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Pan-African Parliament Opens with High Hopes  - 2004-09-16


A lavish ceremony has marked the opening of the second session of the Pan-African Parliament. It is the first time the body is meeting in South Africa, it is permanent host country.

Lawmakers from across the African continent were greeted by a showcase of South African music and dance. They also had poetry, and a brief performance by "Mama Africa", the incomparable Miriam Makeba.

Sandwiched between the entertainment, there were serious messages for the members of the Pan-African Parliament. The parliament's first president is Gertrude Mongella of Tanzania, who reminded her colleagues why they are here.

"The objective is to promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance," she said. "It is meant to be a parliament in which the voices of the Africans are heard."

The opening ceremony was not without a few problems. It started with prayers led by clerics from four religions. But somehow, the organizers overlooked Islam, the faith practiced by roughly 40 percent of the people in Africa.

When President Thabo Mbeki rose for his remarks, he quickly apologized and invited a representative of Western Sahara to offer a Muslim prayer for the gathering.

Mr. Mbeki said he was also trying to find out why non-English speaking delegates had no simultaneous translation of the opening ceremony.

"I do not know why, I have not had a reply yet. But perhaps these are some of our teething problems," President Mbeki said.

It is unlikely that those will be the worst problems the lawmakers have to deal with in their five-year terms.

Africa has never tried anything like this before, and Ms. Mongella says the all-African legislature will need support as it grows into its role.

"The Pan-African Parliament has come at the right time, when the world is engaged in the globalization process, calling for global integration. What is needed is serious nurturing and strengthening of the institution by ensuring that it has the necessary resources for proper functioning," she said.

The Pan-African Parliament will have no powers of legislation during its first five-year term. Its main role is to advise the African Union and serve as a forum for debate and discussion on the problems that plague the continent. Analysts say the challenge for members is to keep the body from becoming nothing but a talk shop.

President Mbeki told delegates the people of Africa need no lectures about the brutality of war, need no one to teach them about the denial of human rights by military leaders, and need no lessons about poverty and hardship.

"But the African masses look to the Pan-African Parliament to help to change all of that," he said. "They want you, their elected representatives, to give them the possibility to control their own institutions. They want you, their elected representatives to help them to change their material conditions so that they escape from the jaws of poverty and their countries and continent to escape from the clutches of underdevelopment."

The second session of the Pan-African Parliament will begin its main business Friday, when delegates start adopting their own rules. The Parliament is to meet until October 7.

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