IMPLICATIONS OF A VIRTUAL PARLIAMENT ON ITS CONSTITUTIONAL MANDATE
In March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. Following this announcement, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a State of National Disaster in South Africa and on 23 March instituted a nationwide lockdown. The declaration of the lockdown resulted in the suspension of Parliament "until further notice".
Parliament's first term of 2020 ended on 20 March followed by a constituency period until 13 April when MPs must be available to the public in the constituency to which they have been assigned. Initially, the Legislature issued a statement that the responsibility to conduct oversight is not limited to committee meetings. Members of Parliament can carry out constituency work in their communities and “hold the Executive accountable for implementing measures designed to overcome the state of disaster”.
The Disaster Management regulations of 25 March classified the functions of Parliament as an essential service, integral to the country’s response to the effects of the pandemic. It quickly became apparent that it had to prepare to execute its mandate under the parameters of the “new normal”. Despite the restrictions of the hard lockdown, Parliament rallied, amended the rules to allow for the virtual setting and held its first virtual committee meeting on 10 April 2020.
The virtual Parliament is limiting and imperfect but the experimentation with technology has enabled the legislature to fulfil its essential function during the pandemic. Parliament held 644 committee meetings from 10 April to 4 September 2020 - indicating rigorous oversight once Parliament found its footing.
The new system has brought about greater access for those who had little to no access with the legislature. Parliament saved a great deal of money because no flights were allowed and catering was no longer necessary. Another bonus was Parliament’s productivity which soared and the hybrid setting allowed for the far more frequent presence of the Minister and/or Deputy Minister at meetings - a welcome development.
There have been challenges also, including the constricted meeting length at the beginning, and sometimes Members’ participation has been hampered due to poor or no connectivity in the areas where they lived or due to electricity outages. Further, access by rural communities to virtual public hearings has been criticised by civil society.
The impetus given by the Covid-19 pandemic forced Parliament to review its procedures and tools. Parliament was able to modernise its processes, make better use of technological advancement, and cut unnecessary costs.
This paper concludes that Parliament should forge ahead in the quest for a more inclusive and effective legislature that reflects the digital age in which we live. It would be a mistake to return to the status quo prior to the onset of the pandemic.
It took the pandemic to force the establishment of a hybrid Parliament. Some of the benefits that have been discussed can be transformed to long-term ones that would allow Parliament to streamline its activities while expanding its reach, thus fulfilling a crucial element of its constitutional mandate. It remains to be seen whether lessons from during Covid-19 pandemic will spur Parliament to deliver a more effective, inclusive legislature that meets its constitutional task.
Recommendations include –
• The hybrid parliament should continue post-lockdown and be integrated as part of the programme as it gives flexibility and saves costs.
• Now that Zoom has improved its security, consideration should be given by Parliament to relax its media-only ruling and permit committee secretaries to allow interested members of the public to attend.
• Live-streaming of parliamentary committee meetings should continue post-pandemic and those recordings that cannot be live-streamed should be uploaded onto YouTube timeously.
• When considering facilitating access to Parliament’s digital resources, zero rating is an option – not just of the Parliament website, but of all channels that carry parliamentary content. It would mean eliminating the financial barrier to data for accessing recordings and other parliamentary content.
• To overcome the public participation hurdles, Parliament must engage with civil society and use existing infrastructure such as radio to expand its reach to be a Parliament of the people, not just of the privileged. Parliament’s Covid-19 Public Participation Strategy with its recognition of data provision, WhatsApp and web platforms is definitely a step in the right direction and will play a critical role in positioning Parliament to listen to the people in a more encompassing manner in an ever-increasing digital age.
About this blog
"That week in Parliament" is a series of blog posts in which the important Parliamentary events of the week are discussed.