ATC201021: Report of the Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs on Petition Pertaining to the Role of the Religious Community in the Covid-19 Crisis, dated 21 October 2020
REPORT OF THE PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE ON COOPERATIVE GOVERNANCE AND TRADITIONAL AFFAIRS ON PETITION PERTAINING TO THE ROLE OF THE RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY IN THE COVID-19 CRISIS, DATED 21 OCTOBER 2020
The Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, having considered the petition from the Freedom of Religion South Africa (FORSA) pertaining to the role of the religious community in the COVID-19 crisis, and the Office of the Speaker having referred it to the committee on 08 June 2020, reports as follows:
- On 08 June 2020, the Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs received a petition from Freedom of Religion South Africa (FORSA), on behalf of religious leaders and organisations representing approximately 18.5 million people from a broad cross-spectrum of denominations, churches and religious organisations.
- The petition called on the Committee to facilitate greater involvement of the religious sector in the Regulations governing the national Government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Committee is a custodian of the Disaster Management Act, its Regulations and Directions.
- In response to the call, the Committee requested and received a briefing on the matter from the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs on Wednesday 24 June 2020.
- Introduction of Petition by FORSA
The Legal Counsel for FORSA, Advocate Nadine Badenhorst, introduced the petition as follows:
- FORSA was grateful the opportunity to have an audience with the Committee. Its submission was a result of great uncertainty regarding the application of the various Regulations and Directions in respect of religious organisations. None of the levels of the lockdown stages mentioned the role of the religious sector, except for food distribution, other social relief, and presiding over funerals.
- FORSA tabled a petition to the Office of the Speaker seeking clarity on the above matter. This followed lack of response from the President, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, and the National Disaster Management Nerve Centre.
- While the issuing of Level 3 Regulations and Directions relating to norms and standards for religious gatherings has since covered the questions for clarification raised in the petition, FORSA’s requests for engagement and involvement in the consultations for the remaining stages of the lockdown were still relevant.
- Furthermore, there were still various ambiguities in some of the clauses in the Level 3 Regulations, including the status of religious leaders as ‘essential workers’; whether the definition of churches include homes; and whether religious gatherings include drive-in gatherings. These required clarifications in order to avoid dire legal consequences for religious leaders and organisations. Once again, the COGTA Minister had not responded to FORSA’s requests for clarity.
- The outcome FORSA seeks to achieve through the petition is the phased reopening of the religious sector, across the different levels, similar to the economic sector. The petition also envisages an opportunity for senior level representation of the religious community under the FORSA umbrella in Government’s consultative process, as the views of the religious structures Government was currently engaging with did not necessarily encompass those of the religious organisations under FORSA.
- Response by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs
Leading the Department’s response, the Head of the National Disaster Management Centre, Dr M Tau, submitted as follows:
- Government was cognisant of the vital role of the religious community in the time of COVID-19, including the distribution of food parcels, social work, counselling services, supporting victims of gender-based violence, as well as care and relief activities for the most vulnerable.
- The Department had responded to FORSA’s queries in relation to the issuing of permits to religious leaders to perform essential services; visits to people in need of spiritual counselling; food distribution to vulnerable communities; solemnisation of marriages; definition of a place of worship; drive-in gatherings; sale of educational material; as well as access to the Unemployment Insurance Fund.
- The Department further committed to taking note of those issues that were still in need of clarification, and would make a concerted effort to address the shortcomings identified in the FORSA petition.
- COMMITTEE OBSERVATIONS
- FORSA could have raised its concerns directly with the President, the Department and Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. The Committee was not directly involved in the drafting of the Regulations, and was therefore not in the best position to attend to the petition.
- There was also a view that FORSA’s submission to the Committee was legitimate, as the Committee was the custodian of the Disaster Management Act, its Regulations and Directions, even though it may not have been party to the drafting of the latter two.
- The Department must immediately respond to the FORSA’s queries, where it had not done so. In general, the Department must cultivate the habit of responsiveness, even if it is just to acknowledge receipt of correspondence.
Report to be considered
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