBONGENI MBINGO

Ihad an in­ter­est­ing walk-in from the Mba­bane West Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment Jo­hane Shongwe last week Mon­day in the of­fice. Al­though he is a fa­mil­iar vis­i­tor to the news­room, MP Shongwe’s sur­prise visit this time wasn’t char­ac­terised by all of his charisma and in­fec­tious laugh.

When­ever he is around, you are sure to have a laugh—or quite the op­po­site. But, this is not to sug­gest that he is never se­ri­ous. Ask the guys at Hos­pi­tal Hill, who are still reel­ing from his tearing of a state­ment by the deputy prime min­is­ter. In fact, he is quite a dif­fer­ent per­son in the cham­ber, where he has made s ome very good mo­tions and ar­gu­ments for the peo­ple who gave him the ticket to Par­lia­ment.

The mood, there­fore, in the of­fice on Mon­day morn­ing was de­cid­edly se­ri­ous; MP Shongwe was not wear­ing his in­fec­tious smile, and nor was he about to look for it. He had come on a se­ri­ous busi­ness; some­what trou­bling mat­ter.

Given the events of the past two to three weeks, that was not so sur­pris­ing.

Cab­i­net

He has been mak­ing head­lines; he has af­ter all, got the prime min­is­ter hot un­der the col­lar, to the point he de­cided he and his Cab­i­net were not go­ing to set foot in­side the cham­ber un­til MP Shongwe had been dealt with.

That mes­sage by the prime min­is­ter sent a some­what sober­ing tone and two days later, the House was sit­ting to try and smoke a peace pipe, to avoid the lat­est stand-off. Ear­lier, MP Shongwe had been quite emo­tional when driv­ing his point about the dis­ap­point­ment that Cab­i­net had not set aside funds to in­clude the lat­est num­ber of peo­ple to ben­e­fit from the so­cial grants. He was in­fu­ri­ated that the ad­di­tional num­ber of ben­e­fi­cia­ries were go­ing to have to wait longer, and with­out any spe­cific time frame be­fore they knew if they qual­i­fied or not for the grants.

In this emo­tional tirade, he took the state­ment that had been dis­trib­uted as be­ing the DPM’s state­ment to the House and tore into pieces. He was driv­ing a point home— that this was not good enough, and was not ac­cept­able. He was try­ing to show that this was the big­gest con­tempt possi- ble by gov­ern­ment on the peo­ple who lived and de­pended on the grants. Any sort of state­ment and po­lit­i­cal pos­tur­ing was not go­ing to be suf­fi­cient.

The state­ment by the DPM only meant to ex­plain, or an ex­cuse, for why there was no funds for the ad­di­tional grants, es­pe­cially given that this was a con­tentious de­bate in the bud­get de­bate early in the fi­nan­cial year. So how is it then that two fi­nan­cial quar­ters later, there has not been any progress?

He is of course en­ti­tled to ask this out loud—af­ter all, this is a man given the full man­date to do so by the peo­ple of his con­stituency. And, so he thought he was still ex­press­ing their ‘dis­gust’ too at the fail­ure by gov­ern­ment to pri­ori­tise them. He still felt that as best as he could un­der­stand this, it was an act of to­tal dis­re­gard to the peo­ple and that the DPM, while act­ing as prime min­is­ter, was fail­ing in his duty.

Emo­tions

MP Shongwe prob­a­bly looked for some­thing to ex­press this sen­ti­ment clearer. He must have thought he had ex­hausted all other emo­tions to show how dis­ap­pointed, or how much of a to­tal fail­ure this was.

Then he did it. He tore that state­ment. This has had some ef­fect; MPs were unan­i­mous in the assess­ment of this sit­u­a­tion, and kicked out Cab­i­net en masse. Tails wag­ging, they left the cham­ber.

Ap­par­ently, they were sent to go out and work on this and come back with proper re­sponses. They were sent pack­ing so that they could go and work on rec­ti­fy­ing this prob­lem. When the sub­stan­tive prime min­is­ter re­turned, he was to have none of this—and MP Jo­hane’s act in par­tic­u­lar.

