In their programme meeting today, members of the National Assembly’s Programme Committee reflected on the first hybrid sitting of the National Assembly (NA), which took place yesterday for oral questions to the Ministers in the social services and governance departmental clusters.  

The departments making up the cluster are Basic Education; Health; Higher Education, Science and Technology; Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation; Social Development; Sport, Arts and Culture; Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs; the Ministry in the Presidency; Public Service and Administration; and Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities.

The hybrid sitting consisted of Members of the National Assembly physically present in the chamber and others who participated via a video platform. The sitting was attended by 297 MPs – 250 of them participated through the virtual platform, and 47 were in the NA Chamber in Cape Town. The questions to the Ministers related to the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The NA’s House Chairperson responsible for committees, Mr Cedric Frolick, said Members’ attendance at yesterday’s question and answer session was high, when compared to pre-Covid-19 sittings.

Members appreciated the manner in which the Presiding Officers of the NA handled the session, despite the difficulties arising from the fact that members were not under one roof and it was the first time that such a session was undertaken. The success of the session was also attributed to the full and genuine cooperation between all the parties represented in the NA.

On technical glitches that caused stoppages here and there, members advised that they must be trained on things like handling microphones and cameras, and that IT technicians must be allocated to provide support to a certain number of members in each session. Members also called for the table staff to improve its assistance to the Presiding Officers. Asked to comment on that, the Secretary to the NA, Mr Masibulele Xaso, said a report on yesterday’s session will be given to the members of the committee, and he will comment after the report has been discussed by members.

Members suggested that, going forward, a hybrid session must be presided over by two Presiding Officers, one for members in the House, and the other for members who participate via the virtual platform. They said an enquiry must be made to the relevant scientists on wearing of a mask for more than three hours.

They said it was exciting to see the NA able to do its business through a hybrid session, a step that was unimaginable in the recent past. According to them, Covid-19 has shown that Parliament is ready to conduct its business electronically and that South Africa is ready to cross the Rubicon from the “old to the new normal”.

Sittings of the Houses of Parliament are always screened on Parliament’s 408 TV channel, but yesterday’s sitting attracted a lot of attention from members of the public and MPs were called upon to ensure that their behaviour during hybrid sittings of the House promotes a good image of Parliament. “We must be driven by that reality of promoting the image of Parliament in whatever we do. It’s not the image of a party that is going to be affected, but of the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa,” said one participant in today’s programming meeting.

Another suggestion from members to improve participation in a hybrid session included the use of one podium, the one in front of the Speaker in the NA for members that are in the House, instead of members using microphones fitted on their tables.

Some members complained about the poor answers provided by certain ministers. They suggested that to deal with this problem the NA should hold sessions for questions to ministers in Tshwane, where ministers will appear physically before the members of the NA.

The Speaker of the NA and Chairperson of the NA Programme Committee, Ms Thandi Modise, urged members to always keep the rules of the House in mind when they participate. She said she noted yesterday that a lack of adherence to NA rules affected the quality of the session. She said members must not make unnecessary interjections when a minister is responding to a question. “When I apply the rules, I’m not chastising anybody. Always ensure that you talk when you are recognised,” she said. 

Some members of the committee claimed that Parliament is not disclosing information about Covid-19-positive people working at Parliament. Ms Modise responded by saying that she is not aware of any such people, but in any event there would be no need for Parliament to hide the fact if there were positive cases.

Mava Lukani
28 May 2020