MPs failed the test, now Senate needs to show spine

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By Paidamoyo Muzulu
“MR Speaker Sir, half of the people in this august House are stupid,” the late national hero Edison Zvobgo said in Parliament during a debate.

It goes without saying that the speaker felt obliged to censure Zvobgo and ordered him to withdraw the statement. The Hansard records: “Speaker says: That is very offensive and I think you should withdraw your words Honourable.”

Unfazed and typical witty Zvobgo responded: “I stand guided, Mr Speaker and I would like to withdraw my words and rephrase, Mr Speaker, half the people in this house are not stupid.”

One can tell that the house was on fire. MPs had to be on top of their game. It is the same Zvobgo as chair of the Parliamentary Legal Committee in his report back to Parliament on the Public Order and Security Bill (which became POSA) said: “We tried to give the Bill a human face.”

We have had other characters who dazzled the house with their debating skills. Among them were Zororo Duri, Lazarus Nzarayebani, Sydney Malunga and Dzikamai Mavhaire of the infamous “Mugabe must go” statement during a debate in Parliament.

All this is coming to mind because of how the National Assembly members rolled over during the Private Voluntary Organisations Bill second reading in the house last week.

The MPs did not debate extensively the new piece of legislation before them. They rolled over for the Executive. This is not expected from legislators as the Constitution clearly give them extensive powers to debate Bills.

In Section 119(1), the Constitution reads: “Parliament must protect this Constitution and promote democratic governance in Zimbabwe.”

In protecting the Constitution, Parliament has to uphold the apex law of the land in its law-making function.

The same Constitution calls MPs to consult their constituencies on any Bills that are before them for their input.

Section 141(b) reads: “Parliament must ensure that interested parties are consulted about Bills being considered by Parliament, unless such consultation is inappropriate or impracticable.”

The operative word in the section is “must”. Parliament has no option but to consult with interested parties. It is in this frame that Senate, which naturally becomes the next arena where the PVO Bill will be discussed, have to develop a spine and consult interested parties.

It is not very late in the process that Senate may consider the Veritas model PVO Bill.

The Veritas Model Bill is based on the South African Non-profit Organisations Act, 1997 (Act 71 of 1997). Its salient points are that registration will be compulsory only for the following PVOs that seek donations from the public, and those that are identified, after careful assessment, as vulnerable to being used for money laundering, terrorist financing and serious crime.

It adds that for all other PVOs registration will be voluntary.

Critically, the proposed Veritas Bill also calls for financial transparency and keeping and sharing of audited financial statements by NGOs.

“Registered PVOs will have to: have a constitution setting out their objectives, governance etc, keep proper accounts and have their financial statements audited, submit annual audited financial statements to the registrar, and provide the registrar with annual reports on their activities and more importantly the financial statements and reports will be open to inspection by the public,” it argues.

The government will not lose anything by consulting and taking aboard suggestions from civil society. It will make the country better and prove its democratic credentials. After all, the civil society brings in a lot of money and develops a lot of communities.

Civil society has always plugged the gap in humanitarian assistance. It has provided health assistance, education, agriculture inputs as well as supported small and medium enterprises.

There are millions of citizens whose lives have been changed by civil society organisations. There are many who have been saved from starvation and thousands more who received medical and educational assistance. It is apparent that the State has no capacity to meet all needs of a developmental state.

For argument’s sake, who can deny that Veritas’ intervention when it researched and funded legal costs on child marriages that was a bad thing? Or who can say what other organisations have done in the HIV/Aids sector is bad?

It is an agreed position that those who have the majority have to rule. However, it is important that their rule should not only be concerned with making happy their overlords but should be good for everyone, including those that oppose them.

So, what can senate do? This can only be answered by using the constitution.

Section 130(1) says: “Except as provided in the Fifth Schedule, in the exercise of their legislative authority both the Senate and the National Assembly have power to initiate, prepare, consider or reject any legislation.”

It is clear that the PVO Bill was initiated and prepared by the Executive. Parliament thus has the last two functions, to consider or reject the legislation.

This is not any easy call, especially in a country where parties whip their members into line during debates. However, history has taught us that even when Zanu PF had two-thirds majority men and women of integrity among its benches would debate independently and at times cause the Executive to amend its position.

Can Zanu PF senators for once reincarnate the spirit of Zvobgo, Duri, Nzarayebani, Malunga and Mavhaire? Can they represent their constituencies ahead of defending the interest of their party leaders? Can they act constitutionally and exercise the right to reject legislation based on facts that they should ventilate during debate?

This is a golden opportunity for Senate to prove that unlike the National Assembly, it has wiser and mature members, ready to protect the Constitution and make laws good for the nation. This needs a spine and we hope that the senators have it.

  • Paidamoyo Muzulu is a journalist based in Harare. He writes here in his personal capacity