The State of the Nation Address is one of the rituals our parliamentary democracy imposes for the sake of tying us to the history of our past, how we did things which for some reason or other we found hard to revise. Like all rituals it is redundant, indoctrinating, time-consuming, performed more for its rhythm. Until the start of the Seventh Parliament of the Republic of Botswana in 1994, the State of the Nation Address was extraordinary, a sacred ritual like the Holy Mass celebrated by the priest and the altar boys chanting their parts of the service, viva voce unconcerned whether they understood or appreciated what they recited.
The ritual had the same sequence and cadence: Delivery of the State of the Nation Address on a Monday, a break on Tuesday, Wednesday being the commencement of the unimpressive and ineffectual responses from MPs.Before the 1994 deluge of 13 fiery opposition members, the ruling party MPs used to pop up from their seats one after the other like meerkats peeping from their holes to sight and warn of impending intruder(s) in their territory. The loyal MPs prefaced their comments with: "Ke akgola tautona. (I congratulate the President)." The numerically-inflated opposition MPs soon cut to size this Holy Mass ritualistic chant, ridiculing the super-loyalists and inquiring whether the people they represented agreed with their effusive congratulations. The congratulation prefaces subsided and eventually ceased. Members stood up to comment on the address on its merits. A slight improvement on the holy writ.Obviously this amendment is insufficient.
The President still regurgitates the same hackneyed themes: political stability, economic diversification, crime, poverty, unemployment, HIV/AIDS, agriculture, corruption, consultation (now adjusted to pitsos), inflation, foreign relations and then the most popular of the themes - the scorecard by reputed international institutions brandished at every annual State of the Nation Address. It is this fondness of being elevated by foreign interests which I find repugnant. Why doesn't the President cite Botswana institutions and interest groups: Ditshwanelo, Botswana Federation of Public Service Unions (BOFEPUSU), Dikgosi, Botswana Confederation of Commerce, Industry and Manpower (BOCCIM), Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency (CEDA) and Local Enterprise Development Agency (LEA) beneficiaries? That could make a lot of sense. After all, it is the wearer of the shoe who knows where the shoe pinches.
Foreign institutions thrive on perception, hearsay and their peculiar interest in what we do or don't do. This is one of the deep-seated gripes I have against the ritual of our State of the Nation Address. Otherwise, I have no quarrel with the idea of the nation looking back on the past year, passing judgement on itself and setting a new programme to untie the knots that might have made us to run on the same spot or go in reverse gear.
As a result, I wish to make a suggestion to make the State of the Nation Address more pertinent, vibrant and dynamic. This is how I see it.
Batswana themselves should deliver the address and have the President of the Republic respond: why the bottlenecks, the deviations and regressions in our march to progress and prosperity. You wonder how Batswana can present a unitary State of the Nation Address when their opposition parties are to some extent a Tower of Babel with a desperate need of more than an umbrella. This is how I look at it. The diverse interest groups: business, workers, lawyers, civil society, dikgosi, local authorities, farmers, women, youth and students groups, health workers, religious groups, sports groups; each of the groups should compile a synopsis of the state of their group concerns, to be collated into one document to be delivered by the Chief Justice at a Pitso Square. The President would then have his turn to say, why as the person with power of the purse and the glory of his office invested on him/her by the Constitution, why he/she is responsible for stagnation, retrogression and clowning we experience in the state of the nation. The interest groups would listen to the President hem and haw, put questions to him and take notes for the following year's re-examination.
The 'State of the Nation Address by Batswana' does not have to be longer than this year's address which was read over two hours from a booklet of more than 220 paragraphs. An average of 10 paragraphs per interest group and six minutes delivery would just be ample space and time to deliver the people's address.
If I am an MP, prior to the change of suggested format of the address, that is in this address, I should interest myself in this Pitso hype. Is it delivering any goods and services? What binding decisions are adopted at these Pitsos? And will there be a follow-up on Pitso decisions or is this just a newfangled way of making the herd feel consulted? We must never forget Frederick the Great's statement: "My people and I have come to an agreement which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please and I am to do what I please". Watch out, the President may be doing a Frederick the Great on us! It is good that our President is concerned about poverty eradication. Unfortunately, he is going about it the wrong way - Ipelegeng and backyard gardening! This is tragic. To begin to address the problem of poverty and obscene inequalities in the nation, the executive must apply its collective mind on employment creation for the able-bodied, development of skills: work, trade and entrepreneurial. Transfer the precious time and scarce resources allocated to Ipelegeng and backyard garden stuff to employment-creation productive pitsos. This is the way to go!