This is the back­ground to why the MP walked into my of­fice, al­most apolo­getic. He had been in our Sun­day pub­li­ca­tion of course, af­firm­ing his po­si­tion that he had not—dur­ing a spe­cial sit­ting the pre­vi­ous Fri­day—of­fered an apol­ogy. But, he had told the pa­per, he had stuck by his po­si­tion that he had stated in Par­lia­ment that the mat­ter had been dealt with by the Speaker of the House, and, there­fore, he had been rep­ri­manded.

Our sis­ter pa­per, the Ob­server on Satur­day, had re­ported as much. But, here he was, on a Mon­day morn­ing, look­ing like a young man who had not done his home­work and was wait­ing for the teacher to start be­rat­ing him.

Soon, how­ever, I was to un­der­stand why his mood was not of the MP I have come to know as bub­bly and in­sight­ful al­ways.

He was trou­bled, I felt, by some­thing re­lat­ing to the head­line story of the pre­vi­ous day. He said as much.

Some­how, it felt as though the MP wanted to dis­tance him­self from the head­line of the pre­vi­ous day, but at the same time not its con­tents. For in­stance, he was trou­bled by the phras­ing of the head­line, ‘I did not apol­o­gise— MP Jo­hane’. But, at the same time, he did not dis­pute that he told the re­porter that he had not apol­o­gised in Par­lia­ment dur­ing the spe­cial sit­ting. He also em­pha­sised that he had in­sisted on the po­si­tion of Par­lia­ment, be­ing that the speaker had dealt with the mat­ter.

Dis­cus­sion

This left me trou­bled a bit. What had since hap­pened? Had he been spo­ken to? Was he look­ing to play this is­sue down, and move on?

Yet, as we con­tin­ued our dis­cus­sion, the MP made it clear his po­si­tion. He had done what he had be­cause he be­lieves strongly in the man­date that the peo­ple gave him. He was dis­ap­pointed by the fact that there was no money set aside for this project.

This brings me to the point about this de­bate over the MP’s an­tics in this mat­ter. What this has done is mask the fun­da­men­tal point about gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to pro­vide the so­cial grants for the el­derly, not least that these are not avail­able ev­ery month but now as and when there is money.

There is a point to be made about this be­ing a pri­or­ity for gov­ern­ment.

It seems to be in­ci­den­tal, a by the way, some­thing less im­por­tant and ob­vi­ously not ur­gent.

That gov­ern­ment is go­ing to of­fer this kind of ex­cuse, seven months later is in­deed shame­ful. It can be un­der­stand­able that the econ­omy is not in good shape, or that we have a cash flow cri­sis.

It is per­fectly un­der­stand­able that gov­ern­ment is strug­gling be­cause of so much of its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. But, where do we draw the line in its pri­or­i­ties?

And how do we ex­press this dis­ap­point­ment? How do we get the mes­sage across to the head of gov­ern­ment that it is shame­ful, if not un­ac­cept­able what is hap­pen­ing to the el­derly?

Is tearing a state­ment meant to send that mes­sage across and de­signed to send show just how bad this whole thing is?

It is no­table that gov­ern­ment has shielded it­self from the blame by the ap­proach it has taken in deal­ing with this mat­ter. The boy­cott of Par­lia­ment ac­tiv­i­ties that the prime min­is­ter an­nounced made sure that the spot­light felt strongly on the MP and his col­leagues for the crit­i­cism and kick­ing Cab­i­net out of Par­lia­ment, in­stead of the big­ger point—there is no money for so­cial grants.

And, it does not look like there will be in this fi­nan­cial year, quite clearly.

Happy

This, there­fore, begs the point— has Cab­i­net, and in­deed, gov­ern­ment—done enough to en­sure that this con­sti­tu­tional right of the peo­ple is pro­vided? Or, is Cab­i­net happy to bury its head in the sand and wish this one away—wait­ing for some manna in the next fi­nan­cial year in the form of SACU re­ceipts?

Where are the aus­ter­ity mea­sures to be seen to be do­ing some­thing? Where is the po­lit­i­cal will to give this is­sue the se­ri­ous­ness it de­serves— if at all we are go­ing to hold some­one to ac­count for tearing a state­ment into pieces?

It is in ap­pre­ci­a­tion of this greater dis­course that we can ar­rive at why the MP who walked into my of­fice has not found the funny side of this is­sue. He is ab­so­lutely right, there is noth­ing to laugh about here. We have sim­ply failed the el­derly

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