Cape Town – The National Assembly has dismissed calls for the formation of an ad hoc committee to play oversight over the cabinet and state organs during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Instead, it has called on MPs to conduct oversight in their own constituencies and communities, and also use other avenues provided for in the constitution to execute their roles.
This comes after DA leader John Steenhuisen wrote to National Assembly Speaker Thandi Modise urging her to use one of the parliamentary rules to establish such an ad hoc committee.
Deputy Speaker Lechesa Tsenoli said at the weekend he fully endorsed Parliament’s decision that parties continue to exercise oversight as envisaged by the constitution during this crisis.
“The task specified in Mr Steenhuisen’s correspondence, however, was so broad and of such a nature that it would not be feasible to expect a single ad hoc committee to perform it, ” Taenoli said.
He added that the existing portfolio committees had the necessary powers to deal with the matters raised in Steenhuisen’s letter.
“Individual MPs and political parties also had a role to play at this crucial time and should continue with their individual oversight work in their constituencies and in the communities where they live,” he said.
Tsenoli further maintained that Parliament was using information and communication technologies for parliamentary committees and members to effectively continue to engage in their oversight and monitoring role.
“In this regard, the House chairperson for committees continues to engage with committee chairpersons to ensure that committees remain engaged in their oversight work.”
Steenhuisen said Tsenoli’s response to his letter demonstrated a gravely worrying suppression of oversight and the gagging of Parliament during the Covid-19 lockdown.
He indicated that Tsenoli failed to realise that the declaration of national disaster and the lockdown have led to the National Command Council, which created a unique scenario where the government implemented out-of-the ordinary programmes and could not be effectively held to account by parliamentary committees.
“In its oversight role, Parliament is supposed to mirror government in order to exercise oversight comprehensively. Because the structure of government has adapted to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak, so must Parliament adapt its oversight capacity to oversee.
“This is precisely why I have called for the establishment of an ad hoc committee.”
Steenhuisen also said Tsenoli’s statement that Parliament was using ICT for parliamentary committees and members to effectively continue to engage in their oversight and monitoring role was worryingly misleading.
“Not one member of the DA’s shadow cabinet has received any such correspondence from Parliament’s standing committee chairpersons.”
He said, however, DA MPs would be writing to their respective committee chairpersons requesting for committees to be urgently convened via videoconference during the lockdown period.
Parliamentary spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said parliaments all over the world were grappling with the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on their constitutional obligations.
Mothapo said the social distancing and subsequent national lockdown periods coincided with the constituency period when MPs, who are essential workers, were required to work within their communities across the country.
“The responsibility to conduct oversight is, therefore, not limited to committee meetings.”
He urged MPs 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.”
Mothapo also said Parliament was exploring effective means for conducting virtual work, in case the need for social distancing in the country takes longer.
By Mayibongwe Maqhina