Zooming with MPs: parliament to hold its first virtual plenary session

21 May 2020 - 14:14 By Andisiwe Makinana
There's never a dull moment in parliament - even when MPs are meeting virtually due to the lockdown.
There's never a dull moment in parliament - even when MPs are meeting virtually due to the lockdown.
Image: GCIS

A limited number of MPs will return to parliament next Wednesday as the National Assembly is scheduled to hold a three-hour virtual sitting for MPs to pose oral questions to the executive.

The assembly’s programming committee finalised logistics on Thursday morning on what would be the first such plenary session for the assembly's 400 MPs. It will be a question session to the social services and the governance cluster ministers.

The committee adopted a hybrid model where no more than 100 MPs will be physically present in the chamber while the rest connect virtually on Zoom.

This is to adhere to the 2m social distancing requirement.

National Assembly speaker Thandi Modise said they chosen the Zoom platform because it allowed for a larger number of participants (500), while under its current licensing agreement with Microsoft Teams, parliament was limited to 250 participants.

Modise previously registered reservations about Zoom, even before a meeting of the same committee was hijacked by porn images and racial abuse directed at her two weeks ago.

The DA's Jacques Julius said it was important for the public to see MPs going back to parliament, noting that in the public domain, South Africans were already saying if the government wants children to go back to school, MPs should show leadership by going back to parliament. “Members of the public might be satisfied that we are going back to parliament,” he said.

But the EFF wanted the government to use Pretoria as the seat of parliament during the lockdown, saying it was more accessible. Most MPs were not in Cape Town during the lockdown and the city had an escalating infection and death rate from the virus, the party said, adding that it was easier for MPs to drive to Pretoria.

The party has over the past two weeks said its MPs would not physically attend the session as it did not want to expose them to the virus. 

EFF national chairperson Veronica Mente, who is also an MP, said only three of their MPs were in Cape Town and all had an underlying health condition, so it would not be fair to expect them to attend the plenary session.

The EFF's proposal was roundly rejected, with Modise suggesting that MPs were playing politics and saying it “irritated” when MPs forgot that the country was in a state of national disaster and had to put people first.

She said no-one would be forced to attend and those able to should do so through their political parties.

Modise emphasised that MPs would not be allowed to break lockdown rules by travelling across provinces. Parliament would, however, incrementally allow MPs to get back to the legislature as allowed by the lockdown regulations.

“But I do know that even before Covid-19 the EFF has been saying to us, 'relocate, you can relocate'.

“We will do that when we have looked at all the matters. I think that we should not be fudging issues here,” she said.