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Western Cape provincial legislature keeps going with virtual sessions, warts and all


Mireille Wenger is the MEC for Finance and Economic Development in the Western Cape.

The Covid-19 pandemic is changing the face of doing business globally. In the Western Cape, the provincial legislature has adapted to the times and is among the first in the world to sit virtually.

Many South Africans have had to adjust to almost complete virtualisation of their professional lives. Social media is recently full of memes and anecdotes about awkward Zoom meetings and online video check-ins with colleagues, with the usual IT glitches and “fails”. From the kids running amok in the background to the struggle to separate our work and living spaces, we have all had to endure some challenging adjustments on a very practical level. 

Whereas some may see the Covid-19 pandemic as a break for politicians and parliamentary work, the Western Cape Provincial Parliament (WCPP) regards it as anything but this. Instead, the pandemic and the nationwide lockdown have proven to be a moment for us at the WCPP to step up and go virtual, setting new standards and leading the way in embracing technology with innovation and creativity. 

On 17 April 2020, the WCPP constituted the first oversight committee in South Africa to monitor, receive briefings and engage government representatives on their response to Covid-19. Thus the Covid-19 Ad-Hoc Committee was born and continues to meet twice weekly as a recognised, properly constituted committee of the provincial legislature.  

The committee’s first order of business was to devise its 12 themes for the engagement of government. These themes centre around Covid-19 and the areas in which it impacts the lives of our people. This structured approach has given the committee the necessary teeth to really unpack the impact of Covid-19 on the Western Cape, inviting and questioning some of the most important national and provincial departments, entities and role players.  

Only five days after its inception, the committee, with representation from all parties, was briefed by Premier Alan Winde, provincial Health Minister Nomafrench Mbombo and officials from the Western Cape government. Opportunities were presented to scrutinise the work of the government and ask some of the most pertinent questions. This mechanism continues to enable members to report back to their constituents across the length and breadth of our province. 

We were, and are, ahead of all the other eight provinces in the country, as well as the National Assembly. Gauteng, for example, only reactivated its legislature questions process last week and is yet to conduct full meetings of its provincial house. This means that members of the executive, including the premier, of that province were not liable to answer written questions from MPLs. This is one of the most basic, but fundamental mechanisms of oversight in our democracy. 

Using Microsoft Teams, the WCPP remains open and accessible to all. The public, media and other interested stakeholders are able to easily access virtual sittings of not only the Covid-19 Ad-Hoc Committee but all committees of the provincial parliament and full sittings of the house. The parliamentary programme of the provincial legislature is in full swing. 

It is indeed business as usual albeit in an unusual environment and time. The times are changing and WCPP has stepped forward to join ranks as a world leader in virtual parliament. 

Virtual parliamentary activity with public access is a landmark for democracies during this time, and one which the Western Cape can claim to attain.  

Globally, other parliaments and legislative bodies have been far slower to act. In most instances, parliamentary activities have either been suspended altogether, or their meetings reduced to in-person sessions with physical distancing.  

Elsewhere, we have witnessed only Estonia’s Riigikogu (national assembly) achieve this feat, with live broadcasts and remote attendance by its members. Similar to the WCPP, New Zealand’s parliament held virtual committee meetings during that country’s lockdown, but no full sitting of the house took place under such conditions. 

Canada recommenced its parliamentary sittings in April 2020 by virtual means, further following the slow but steady trend to move online, while the United States’ Senate resumed its work only this month after five weeks of absence. On our continent, both Nigeria and Kenya’s national legislative bodies have continued with in-person sessions, following physical distancing protocols. 

Beyond meetings of the Covid-19 Ad-Hoc Committee and other standing committees, the WCPP is among the first legislatures in the world to hold a virtual full sitting of the house with public access in real time. 

On 23 April, the WCPP made history as it gathered online for a full sitting of questions to the premier without notice. The sitting allowed for members to provide statements and directly interact with the premier on the role of the provincial government in responding to the pandemic, among other interrelated issues. 

We have had our fair share of glitches and awkward moments: we’ve seen rather interesting visual backgrounds, confusion over who is “on”, members attempting profound speeches while they are on “mute”, or giving us a bit too much of a glimpse of their oversubscribed bookshelves at home.  

Nevertheless, we continue to adapt to the times. We are sobered by the fact that Covid-19 will be with us, globally, for a while still. At the same time, we are cognisant of our role to play as parliamentarians with a duty to oversee the work of government – especially at a pivotal moment in history as this.  

This is a concerted effort which requires a deep commitment to the values of constitutional democracy. It requires a willingness to become creative through technology and wisely use the resources we have at hand to demonstrate transparency to our residents. DM


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