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SAPS patrol in the Johannesburg CBD while trying to enforce a national lockdown amid concern of the spread of Covid-19. (Michele Spatari, AFP)
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Timidity, complacency and reticence in a time of crisis are enemies that, left unchecked, will ravage us far deeper and longer than even the virus itself, writes John Steenhuisen.
It has now been over a week since I first wrote to National Assembly Speaker, Thandi Modise, to request the urgent establishment of an ad hoc parliamentary committee to exercise proper oversight over the executive's actions during the coronavirus lockdown.
I repeated this call in a follow-up letter to her six days later. In the midst of a national crisis, Modise has not had the courtesy to respond to my request.
In the correspondence, I called on Modise to use her powers in terms of Rule 253(1)(b) of the Rules of the National Assembly to establish an ad-hoc committee in order to ensure continuous oversight over the national executive authority and organs of state, and to ensure that civil liberties are protected at all times during this lockdown.
This is not a “nice-to-have.”
It is actually an essential function of a democratically elected Parliament.
Section 55 of the Constitution of the Republic lays out this responsibility explicitly in directing that the National Assembly must provide for mechanisms to ensure that all executive organs of state are accountable to it, and to maintain oversight of the executive authority, including the implementation of legislation.
It is impossible to do this when our Parliament remains completely closed for business in the days of our greatest peril.
We have already seen escalating abuses by the security forces, with countless people having been subjected to assault, public humiliation and at least three people allegedly murdered.
This is happening at a time when the government has effectively tried to suspend our constitutional democracy as part of the lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, there is no reason whatsoever that the lockdown should have included the complete suspension of our country’s Parliament, where the elected representatives of the people are constitutionally mandated to oversee and hold the executive accountable.
Even in the midst of the lockdown, members of cabinet are holding regular press briefings and continuing to do their work virtually.
The DA’s shadow cabinet, as well as our subcommittee on Covid-19, have also been holding regular meetings via videoconferencing software.
It is entirely possible for an ad hoc committee, as well as Parliament’s various portfolio committees, to similarly fulfill their constitutional mandate while respecting the need for physical distancing.
The battle to defeat the coronavirus is not a zero-sum game.
South Africans should not be expected to surrender their basic human rights and civil liberties in order to stave off Covid-19.
In fact, it is only by ensuring that the military and police do not get a free pass to abuse citizens that we will be able to generate the necessary buy-in and societal mobilisation to make the lockdown a success.
The disgraceful abuses we have witnessed during the first few days of the lockdown amount to a clear warning that giving unfettered power to the executive and security forces will lead to escalating violence and abuse.
In turn, the heavy-handed actions of the police and military will generate resentment from citizens, who may be pushed to a point of revolting against the lockdown itself.
In addition to breaking the lockdown and ramping up the spread of the coronavirus, the breakdown of trust between the state and society could unleash a wave of violence as dangerous as the virus itself.
For this reason, it is of vital importance that we do everything in our power to secure the continued trust and cooperation of South African citizens by preventing abuses by the security forces.
That is why the DA has already created a dedicated reporting system via Whatsapp and email to ensure that citizens can report abuses directly to us for further action.
But Parliament also urgently needs to come to the party.
The world, and South Africa, is going to be a vastly different place when we emerge from the dark tunnel of Covid-19.
Our Parliamentary portfolio committees should already be engaging and preparing strategies to navigate these new waters and deal with the myriad challenges they will bring for our people and our country.
This is now a time for bold actions and reforms if we are to place our country on the path to recovery in this new world.
Timidity, complacency and reticence in a time of crisis are enemies that, left unchecked, will ravage us far deeper and longer than even the virus itself.
As the Speaker, Thandi Modise’s failure to fight for the preservation of the National Assembly’s ability to hold to account the executive and its rogue security forces amounts to gross dereliction of duty.
She should urgently accede to my request for the creation of an ad hoc oversight committee to ensure that Parliament upholds its constitutional responsibilities.
She must prove that she is up to the task of protecting the civil liberties of the people of South Africa at this time of great peril. Parliament has failed the people of South Africa at many crossroads in recent history, it dare not be found wanting now.
- John Steenhuisen is interim leader of the DA.
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