/ 15 March 2020

Is Parliament suspended? Political parties in the dark after coronavirus gatherings ban

February 26 2020 Budget Media Briefing Parliament, Cape Town. Photo By David Harrison
The first sitting of the national assembly will be on Friday. (David Harrison/M&G)

Opposition parties are calling for an urgent meeting with Parliament’s leaders on what the declared National State of Disaster means for the work of the Legislature.

Among the interventions announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday is the barring of gatherings of more than 100 people.

This would have an effect on the sitting of provincial and national legislatures around the country. 

The National Assembly has 400 members, not counting table staff and security. The National Council of Provinces has 90 members, as well as dozens of staff and officials who are located in the chamber.

Under the national disaster regulations, these two houses would not be able to meet and deliberate. 

Leader of the opposition in Parliament, Democratic Alliance interim leader John Steenhuisen, said he welcomed the President’s announcement and called for co-operation among parties.

“There are going to be far-reaching implications for the country, for business and the economy. But now is not the time for politics. Now is the time for South Africans to unite and work together with government to do our best to beat this virus,” Steenhuisen said. 

The opposition leader said Parliament would have to take the lead in setting an example to the rest of the country by limiting large gatherings. 

“I don’t think Parliament is going to be able to sit for plenary given the gravity of this situation. Certainly, the public gallery won’t be opened. Of course, parliamentary committees could still sit if they are below the 100-person limit. But even then, I think Parliament should be limiting human contact and [not] bringing people into significant contact with each other,” he said.

Inkatha Freedom Party chief whip Narend Singh said an urgent meeting with political party whips would need to be called to outline what happens to the work of the Assembly.

“This is a necessary intervention. It’s becoming a crisis … But chief whips will now have to communicate. There is only a week to go [before recess], but I think it is best we cancel sittings for the rest of the term and take it from there,” Singh said. 

United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said the interventions announced by Ramaphosa are necessary and that Parliament would have to follow suit. 

“This is no longer a baby of China. We have seen how Italy has come up with even more drastic measures. So I hope the government and the people of South Africa inculcate a culture of ownership. We have no choice: safety first,” said Holomisa. 

Parliament spokesperson Moloto Mothapo said speaker Thandi Modise and National Council of Provinces chairperson Amos Masondo are examining the president’s announcement.

“Both houses of Parliament will definitely look into the measures announced by the president and its implications [for] the Legislature’s business, and make an announcement soon,” he said.