Impressions form Parliament

Parliament will close another four portfolio committee meetings to the public between 26 November until 4 December before the national legislature wraps up for its recess period. This follows at least two letters written to the Speaker’s office in Parliament raising concerns over closing meetings to the public. However, a collective of civil society organisations under Parliament Watch, sections of the media and individuals are still waiting on a response to the concerns they raised. Parliament has since indicated it is still drafting a response to the concerns raised in the letter. So, what are these concerns?

In its letter Parliament Watch (PW) cites concerns over what it labels “the growing number of meetings in the National Assembly that are entirely or partially closed to the public”. The Press Gallery Association in Parliament (PGA) shares these sentiments and raised concerns with Parliament. According to PW, reasons for these closed meetings are only provided in very few cases. The organisations found some parliamentary committees entirely or partially closed at least ten meetings to the public during the course of 2018. This included meetings on crucial issues of public interest ranging from developments at South African Airways, the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) and Eskom. Parliament Watch in its letter referred to among others the controversial meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Water Affairs and Sanitation on 17 October 2018. The committee declared the meeting closed and chamber support staff were reportedly stationed outside to assist should media or the public refuse to leave. The Daily Maverick labelled the incident as marking “another breach of trust in 24 years of a democratic Parliament” especially since the support staff afterwards went back to check if any recording material were left.

In another committee, MPs unanimously decided to declare a scheduled meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises closed after the meeting already commenced. The draft report of the committee’s controversial Eskom inquiry was on the agenda and reasons for this decision was only given after the meeting.

The four meetings scheduled as closed until 5 December includes three scheduled on different days for the Joint Intelligence Committee and one of the Joint Committee on Ethics and Members’ Interests. It has become common practice for the Intelligence Committee to have meetings behind closed doors by citing national security. In their letter, PW however, argues the constitutional requirement “that meetings may only be closed to the public when it is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society” implies that Parliament must provide this justification to the public. “We note that the Rules do not require the justification of why a meeting is closed to be placed on the public record and contend that this is at odds with the spirit of the Constitution”, the PW letter reads. PW has now asked for a record of all meetings which have been fully or partially closed to the public since the opening of the 5th Parliament in May 2014 and the reasons put forward for closing these meetings. The organisation also requested Parliament to amend the Rules of the National Assembly to clearly stipulate the process for closing meetings. This include amending the Rules so that any such decision must consider the public interest, the committee must make reasons for the decision public and Parliament must give prior and reasonable notice of the closure of a meeting to the public.

So, now we wait. These concerns are not just legitimate but needs to be urgently addressed if Parliament wants to pride itself on fully being a People’s Parliament. The clock is ticking.

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