Opinionista Pam Saxby 10 March 2021

Limited live streaming of Parliament’s committee hearings leaves many South Africans in the dark

Key parliamentary committee meetings are either not being live-streamed, or are screened with only limited public access. This curtails Parliament’s transparency and accountability under the Covid-19 State of Disaster.

Parliament may need to reconsider how it selects committee meetings to be live-streamed during the Covid-19 State of Disaster because the prevailing system is leaving a lot of South Africans in the dark.

Most days when meetings are in progress, the proceedings of only a handful are accessible on Parliament’s YouTube channel. By way of example, of the 11 scheduled to begin on 9 March 2021 at 09:00, only six were live an hour later. And that was a good day. Before Covid-19, anyone with a valid ID could attend any committee meeting in Parliament open to the public — which most were.

The week before, two meetings were held by the National Assembly ad hoc committee responsible for preparing a bill amending section 25 of the Constitution (property rights) to explicitly provide for land expropriation without compensation. Neither was live-streamed, despite alerts to the first having been posted on Parliament’s website and sent out on Twitter. Both were of considerable significance.

During the first meeting, members were briefed on the legal implications of some arguments in written submissions on the draft bill. The following day, they agreed to hear oral evidence from stakeholders who, before the deadline for written submissions expired on 31 January 2019, had requested an opportunity to appear before the committee.

This reversed a decision taken a week earlier, based on sufficient consensus — at the time prompting the DA to issue a media statement confirming the party’s objection to what it believed to have been an “unconstitutional ruling”. Although that meeting was live-streamed, it came online well after proceedings began — leaving viewers wondering what had prompted a rather heated exchange between FF Plus representative Corné Mulder and the EFF’s Floyd Shivambu on matters of “white” liberalism.

This year’s only meeting on the revised Expropriation Bill was also not live-streamed. Neither was one in October 2020 on the remitted Copyright Amendment Bill. Like the draft Constitution 18th Amendment Bill, both are controversial and of widespread public interest.

Committee secretaries appear to be under the impression that all meetings are accessible to anyone with internet access requesting a Zoom link from Parliament’s media services. Yet there is apparently no notice anywhere on the institution’s website explaining this. Neither does the regularly updated weekly meetings schedule reflect the contact details of parliamentary officers responsible for sending Zoom links to members of the public requesting them.

Proceedings on bills of interest to the legal fraternity tend only to be covered by the mainstream media when ministers or their deputies are in attendance. But it is during meetings like last week’s on the process itself that nuances with far-reaching ramifications often emerge. This is why difficulties experienced in accessing them prompted this article.

That said, the internet could be a powerful tool in raising awareness among ordinary South Africans otherwise unfamiliar with the workings of Parliament. Live streaming all committee meetings of public interest would serve only to enhance the institution’s solid reputation for transparency and accessibility, which is, unfortunately (and probably unwittingly), being eroded during the State of Disaster. DM

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