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📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event
In South Africa we’ve had our fair share of infections due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Those infections have also impacted the members of parliament as well as staff in the Parliament of South Africa.
This Disaster Management Act came into effect on the 27th of March 2020. The implications of this Disaster Management Act and the lockdown, as it is commonly referred to, was that the movement of persons between provinces and also in and out of the country was to be stopped with immediate effect and the travelling between provinces was only permitted for funerals. A permit was required to travel between provinces.
Our national parliament is based in the province of Cape Town which is Western Cape. Members of parliament are coming from all over the country which means that members of parliament were also impacted by the movement of persons restrictions. At some points there were curfels implemented, which present movement between 10pm and 04am. Mass gatherings were also stopped. We could only get a maximum of 50 people and also as part of the disaster management act or lockdown, public transportation was locked and only the emergency workers were permitted to make use of it.
About the implications on the work of Parliament in South Africa. We’ve got two parliament houses in South Africa – the upper house and the lower house. The upper house is the National Council of Provinces, which has 90 members and then we’ve got the National Assembly, which has 400 Members. The total administration staff that support the members of parliament are of 1,400 persons with some 12 political parties represented in our parliament.
This Disaster Management Act meant that everyone needed to be at home and only those people that are absolutely required to be at the premises of parliament could be present and their permits needed to be obtained beforehand. The permits would be approved and signed by the accounting officer or the secretary to parliament in parliamentary terms.
How did parliament then proceed with its business? On the virtual platforms, we used Microsoft Teams as well as Zoom. For the Microsoft Teams we used for all our operational purposes, that is to interact amongst ourselves as an administration to host our meetings planning business. The Zoom platform was used to host the core business of parliament, which is the plenaries and committee meetings.
We also explored other platforms, such as the Cisco Webex, Huawei, T-mobile, GTC connects and we found that the best solutions were Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Another collaboration platform that we are using currently is the WhatsApp in which we have created groups for both small and big teams.
We use our email system. Fortunately, our main system was very mature so we didn’t struggle to get members to start using emails and we made telephone calls and also we sent short text messages. Between the beginning of the lockdown and September 2020 we have had over 600 virtual meetings for committees, where they exercise oversight over the executive, which is in essence the government.
We have had briefings by the ministers, specifically the ministers dealing directly with the pandemic, as well as those ministers that are dealing with budgets allocations. We have had public participation which is an usual and normal development and we allowed members of the public to interact with parliamentarians and also to influence the direction of the proposals. We also had committees voting in their sessions.
In the plenary of both houses we had between the beginning of the pandemic and September 2020, 21 hybrid plenaries for the National Assembly. In total we are talking about 120 hours of virtual hybrid plenaries in the National Assembly. For the National Council of Provinces, we had 17 virtual plenaries in the same period. We had four ministerial briefings by the ministers dealing directly with the covid pandemic and we are talking about over 100 hours of virtual plenaries at the National Council of Provinces. When we say hybrid plenaries, we mean that a certain number of members were present at the parliament chambers, while the other members were on a virtual platform. Initially, it was agreed that only 50 members representing all the 12 parties of parliament would be present in the plenaries and then the rest of the members would be on the virtual platform.
In the National Council of Provinces, all of the plenaries have been virtual. Only now we are dealing with the aspect of upgrading the chamber so that it is up to task to deal with the hybrid plenaries.
Over and above the committee meetings and the plenaries, we had special events of parliament, such as the youth parliament which had over 200 participants. When we talk of these special events, this is when we involve members of the public in our business in parliament. They come in and they get treated like members of parliament. They go and sit inside the chamber and then they debate the matters pertaining to the subject matter. Of the 200 participants, both virtually as well as in-house, only 20 participants were actual members of parliament, the rest were members of civic society and the general members of the public representing all spheres of our society. We had the women’s parliament, where issues pertaining to women were discussed. There were 250 participants there as well, similar to the youth parliament. The majority of the participants were members of the public and civil society representing all communities within south Africa. We had the women’s charter review, which is a program that is still ongoing. Parliament is engaging with all women throughout the country moving from province to province. We have nine provinces in South Africa. The parliament wants to get a sense of what women are feeling, what women are dealing with and how should they be assisted.
