The National Assembly Programme Committee met to consider the debate on the Appropriation Bill, which is one of the most pressing matters before Parliament. Members of the committee sought clarity on how many Members of Parliament will be allowed to take part in this debate, what platforms will be utilised to facilitate this debate, and whether the Presiding Officers of Parliament can consider the relocation of Parliament to Pretoria in the interim, given the fact that Cape Town is currently the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic.    

Responding on what virtual platforms will be used for the debate, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Ms Thandi Modise, clarified that Parliament will utilise Zoom rather than Microsoft because the former (Zoom) “is able to allow more than 500 members to participate in the debate, while the other one (Microsoft) only allows 200 members to do so”.

The issue of how many Members of Parliament would be allowed to be physically present in the National Assembly on the day of the date resurfaced again. Although other members wanted that to be officially confirmed, others declared that there should be no fixation with numbers. Members of Parliament should do what is possible within the given travel restrictions. As things stand, they would not allow members outside of Cape Town to be there. But those present should ensure that they are not more than 100 in number, as per the current regulations.

But there were members who maintained there is a need to know how many Members of Parliament will be allowed to be physically present during the debate to enable the parliamentary staff to prepare for related logistical arrangements of the debate.

As the debate on numbers ensued, Ms Ntombovuyo Mente suggested why Parliament does not in the meantime consider relocating to Pretoria. “There are few Members of Parliament based in Cape Town,” she claimed. She further added: “Cape Town is currently an epicentre of the pandemic. There are more infections and a high death rate in Cape Town than elsewhere in the country. Will it not be ideal under such circumstances to relocate to Pretoria to ensure that Parliament gets back to work?”

We all want to go back to work, said Ms Natasha Mazzone, but it “will be naïve to only think of 400 Members of Parliament when such suggestions are made. There are parliamentary officials as well to consider when such suggestions are made. They can’t simply be uprooted to Pretoria. It’s not as easy as that.”

She cautioned: “The current situation must not be turned into a political matter. And the issue of numbers or physical presence of persons in the chamber should also take into consideration a media contingent based at Parliament, how will it be accommodated within the current environment? It’s also important for the media staff to know where they stand regarding this.”

Mr Steven Swart said precautionary measures should be taken in this regard to avoid any risk of infections. He cited his case: “Not long ago I spoke in a joint parliamentary sitting not knowing that I’ve contracted the virus. As much as we need to get Parliament back to work as soon possible as we can, in taking such decisions we have to be conscious of our health. And as much as we must ensure that we are not dominated by fear, we need to ensure staff members take precautionary measures as well.”

Replying on the matters raised above, Ms Modise stated that “Members of Parliament must look at what other nations are doing when they are in a state of disaster. I am not going to force members to be physically present for the debate in the House when they feel are not in a position to do so.

“Current regulations stipulate that there is no inter-provincial movement. We asked if Parliament can be exempted from the current regulations, we still await a reply on that. But we are not going to break the rules. That’s why we consult the National Command to see how we can deal with this matter.”

“Even when we reopen we will do so incrementally. But currently, we will not grant you a permission to travel to Cape Town. If you do so it is the risk you are taking personally.”

She further stated: “Let’s consider the virus as a national, not a provincial problem. Leaders of political parties must work together to put South Africa first and deal with the matter in a united manner.”

On the relocation of Parliament in the interim, she said: “Although we have powers of privileges to relocate Parliament on temporary basis, we have not yet received a letter from the EFF that requests us to consider relocating to Pretoria. Once we get it, we will consider it.”

By Abel Mputing

21 May 2020