Parliament prioritises its virtual transition

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
Johannesburg, 17 Apr 2020

Parliament has announced the immediate resumption of its business, with plans to intensify its ICT capabilities to continue operations during the nation-wide lockdown.

This was confirmed by National Assembly (NA) deputy speaker Lechesa Tsenoli during yesterday’s media briefing with Parliament’s presiding officers.

A first for Parliament, the briefing was conducted using Microsoft’s virtual conferencing platform, Microsoft Teams, and was simulcast on YouTube, Twitter, the Parliament TV channel on DStv and SABC.

Prior to the lockdown announcement, Tsenoli said Parliament took the decision to suspend the programme of its two houses (the NA and National Council of Provinces, NCOP) as a direct response to the COVID-19 crisis, and so drastically limiting the number of people at the precincts in Cape Town and at the off-site parliamentary activities.

He told media that while the programme was suspended, the presiding officers used this time to determine how Parliament could best resume business and the role of technology to enable this.

Due to its nature, the role of Parliament remains indispensable during this period of national lockdown and the extended period of social distancing, which is expected to continue for months, he emphasised.

“The current period, in which all sections of society are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for radical alteration and adjustment to the normal way of functioning. For Parliament, there has never been a more important time to work in an extraordinary manner and intensify our technological capabilities for our transition to an e-Parliament – as also directed by our new strategic plan – to ensure the execution of our constitutional responsibilities continues uninterrupted.”

Virtual communications

As video-conferencing and virtual meetings become the go-to platforms to facilitate remote working, Parliament hosted its first online portfolio committee meeting last Friday.

The virtual meeting was also an opportunity for Parliament’s portfolio committee on health to receive feedback on COVID-19 matters.

Other members of Parliament, including chief whips, have also used virtual meetings to discuss pertinent matters relating to parliamentary business.

Therefore, Tsenoli said the legislative body has been putting in place the necessary information and communications technology infrastructure to ensure its readiness for virtual meetings.

“In the past few days, a number of virtual meetings have taken place. These include meetings of the presiding officers; forums of party chief whips of the NA, the NCOP chief whip and provincial whips; and the speakers’ forum. These meetings have considered an amended framework for administering the business of oversight committees and plenary sittings, as well as an adjusted programme for the period ahead.

“Parliament will prioritise a schedule of virtual committee meetings, whose scope of oversight relates to government departments driving COVID-19 response measures. These committees will be required to intensify their oversight engagements, particularly on COVID-19 matters, and will conduct joint meetings.”

According to the deputy speaker, chief whips represented in Parliament have agreed to draft guidelines and rules on how these virtual committee meetings and voting must be conducted.

These are based on procedures, precedents, practices and conventions, which Parliament has developed over time, he stated.

“Sittings of two houses will also have to take place during this period and the presiding officers have framed rules to make provision for virtual house sittings. Virtual sittings of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces will deal with legislation and other matters needing approval or consideration from the houses.”

According to Parliament, the schedule of virtual portfolio committee meetings will be publicised in due course.

National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise revealed they have received a recommendation from the chief whips’ forum to have a virtual sitting for oral questions.

The oral question and answer session is a time when members of the executive appear before the National Assembly to answer questions put to them by other members of Parliament.

Modise said they are looking into the recommendation and getting in touch with the leader of government business on whether this will be possible, especially considering the burning questions will be around COVID-19.

“As soon as we have had that discussion with the leader of business, we’ll be able to say ‘yes’ we can go ahead with sessions or a session of oral questions virtually or otherwise.

“So far, we are in consultation over this matter.”