We’ve got a position of the Auditor General, who is auditor for government departments. It is called the chapter nine institution in South Africa and the incumbent of the position has to be interviewed by members of parliament and his position cannot go on for longer than seven years. In 2020, the Auditor General’s term came to an end. The new person was then to be interviewed and it was done via hybrid methods.
How did we set up our meetings? We opened up our platforms one hour before for the beginning of the Council of Provinces to enable the members to do their testing of the sound, microphones and framing, because we do live streaming and live broadcast of the plenaries both the virtual and hybrid meetings. We also implemented waiting rooms on our Zoom, so before members are accepted into a meeting they need to be verified, so that only the members of parliament are in the meetings as well as just the administration that is there to support.
Members of the public and journalists can follow the proceedings on their TVs or on YouTube Channel. We don’t allow members to rename themselves once they have been admitted, because they would have been verified beforehand and we do not allow presentations sharing. Only designated hosts and co-hosts can share presentations. Our sessions have interpretation, because in South Africa we’ve got 11 official languages. We disabled the chats for the National Assembly, but the chats are enabled for the National Council of Provinces. It is communicated beforehand to the members of the National Council of Provinces that whatever it is said on the chat constitutes communication of the house.
About the plenaries proceedings, we distribute the order papers via emails alongside with the link to the virtual link to the virtual meeting.
How do we deal with the leadership orientation? The National Council of Provinces, since everything is on a virtual platform, the chairpersons are also on a virtual platform. They use a virtual background, which has a picture of the maze and to designate them as the person carrying at a particular point. With regard to the National Assembly, we have a Chairperson that is always available physically in the chamber. That Chairperson will open the proceedings and will hand over to the other Chairperson that is available virtually. Should there be connectivity issues, the Chairperson on virtual space takes over until the connectivity issues have been resolved.
The members attendance register is recorded when we admit the members to follow to the sessions.
Our rules of parliament had to be amended and to raise points of orders, members raised their hand, by using the hand feature of their application. The voting process so far has been done manually. Members communicate their votes to their party representative who then communicates to the chair. At this moment we cannot do the secret voting because all the votes need to be communicated via party representatives. We have to deal with members unmuting themselves from time to time so we keep muting them and then when it gets chaotic we have to lock the microphones. Also the members eviction, when the chairperson or the speaker orders it we have to kick out members.
We had our challenges in regard to the etiquette of the sessions, such as a member or a person representing a department that thought the video was off, undressed himself and lay in bed. One other member participated in the plenary while at the store and other people just smoked.
We had to deal with a group of people that are quite different and diverse in how they work. We’ve got members of parliament who are at their young and old age. What we then experienced was that there were those technologically savvy, so moving on to that virtual platform was the easiest movement, since there was not much work needed to be done. With the other members there was some training that needed to be done, but they all came on board pretty well.
They understood that the business of parliament needed to continue. Fortunately we provided them with laptops, cellphones, as well as a tablet and also we will give them allowances to procure internet connectivity. It was not a culture shock as much to most of them because the tools of trade had been made available specifically for these purposes.
When the pandemic hit us, we were planning to implement Skype for business, so when we then had to implement the Microsoft Teams and zoom and it came as no surprise to them because they actually had been calling for it, saying that some of the meetings are so short that you don’t have to travel all the way to Western Cape. So, they welcomed the improvisation that we’re doing.
The way we are doing business now is the way we are going to move into the future. We will do our public participation using these virtual platforms and we will still go down to offline because some people still prefer to interact with their representatives of parliament.
South Africa is a big country, it takes hours to travel from the different locations to Cape Town, so there are those members that are saying definitely this is the way to go. We will do our things this way moving to the future. Others are saying they want to come back to Cape Town.
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