Thrown out of Parliament? It’s now harder to get back in.
- Marianne Merten
- South Africa
- 10 Mar 2016 11:51 (South Africa)
It’s become just a little more wearisome to access the People’s Parliament. For the first time in 22 years, a new access control system is in place. The queues are forming at the visitors’ centre as everyone wanting to enter is photographed for a picture ID, has to declare cameras and/or laptop (there’s even a separate icon if it’s a Mac) and expressly state where they are going. Parliament says this “improved” access control is part of continuous considerations “to facilitate easier and safer access to the precinct” and “ongoing improvements across the institution”. By MARIANNE MERTEN.
Parliament has seen its share of uninvited guests in the past few months. #FeesMustFall student protesters burst through the gates as then Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene delivered his Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement in October 2015. Volleys of stun grenades echoed in the parliamentary precinct as police beat back the students, who had repeatedly raised their arms and at one stage sang the national anthem. Late last year striking National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) parliamentary employees were interdicted from entering the premises after a confrontation with police, who again fired stun and smoke grenades. The protests continued outside the gates under the watchful eyes of police behind locked gates to chants of “ePalamente sifuna imali. Asonwabanga! (Parliament, we want money. We are not happy)”.
But the new access control measures are not for staff- turned-protesters or demonstrators, who push past police guards at the gates. They are for anyone who wants access to attend a committee meeting, either to observe or to brief MPs, attend a sitting as a guest, or just to meet an MP for whatever purpose.
It used to be relatively simple: produce ID and you got a little white slip with the parliamentary logo which needed to be shown at the various entrances, alongside the ID. Now it’s a case of queuing to get your photograph taken, and producing ID, providing contact details, declaring electronic equipment and stating the exact venues of the stay at Parliament. All this is printed on an access ticket. A venue not on the access ticket? Access refused.
The new access system is currently in a pilot phase using existing facilities at no additional cost. It is the same system used for accreditation tags on high-profile, high-security event days like the State of the Nation Address (SONA). The idea, Parliament confirmed on Thursday, is that once a person is captured on the access database, he/she would be fast-tracked as there was no further need for photos and personal details already captured on a database.
However, this is not happening because there’s just one queue to get the photo ID access ticket. There also appear not to be sufficient staff on duty. It was not unheard of that 30 to 40 people were in the queue, according to several of those who’ve become stuck waiting to be processed in what has been described more than once as “excessive” measures.
“I now budget about half an hour. (On Tuesday) it took 45 minutes to get through,” said labour federation Cosatu’s parliamentary liaison Matthew Parks, adding he was late for that day’s committee meeting. He hoped the new measures were based on a full risk/threat analysis. “It takes longer than checking in at the airport,” he added.
Another parliamentary liaison official, who preferred not to be named, shared similar experiences, and expressed concern and dissatisfaction.
Right2Know (R2K) campaign national co-ordinator Murray Hunter said there was a bigger concern. “There are already so many barriers to entry to Parliament for ordinary people,” he added. “The point of Parliament is to make it as open as possible and now they are implementing these new security measures.”
According to Section 59(1) the National Assembly must “facilitate public involvement in the legislative and other processes of the Assembly and its committees” and “conduct its business in an open manner”. The section provides for “reasonable measures… to regulate public access”, including the searching of persons and, where appropriate, the refusal of entry or removal of any person. Section 59(2) of the Constitution states the public may not be excluded from a committee meeting “unless it is reasonable and justifiable to do so in an open and democratic society”. The same provisions apply to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP).
The question for Parliament is whether basing access on photo ID, contact details and limiting access to prestated venues, while maintaining a database of entrants, is reasonable?
In its response to requests for comment, Parliament pointed out that up to 400 people passed through the visitors’ centre every day when committees are meeting. “The improved visitors’ access permit ensures visitors are easily identifiable to be assisted to reach the correct venues as reflected on the permit issued. The previous access card with no photo was burdensome for visitors as they had to produce identification at every entrance into the buildings.”
Recording electronic equipment brought into the parliamentary precinct was merely part of asset management: “The system ensures that assets brought into the precinct can be traced to the owners and those that are not supposed to be taken out are not removed,” it said.
Although Parliament on Thursday indicated the new access control system was in line with its 2005 security policy, it comes into operation less than three months after NCOP chairwoman Thandi Modise revealed there would be a review of security policy and protocol. Speaking at the Cape Town Press Club in December, she and National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, as do others in senior parliamentary circles, maintained it was a national key point. However, according to the SAPS, under whose control national key points fall, only the chamber, 120 Plein Street, where the ministerial offices are and the president’s Tuynhyus offices are national key points. This emerged in a briefing by police top brass to MPs in November 2015. The list of national key points in Parliament corresponds to the one publicly released by Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko following court action by Right2Know.
The new access control also comes in the wake of a number of police officials, some of whom are known to have been part of the public order policing unit (colloquially known as the riot police), being drafted into the parliamentary protection service. This came after the National Assembly beefed up its rules on evicting unruly MPs following the forcible eviction of Economic Freedom Fighters, who had asked points of order and privilege at the 2015 SONA.
On Thursday Parliament dismissed concerns about the beefed up security. “There is a major and critical difference between ensuring safety and security and ‘securitisation’. The purpose, nature, status, role and responsibility of Parliament presuppose optimum safety and security within and around the precinct. This cannot be compromised by omission or by commission.”
It added: “The improved system will allow for better control of movement of visitors on the precincts and to ensure Parliament has a record of visitors and can account for everyone in the precinct in case of emergencies.”
But questions remain as to why the People’s Parliament should feel the need for such new security — now. DM
Photo: Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema speaks to journalists on the steps of the National Assembly during the state of the nation address by President Jacob Zuma in Cape Town, Thursday, 12 February 2015. Malema claimed at least seven MPs were injured during clashes with security officers inside and outside the National Assembly. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA.