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WCape provincial legislature makes its virtual debut

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 24 Apr 2020
Speaker Masizole Mnqasela (top left) convenes a virtual sitting of the Western Cape Provincial Parliament.
Speaker Masizole Mnqasela (top left) convenes a virtual sitting of the Western Cape Provincial Parliament.

From business to legislative branches, organisations across the world, including here in SA, have had to adapt to new ways, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to impact millions.

Yesterday, the Western Cape Provincial Parliament (WCPP) hosted its first virtual sitting of the house, a sign of an altered world order.

The sitting followed the first official ad hoc committee meeting conducted by the WCPP on a virtual platform that took place last Friday.

The provincial legislature organised the ad hoc committee to oversee the Western Cape government’s efforts in addressing the coronavirus, and the enforcement and effects of the national lockdown.

The WCPP, which is led by the Democratic Alliance (DA), yesterday became the first provincial legislature to convene its sitting online, making it accessible via Microsoft Teams and its YouTube page.

Mireille Wenger, DA chief whip in the WCPP, says: “The Western Cape Provincial Parliament is not only the first provincial legislature in the country to host a virtual sitting of the house, but also one of very few in the world ready to go virtual so quickly and to broadcast live on social media. This follows another first, namely, the COVID-19 ad hoc oversight committee which meets on a bi-weekly basis.”

WCPP speaker Masizole Mnqasela revealed that in order to comply with the regulations of the national lockdown and ensure the safety of the members and officials, it was decided all committee meetings and sittings of the house will, until further notice, be held by online video-conferencing platform.

“We are committed to continuing to operate as a democratically-elected Parliament and to fulfilling our mandate and ensuring the democratic space is not compromised – no matter the circumstances,” says Mnqasela.

The speaker has encouraged members of the public to continue taking an interest in the work of the Western Cape Provincial Parliament and follow the proceedings of the virtual sittings and meetings.

Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx, notes that during a time of lockdown and social distancing, it is essential that legislators and leaders set an example.

“In the case of parliaments and legislatures, it is precisely because it seems at first sight almost impossible to conduct that specific kind of business via remote platforms that leaders need to show it can be done.

“Once our leaders use these technologies as a matter of course, it will reduce the massive psychological barriers most individuals have to using these tools themselves. If the tech is seen as standard and a matter of course, people are more ready to integrate it into their lives and activities.”

Embracing the new normal

According to Goldstuck, virtual debates will become a standard feature of Parliament during the COVID-19 crisis, but are unlikely to become a regular way of life once we emerge from the era of social distance.

However, we could see this phase last at least six months, if not more, and Parliament will have no choice but to embrace remote sittings and debates, he states. “Once that becomes a norm, it will be easier in future to call emergency sittings of Parliament, remotely, when Parliament is in recess or for other purposes.”

Last week, speaker of Parliament Thandi Modise indicated they had received a recommendation from the chief whips’ forum to have a virtual sittings of the oral question and answer session with the national executive.

Modise noted Parliament was 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.

Goldstuck highlights that the long-term benefit of a virtual legislature is that government finds itself on the path to digital transformation, starting at its most visible presence in society.

“Once this filters through all layers of government, South Africa will have the opportunity to provide more efficient services to its citizens, and government can become more humane rather than less so.

“The individual who will probably welcome virtual sittings most enthusiastically is the speaker of Parliament, who will be able to eject noisy MPs with the click of a button rather than by force. We will see many benefits − but also many attempts to find new ways to disrupt meetings,” he concludes.