The “indispensable” business of Parliament must resume at once in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, presiding officers announced on Thursday during a virtual press briefing.
MPs’ leave later this month has also been cancelled.
Last month, Parliament suspended the activities of both Houses, the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces (NCOP). This shortly before the start of the constituency period which ended last week.
“It was as a precautionary measure relating to Covid-19 to drastically limit the number of people at the precincts in Cape Town and at off-site parliamentary activities,” the deputy Speaker, Lechesa Tsenoli, said.
He added during the constituency period, presiding officers assessed how best it could resume its activities after the constituency period and benchmarked best practices by other legislatures around the world in the fight against Covid-19.
“We have taken a decision that the business of Parliament must resume with immediate effect following the conclusion of the constituency programme on 13 April. The leave period for MPs, which was scheduled from 28 April to 4 May, has been cancelled.”
He said parliament will look at ways of transitioning to an “e-Parliament” during the time of lockdown.
Several programmes have already taken place, including meetings of the presiding officers, chief whips and speaker’s forum. These meetings have considered an amended framework for administering the business of oversight committees and plenary sittings as well as an adjusted programme for the period ahead.
Parliament will prioritise a schedule of virtual committee meetings whose scope of oversight relates to government departments driving Covid-19 response measures.
These committees will be required to intensify their oversight engagements, particularly on Covid-19 matters, and will conduct joint meetings.
The chief whips have agreed to draft guidelines and rules on how these virtual committee meetings and voting must be conducted.
Sittings of the two Houses will also have to take place during this period and the presiding officers have framed rules to make provision for virtual House sittings.
“Virtual sittings of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces will deal with legislation and other matters needing approval or consideration from the Houses.
“Questions for written reply and oral question and answer sessions with members of the executive will also feature. We will publicise, in due course, the details about how virtual House sittings will be conducted,” Tsenoli said.
National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise said they were in discussion with the leader of government business, Deputy President David Mabuza, to come up with a plan to allow oral question sessions to the executive.
Asked whether Parliament will deal with the amendment of Section 25 of the Constitution to allow expropriation without compensation, which is currently before an ad hoc committee, as well as several other pieces of legislation before Parliament, Tsenoli said committee chairpersons would assess the situation, and those matters which could be postponed to a later date, would be postponed.
‘Ducks in a row’
“All our ducks must be in a row in working against the virus,” Tsenoli said. “Not only from a health perspective, but also from an economic perspective.”
The deputy chairperson of the NCOP, Sylvia Lucas, said they would also engage with Mabuza, in his capacity as leader of government business, on outstanding bills.
Modise added they have a business continuity plan for a phased in return to work for the Houses of Parliament.
“If the lockdown is called off tomorrow, we can’t all rush back to work,” she said.
Tsenoli said Parliament supported and commended President Cyril Ramaphosa and his executive and the men and women – such as those in the healthcare, law enforcement, defence and essential goods retail sectors – who were risking their lives to defeat the virus.
He also extended Parliament’s condolences to those who lost their lives and welcomed contributions to the Solidarity Fund to help combat Covid-19.
“As presiding officers, we have also decided to support this good initiative and we will donate one third of our monthly salaries to the fund for the next three months,” Tsenoli said.