LEGISLATORS say the introduction of virtual sittings after hotels discontinued a deal to accommodate those from out of Harare due to the Parliament of Zimbabwe’s failure to settle bills on time has compromised their work and quality of debates.
Harare hotels began demanding cash upfront from Parliament last year after the institution developed a habit of settling bills in local currency long after legislators would have been given accommodation and meals. The hotels say by the time Parliament paid, the value of the money would have been eroded by inflation.
As a contingent measure, Parliament introduced a system in which most legislators from out of Harare would follow proceedings online, with a few selected ones being invited to attend in person in order to cut on costs.
In separate interviews, MPs who spoke to The NewsHawks said the virtual sittings have proved to be a major hindrance to their quest to fully discharge their duties as legislators, particularly during debates as they cannot interject, among other interventions.
Mbizo MP Settlement Chikwinya said: “The Speaker ignores MPs who want to contribute via virtual. There is no set rule on how people vote on virtual yet voting is a critical component of Parliament. One cannot interject on virtual the same say they can do physically. The Speaker can mute an MP if they want.”
Magwegwe MP Anele Ndebele said while virtual sittings save money for Treasury, they also present a plethora of challenges.
“We face numerous challenges that affect our network as well as electricity blackouts being a major challenges. Let me draw your attention to a recent incident in Parliament when the PVO Bill got to a critical stage in Parliamentary stages and heated debate was anticipated, the network dropped, much to the utter dismay and frustration of honourable members from the opposition,” Ndebele said.
“Notably, several honourable members from the opposition were away on different committee assignments and were waiting eagerly for their turn to have their say. For the record, I must state that one of the House rules governing virtual sittings is that when the network fails to the disadvantage of those honourable members outside the chamber, then the house has to adjourn immediately,” she said.
Glen View North MP Fani Munengami also reiterated that a legislator following proceedings online has great disadvantges.
“Network issue is one of the biggest challenges we face as MPs. The network is mostly not there because of the unavailability of electricity. Also, virtual sitting has the disadvantage that MPs are ignored by the Speaker in terms of wanting to debate. You can raise your hand, but most of the time the person who will be chosen will be among those physically in Parliament,” he said.
Zanu PF chief whip Pupurai Togarepi weighed in.
“Virtual meetings are now the new normal and we have to live with them. What we should be encouraging is better connectivity from service providers. Physical presence in the House promotes more interaction among members as they debate. The main problem is connectivity,” he said.
“I hope by the time we resume our sittings Parliament administration will have reached agreements with service providers,” he said.
Chikanga Dangamvura MP Prosper Mutseyami, who is also the CCC chief whip, also pointed out that load shedding was weighing heavily on connectivity, thereby limiting the participation of non-Harare-based legislators.
“Virtual meetings have reduced vibrancy of Parliament. Treasury must address this issue of paying hotels in time so that MPs attend physically. It is my hope that the challenge of accommodation is solved before the sitting of 17 January where the delimitation report is to be debated,” he said.
Mutare Central MP Innocent Gonese described virtual sittings as a serious challenge.
“Some of the presiding Speakers have a bad habit. If they do not want you to participate, they get the IT people to disconnect you. If you want to raise a point of order you can get cut off and that is unfair because if you are in the house, you can stand your ground until you get audience but if you are on virtual you can be muted and then you are not able to say anything.
“There are several instances in which MPs on virtual wanting to raise say a point of priviledge have been muted. Sometimes when there are crucial debates, MPs say in Binga have been unable to participate. In short, virtual sittings have presented insurmountable challenges to MPs,” he said.