In the absence of holding a referendum, how do you gauge the feelings of an entire nation on one particular topic?
By hosting public meetings in all nine South African provinces, where absolutely anyone can arrive and address a parliamentary committee on the matter.
That’s the theory, at least. When Parliament’s constitutional review committee takes to the road, it is with the aim of granting an ear to all South Africans who wish to express their views on land expropriation without compensation.
“All South Africans must utilise the process,” urged ANC MP Francois Beukman at the final meeting of the committee in Parliament before its members head out. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
There is every indication that many South Africans – from across the political spectrum – are champing at the bit to have their say on land. Constitutional review committee chairman Vincent Smith previously revealed that 722,000 written submissions had been received by Parliament on the topic before the deadline of 15 June.
At the meeting on June 21, a final total for those submissions was not given, but it was confirmed that the volume stood at above “half a million”.
That doesn’t mean that every submission consisted of substantive arguments: the committee was told that some submissions were simply “one line or one word”.
To complicate matters, there has been the suggestion that certain lobby groups – like AfriForum – mobilised their supporters to send identical submissions in bulk.
The EFF’s Floyd Shivambu suggested that there was a “high possibility” that the majority of these submissions “came from a very small group of people”, while DA MP Glynnis Breytenbach argued that MPs should be given access to the database of submissions to see them for themselves.
“I don’t look forward to carrying them around under by arm but they’ve got to be accessible,” Breytenbach said. Cope’s Deirdre Carter pointed out that for all committee members to receive hard copies of the submissions would amount to 1.5 tons of paper each.
Parliament has delegated responsibility for processing the written submissions to an as-yet unnamed external service provider, which will face a Herculean task.
They will have 30 days to capture all the submissions and produce a report. If the figure of 722,000 submissions is accurate, these workers will be required to process over 24,000 submissions per day.
The written submission process is separate to the public hearings, however – though Parliament will select some of the authors to appear before them when the committee reconvenes in Cape Town in August 2018.
The public hearings see the constitutional review committee – which includes the likes of EFF leader Julius Malema and DA chief whip John Steenhuisen – split into two groups, with one covering inland areas and one covering coastal groups.
Over the course of six weeks, they will hold meetings at community halls in towns in nine provinces. Centres in Limpopo and Springbok, in the Northern Cape, will host the first hearings.
Smith said the hours of 11am to 4pm have been set aside each day for the hearings, though he warned that the 4pm deadline was hypothetical and “we will sit till midnight if we have to”.
Ground rules: the hearings will be run like any parliamentary committee. No written submissions will be accepted, unless they are short speaking notes to aid MPs. Speakers should ideally make their case within five to 10 minutes. Translation services will be available. If multiple representatives from a single organisation are present, only one will be permitted to speak on behalf of the group.
And critically, said Smith, “we’re going to be very clear that we’re sticking to the mandate”.
In other words, nobody should pitch up hoping to give a lengthy address on their family’s struggles with land restitution, for instance.
Smith says the committee only wants to hear responses to the following questions: “Must the Constitution change [to allow land expropriation without compensation]; if so, how; if you don’t think the Constitution must change, why don’t you think so?”
MPs are permitted to respond to input or ask clarifying questions, said Smith, but he appealed to committee members not to push their party line. There was also a plea to ordinary South Africans to come prepared to listen courteously to others.
“We expect South Africans to allow dissenting voices from either side to raise their views,” said Smith.
“We will not allow any single individual to dominate the proceedings. The more voices, the better.”
But the more voices, the greater the logistical challenges. There are already concerns being raised that the initial venues chosen might not be big enough to accommodate everyone, though overflow venues are being arranged where possible.
Venue size is not the only criticism levelled at the hearings. In a statement in early June, AfriForum complained that communication about the hearings to the public had been contradictory and insufficient; that “the places chosen for these public hearings are mostly located in wards where the ruling party receives more support”; and that large metropolitan areas have been excluded.
AfriForum also raised security as a concern. On June 21, a representative from Parliament’s protection services told the committee that all venues have been inspected, and a “clear record” will be kept of everyone attending the hearings.
He also said that the protection services would be tasked with ensuring “rules are complied with” – which suggests that disruptive members of the public may find themselves removed from the premises in the same manner as recalcitrant MPs from the National Assembly.
South Africans who can’t get to the hearings but hope to follow proceedings from work or home are not in luck – as no arrangements are currently in place for livestreaming or broadcasting the hearings. Parliament’s media unit told Daily Maverick: “We are finalising these matters and will make an announcement soon.”
Despite the substantial challenges that accompany an undertaking of this size, Smith had a message for South Africans from the committee: “We are ready to go.”
Until the first hearings have taken place, however, it is simply impossible to predict how this will all look in practice. DM
"We are surrounded by story." ~ Alice McDermott