How SA’s Parliament rang in the changes in 2020

With limits on the size of gatherings and social distancing rules in force due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the national legislature could no longer function as it once had – and a radical new approach was needed.

FILE: Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town. Picture: Christa Eybers/Eyewitness News.

CAPE TOWN - Parliament faced a big dilemma in 2020 when the National State of Disaster was declared and a hard lockdown was put in force.

The main Budget had to be approved, legislation processed and, most importantly, the executive had to be held to account for the decisions it was making, not least on measures to combat COVID-19.

READ: How the stresses and strains on SA’s economy played out in Parliament

But with limits on the size of gatherings and social distancing rules in force, the national legislature could no longer function as it once had – and a radical new approach was needed.

As house chairperson responsible for committees and ICT, long-serving ANC MP Cedric Frolick played a key role in helping Parliament adapt to the new normal: virtual committee meetings and hybrid sittings.

“The pandemic brought about a new way of thinking and a new way of approaching our work. And I believe we will get over this pandemic, but we’ve learned valuable lessons on how to utilise our time better.”

He said he believed the way Parliament works had changed forever.

“They can use virtual sittings, they can use hybrid sittings, and we don’t need all the space that we thought we required.”

WATCH: The political spectacle that was 2020

Parliament has saved a substantial amount on members’ flights and accommodation, as well as catering for committee meetings, as members now feed themselves at home.

Some of the savings went to ensure members had sufficient data to log into virtual meetings, but the lack of bandwidth, especially in rural areas, is still a problem – something which Frolick said that Parliament has taken up with national government.

THE NEW NORMAL?

He added that whether or not Parliament returned to operating normally in the New Year would depend on what was decided by the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) and endorsed by Cabinet.

The opposition Democratic Alliance has said that Parliament should fully open when it resumed next year, but Frolick said Parliament could not march out of step with the national government and that it would be up to the NCCC to sound the all-clear.

READ: Time for MPs to go back to Parliament in full force - DA's Mazzone

Frolick said it would set a poor example if Parliament started operating according to a set of rules that didn’t apply to the rest of the country when it came to social distancing and limited numbers at gatherings.

“Parliament must adhere to the guidelines as set by the National Command Council (NCCC), the Cabinet and also the President because ultimately we are part and parcel of society and we cannot have a separate set of rules when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

That means that whatever the desires of the DA, which wants Parliament to fully open when it resumes in January, the guidelines set by the NCCC will apply.

“The extent to which Parliament will be opening up, or not, will be determined by the national guidelines and regulations as articulated by the President from time to time.”

Frolick said MPs – and Parliament itself – had learned a lot.

“We have now seen that we do have the capacity to do virtual sittings, hybrid sittings – and we must take those experiences and use them to add value to the institution when it comes to the new year.”

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