What Really Matters: Brains or Brawn

By Natasha Msonza

Reading through Desmond Kumbuka’s article in Standard titled Patronage, ignorance: the twin evils of greed and his subsequent criticism on the caliber of Members of Parliament (MPs) in Zimbabwe, I thought to myself, which is better: a highly educated MP with many degrees who does nothing for the people, or an uneducated MP who provides practical solutions to the contemporary societal problems confronting his constituents?

Kumbuka has no kind words where most of our MPs are concerned, and admittedly, some Zimbabweans may agree with some of the descriptions used for the men and women in Parliament. He describes them as ‘ever-whining legislators, many of whom spend their time day-dreaming of a life of luxury at the State’s expense.” He bemoans the fact that for a country with one of the highest literacy rates in Africa; it is astounding that Zimbabwe ‘ends up with a parliament full of illiterate or semi-educated nonentities’.

I think it is important to remember that most of these ‘nonentities’ are people that Zimbabweans voted into those posts; the adage that people deserve the leadership they get rings trues.

Having under-educated legislators can be a challenge, especially when viewed from the perspective of the mammoth socio-economic challenges currently facing the country and the things that need to be done and solutions put in place. In fact, I know many Zimbabweans who are of the opinion that Parliamentarians should all have degrees as a minimum qualification. Our current system admits anyone with Ordinary Level as the minimum qualification.

I recall a time when I worked with MPs to help them understand the concept of equitable resource allocation so that they could positively influence the national budget crafting process. The men and women of the house had a hard time trying to make head or tail of the budgeting process in general. Then, it seemed reasonable to imagine that if they had a little bit more education, they would have been able to understand what many of us consider to be elementary.

Kumbuka also suggests that while a system that ‘allows any Jim, Jack or Jill to aspire for political office is truly democratic, mendicant legislators will invariably spend more of their time pondering how to overcome their own poverty before they can start to think of improving the lives of people in their constituents (sic).’

While I may be inclined to agree with this last statement, I think it is immediately defeated by the choice of example he picks to argue his point. He picks on the man we all love to ridicule, Joseph Chinotimba, whom he describes as ‘loquacious’.

Chinotimba may lack – in the words of Kumbuka – the ‘capacity to brainstorm the complex issues involved in economic revival to be able to competently suggest corrective solutions’, but in looking at the performance of the 8th Parliament to date, the inconvenient truth is that Mr Chinotimba is currently one of the best performing MPs. He has personally seen to it that the problem of hyenas ravaging his constituency has been dealt with effectively, making a huge life and death difference for Buhera South inhabitants. Recently, Chinotimba was featured in the press with graders and earth-moving equipment in the background, repairing the notorious Murambinda-Birchenough road. The man is going out of his way to source funds to repair all major roads in his constituency. Essentially, Chinotimba mobilized funds and demonstrated a certain level of concern devoid even amongst the highly educated MPs that Kumbuka would likely consider more ‘appropriate’ for this position. At this rate, one can probably be forgiven for imagining that Chinotimba is one of the few that would meaningfully use the Constituency Development Fund, as he comes across as a man of the people.

It does not follow, that if you have an education from Harvard, you automatically think of the best solutions to problems. Ordinary citizens’ immediate needs are not being met, all they want is someone who pays meaningful attention to their practical day-to-day problems such as access to water, electricity and food. Among other things, the role of Parliamentarians includes being responsive to the needs of citizens, resolving the most pressing problems confronting society, and being able to reconcile the conflicting interests of expectations of different groups and communities.

Indeed, the last (Seventh) Parliament had several other individual MPs like Hon. Jessie Majome, who are on record for reaching out to their constituencies and seeking to make practical contributions.

Nevertheless, our Parliamentary system in general leaves a lot to be desired. Last year the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) released three reports on the performance of the 7th Parliament, based on the last year of its tenure, June 2012-June 2013. Some of the findings in these reports indicate for instance that a lot of the MPs were just ‘occasional visitors’ to Parliament, wherein some got away with absconding sessions. The essence of the report was that the levels of participation and debate among Parliamentarians were generally poor. According to RAU’s report – What Happened in Parliament?, some members (we shall not mention names) spent the entire year without contributing anything to pertinent discussions; there was significantly poor attendance by Ministers to the Question and Answer sessions – a very critical accountability process in Parliament; and  there was observation of a glaring need for capacity building noting serious skills gaps in terms of ability to analyze legislation, budget debate and analysis as well as performance of other key roles of legislators. Most unsettling was the finding that by the last year of its tenure, the Seventh Parliament had a total of 38 vacant seats due to deaths, suspensions, dismissals or expulsions. These seats remained vacant, meaning that 10.9% of the constituencies went without representation for a lengthy period of time. Other criticisms of the Seventh Parliament included poor attendance to plenary sessions and self-aggrandizement. If the cost of sustaining an MP per sitting borders around US$1,100 in sitting and fuel allowances, contributions to fixed salary and hotel accommodation, should we not be greatly concerned when some sittings last for just three minutes?

All these things and more demonstrate a problem that looms larger than the question of whether or not MPs are educated. What seems to be the issue here is lack of accountability and a general ‘don’t care’ attitude dismissed by Us the People, with a lot of impunity. Should we not be agitating for a little more seriousness and demanding some accountability from our MPs? We can call for disqualifications and penalization of errant MPs, demanding their obligation to declare personal assets and having more say in what really goes in the House. We shouldn’t have to contend with hostile security operatives manning the entrances to Parliament building.

A critical question becomes however; is a wholly technocratic government the answer to the myriad problems we have with Parliament? In other words, would it be more ideal to have a government in which for instance, ministers are not career politicians, but experts in the fields of their respective Ministries, and a more stringent criteria based on educational qualifications is set for MPs?


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