/ 22 April 2020

Can democracy be distance friendly?

Safrica Health Virus
Keep it safe: Police enforce social distancing between people outside a supermarket in Yeoville, Johannesburg. (Marco Longari/AFP)


The scale to which the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the world is devastating. Indeed, everything has changed. Economies have been shattered, public health systems overwhelmed, lives lost and businesses closed as countries around the world institute a range of restrictions to break the transmission of the disease.

In all these developments, parliaments and parliamentarians around the world have played — and continue to play — a significant role in mitigating the effects of the pandemic on the economies and the citizenry.

In South Africa, the pandemic has continued to spread. This week, government announced relief packages and said that lockdown regulations will be relaxed for some sectors to resume operations. No one knows at this moment how the situation might turn out. The reality, however, is that any spikes in transmission may necessitate a further extension of the lockdown.

All eyes will be on our Parliament and parliamentarians, as their leadership and guidance are needed now more than ever. They bring a sense of normalcy during this period and play a critical role in decision making. The coming months will be critical for the institution as government grapples with various ways to revitalise the economy and address public health concerns. The process of economic recovery, however, will not be rapid and without problems. Therefore, Parliament will need to work harder as it takes part in robust debates, with the different political parties presenting their proposals and ideas for consideration. Some of the key questions that the Parliament and provincial legislatures need to be exploring in the meantime are:

  • How will parliamentarians continue operating during the lockdown while maintaining physical distancing?
  • How will they debate, pass legislations and provide the necessary oversight as far as the actions of government are concerned?
  • How are they going to interact with their constituencies?

Although the list above is not exhaustive, it provides an opportunity to explore some innovative ways of working in order to serve the nation as well as fulfill their roles of representativity, legislation and oversight. 

Some possibilities to consider include:

  • Exploring relevant information communication technologies (ICTs) that would suit their peculiar circumstances. This is important because government accounts to the public. As an oversight body, parliaments and parliamentarians aid in identifying problems and policy challenges that need attention as well as assisting in overcoming any bureaucratic inertia. Moreover, using ICTs, meetings can be held virtually, and sessions moderated virtually too;
  • Adopting legislation or amend existing ones to allow important plenary meetings to take place virtually and establish a mechanism that permits electronic voting by parliamentarians. Sessions can also be livestreamed, so the public is kept enlightened about ongoing debates in parliaments;
  • Continuing engagement with the constituents via various publicly accessible digital platforms and social media platforms as well as conventional mediums such as radio and newspapers. It is important that parliaments and parliamentarians communicate with the public as a sign of solidarity. This citizen engagement is also important in galvanising public support towards government’s proposed emergency packages; and
  • Activating a parliamentary communication channel that provides the public with important information such as where the public can find online parliamentary sessions as well as directing the public to specific departments responsible for facilitating access to information as well as any updates on media briefings.

In conclusion, democracy can still work even at a distance if parliaments and parliamentarians continue to play their oversight, legislative and representative roles all through this period. They will need to evaluate all proposed interventions to ensure that the interests of the public are considered and prioritised. They will also be needed to pass any emergency legislation including approving national financial resources meant to meet the needs of the public (their constituents). 

At the same time, they will need to hold government accountable by ensuring that the necessary checks and balances are adhered to by all public officials and transparency is promoted. This is essential in ensuring that public funds are not mismanaged or diverted to other causes unrelated to the pandemic. Parliaments and parliamentarians are needed to ensure that government officials adhere to open and transparent procurement procedures for all goods and services needed in response to the pandemic. This is important in maintaining and strengthening citizens’ trust in government in its response to the pandemic. 

Moreover, by communicating with citizens regularly, parliaments and parliamentarians will be demonstrating leadership, an important ingredient of deepening democracy in society as they take the public into their confidence.

Dr Paul Kariuki is the executive director of the Democracy Development Program in Durban and writes in his personal capacity