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Members of Parliament to Zoom in for SONA 2021

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 11 Feb 2021

Parliament is being “jettisoned” into usage of technology and that is becoming an enabler, says acting secretary Baby Tyawa ahead of this evening’s first hybrid State of the Nation Address (SONA).

The 2021 SONA takes place amid SA’s second wave of COVID-19 infections, which has seen the country move to the adjusted level three lockdown regulations.

As a result, tonight’s State of the Nation Address by president Cyril Ramaphosa will be a hybrid affair, with only a limited number of members of Parliament and distinguished guests in the National Assembly (NA) chamber, while the rest of the members will join in virtually.

Ramaphosa will physically deliver the SONA from the NA chamber.

Tyawa told ITWeb that while Parliament makes use of Microsoft Teams and Zoom for its business, for tonight’s SONA, all the other MPs will connect via the Zoom virtual platform.

“We are going to be using Zoom to accommodate almost 500 MPs. Our members have been trained on how to use it.”

Commenting on how many members will be connecting for the virtual SONA, Tyawa said they are expecting all of the MPs from the various parties. “For the house to constitute, we have to have our 490 members of Parliament – this is both NA and NCOP [National Council of Provinces] – this is a joint sitting.”

In terms of the other categories of guests, including members of the public, who cannot be accommodated in the Chamber or precinct, they will link up through a webinar that has capacity for 1 000 guests.

“The webinar doesn’t have any interactive feature; it doesn’t have any group chat capabilities. The webinar is meant for guests but the Zoom is for members whereby the speaker will apply her authority.”

Given that the 2021 SONA will be mostly virtual in nature, Parliament will realise cost savings as a result.

National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise revealed during a media briefing yesterday that Parliament is estimating just over R100 000 in costs for this whole exercise.

Change in operations

According to Tyawa, since the COVID-19 pandemic and since March last year, Parliament has had to change the way in which it operates, revealing that during this time it has had over 40 hybrid meetings.

“Parliament has got 490 members, who always have to be in the house, and sub-committees, but operations are in Cape Town in Parliament buildings.

“There are members with co-morbidities, so they’ll never come to Cape Town, but the work of Parliament has continued through hybrids.

“When COVID happened and there was lockdown level five, we had already started applying for a licence; we actually had a Microsoft licence but it was Microsoft Business.

“We then adjusted quickly and requested Microsoft Teams. When Microsoft started, it had limited capacity, so we then looked at other available platforms. We explored Zoom and found that it had sufficient capacity to accommodate our members at any point in time.”

Tyawa says Parliament will often use Microsoft Teams for smaller meetings and Zoom for big meetings, noting that it has two licences. “There were issues of security with Zoom at some stage, as they did interfere with our connection when we started.

“The team has been trained to really manage that platform securely and to ensure whoever comes onto the platform is identifiable and confirmed as a member of Parliament, or the correct participant.”

Speaking to contingencies that have been put in place to prevent any disturbances to this evening’s SONA, she said Parliament rules apply regardless of the sitting being virtual or physical.

“On the State of the Nation Address there is only one item on the agenda and it’s the address by the president. The speaker and the chair have got rules, which they have been applying in the 40 hybrid sittings of the National Assembly.

“The speaker of the National Assembly has been applying those rules effectively and members have been trained on the rules, because even if you are on a virtual platform, the rules of carrying out business of Parliament apply and these rules were adopted by the members when COVID-19 hit us.

“There was a workshop and they adopted the rules of how to conduct the business of the house whether virtual, hybrid or physical. The NCOP has got the rules and then they’ve got the joint rules that apply, so the speaker drives that process. Everybody knows the rules.”

In terms of interference of security by external forces, she indicated: “We [Parliament] have taken precautions and colleagues are working to make sure we identify everybody and affirm and confirm, so that when there is a suspicion, we can establish the connection of that particular person.”

Tyawa says there haven’t been any attempts to compromise the security of their virtual meetings after a National Assembly Programming Committee meeting was “hacked” last year.

“Our teams verify, we have explained to members to initialise their names; both the NA table officials and the NCOP table officials scan through each one of the members.”

Futuristic Parly

Looking to the future of the business of Parliament, Tyawa says the world is moving ahead, and the legislative body can’t go back to fully functioning operationally via pen and paper.

“There will still be pen and paper there, physical meetings there but…there’s no going back to full pen and paper, full physical meetings.

“We are even looking at how we are going to modernise public participation so that members can reach their constituencies or public participation and oversight work using technologies. Some parliaments which we’ve seen have got things like the speaker’s corner where the speaker is on the Web site, the site is interactive and engages with the community.”

Tyawa concludes that in SA, this is going to be dictated by the sophistication, improvement and introduction of broadband, to ensure people in rural areas have a place where they can connect with their public representatives and engage in a public participation and oversight manner.

“We see this as an advantage. As a result, we are really looking at modernisation of Parliament.”

SONA 2021 will take place today, 11 February, at 7pm.