Oh! for the days when Parliament was open to the public and anyone with a valid ID could attend committee meetings. When friendly administrators in the reception area greeted visitors to the precinct with smiles, pleasantries could be exchanged, and networks built in often-long queues.
When MPs, Ministers, their deputies and government officials were approachable. When views could be exchanged during refreshment breaks and workable relationships built with committee support staff.
And when copies of the documents being discussed were available in piles to be collected and read as needed. It was all good rainbow nation-building, heart-warming, hope-inspiring, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu stuff. Only occasionally was a parliamentary official unhelpful or rude. Rarely were documents withheld. More often than not, visiting Parliament was just plain good for the soul.
Under the Covid-19 disaster management regulations, things have changed. Virtual meetings via Zoom have their limitations. Of course, Parliamentary Communications Services has stepped into the breach and its staff do a sterling job. But their WhatsApp group for journalists seems to be the only platform for accessing documents that used to be freely available at committee meetings. Anyone not in that group depends on committee support staff to read their emails and help — which is where things sometimes go wrong.
Because, sadly, not all committee support staff read or respond to emails. And some dig in their heels when it comes to sending documents to their colleagues in Parliamentary Communications Services. Which does tend to fly in the face of Parliament’s commitment to public participation.
To make matters worse, parliamentary obligations under the Promotion of Access to Information Act seem to be clashing with Protection of Personal Information Act compliance processes — at least, according to a recent statement from the Trade and Industry Portfolio Committee. It took more than two weeks for committee support staff to “complete” whatever procedures are entailed. And the use of the Protection of Personal Information Act acronym in parentheses after a reference to the Promotion of Access to Information Act did more than confuse some stakeholders. Conspiracy theorists are having a field day.
If access to submissions received during a public participation process is to be stymied by red tape, ordinary South Africans need to know. Just tell us! Some of us will probably grumble. But in the end, we’ll shrug our shoulders and get on with things as best we can like the good citizens most of us are. There may even be a solution to the problem.
Perhaps parliamentary committee support staff could proactively avoid frustrating stakeholders interested in each other’s submissions by including in their calls for comment a form authorising Parliament to circulate them. Links to the documents could then be included in a committee statement published the day of each hearing.
That would keep journalists and everyone else happy — pre-empting any critics of the public participation process from accusing committee support staff of inefficiency or, worse still, being deliberately obstructive. DM