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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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