The South African Parliament, in common with many around the world, is grappling with effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Constitutional obligations including oversight, law making and public involvement.
In South Africa, social distancing and the national lockdown coincided with Parliament’s scheduled constituency programme a statement said. In this period Members of Parliament (MPs) work in their communities across the country.
“A National State of the Disaster is an extraordinary measure, involving matters of life and death in a country. It is the Executive’s responsibility to ensure it safeguards individual rights during these difficult times and for Parliament to oversee delivery of services to relieve the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic on the public.
“In performing its constitutional obligations during this period, Parliament must not interfere 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 services to save the lives of individuals.
“Parliament, whose Members are regarded as an essential service in terms of the lockdown regulations, has authority to execute its oversight functions during a lockdown or social distancing period.
“This can be done through, for example, individual MPs doing constituency work in communities and holding the Executive accountable for implementing measures designed to overcome the state of disaster. The responsibility to conduct oversight is not limited to committee meetings,” the Parliamentary statement said.
MPs are urged to wear protective gear to protect against infection. Elderly MPs and those with underlying medical conditions are advised not to take part in “physical contact parliamentary work”.
“Parliament is exploring effective means to conduct virtual Parliament work if the need for social distancing lasts longer. At present virtual Parliamentary committee meetings are possible.
“Holding meetings to conduct oversight over implementation of lockdown regulations may require the Executive to attend briefings. This risks taking them away from the critical function of managing measures to combat spread of COVID-19 and preserving life.
“The State of National Disaster is a temporary measure to deal with a specific situation. The priority is to save lives, livelihoods and ensure effective recovery from the crisis. Committee observations, including interventions, will be kept on record and followed up. Parliament will, after this period, still hold the Executive accountable, in the usual ways, over how it executed the State of National Disaster.”