Parliament, Sunday 5 April 2020 – Parliaments all over the world are grappling with the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on their Constitutional obligations, such as, oversight, lawmaking and public involvement.
In South Africa, the social distancing and subsequent national lockdown periods coincided with the scheduled constituency programme of Parliament, during which Members of Parliament (MPs) are required to work within their communities across the country. In terms of the national lockdown regulations, MPs fall within the category of essential services.
A National State of the Disaster is an extraordinary measure, involving matters of life and death within a country. It is the Executive’s responsibility to ensure that it safeguards the rights of individuals during these difficult times and for Parliament to oversee delivery of services needed to relieve the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic on the public.
In performing its constitutional obligations during this period, Parliament must not be seen as interfering with the responsibility of the Executive to implement measures for which the National State of Disaster has been declared. It remains the responsibility of the Executive to deliver much-needed services to save the lives of individuals.
Parliament, whose Members are regarded as an essential service, in terms of the lockdown regulations, has the authority to execute its oversight functions during a lockdown or social distancing period.
This can be done through, for example, individual MPs carrying out constituency work in various communities and holding the Executive accountable for implementing measures designed to overcome the state of disaster. The responsibility to conduct oversight is, therefore, not limited to committee meetings.
MPs have been urged to wear protective gear to ensure protection against infection. Elderly MPs and those with underlying medical conditions have been advised not to participate in any form of physical-contact parliamentary work.
Parliament is exploring effective means for conducting virtual Parliament work, in case the need for social distancing in the country takes longer. Currently, virtual Parliamentary committee meetings are possible.
However, holding such meetings, specifically to conduct oversight over implementation of the lockdown regulations, may require the Executive to attend briefings. This could risk taking them away from their extremely critical function of managing measures to combat spread of COVID-19 and preserving life.
The State of National Disaster is a temporary measure intended to deal with a specific situation. The priority is to save lives, livelihoods and ensure effective recovery from the crisis. Committee observations, including their interventions, will be kept on record and followed up where appropriate. Parliament will still, after this period, be able to hold the Executive accountable, in the usual ways, over how it executed the State of National Disaster.
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