“Inkosi, people behind you are not properly dressed. We are seeing everything. Yhooo! Please, Inkosi, did you tell them you are in a meeting. It is very disturbing what we are seeing,” –Faith Muthambi, Committee Chairperson (Eastern Cape Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) Portfolio)
By Nyasha Mcbride Mpani
As Parliaments all over the world were grappling with the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic became a big threat to its Constitutional obligations, such as oversight, law-making and public involvement. The COVID-19 pandemic called for a drastic shift in the way Parliament and Parliamentarians had to conduct their business so as to meet their Constitutional obligations. In South Africa, when the President imposed a national lockdown it coincided with the planned constituency programme of Parliament and Parliamentarians. With this challenge at hand, Parliament had to quickly come up with or explore effective means on how it could with its work unhindered. This saw the introduction of virtual Parliament work as social distancing was seriously emphasised. Virtual work became a new normal not only in South Africa but across the world vaccines, hybrid working was introduced. Hybrid working is a form of working which combines in-person and remote/virtual work and the Parliament of South Africa also embraced this approach to how work they conduct their work. Currently, virtual and in-person Parliamentary committee meetings are going on in all South African Parliaments (National and Regional). This policy brief examines the implications of hybrid working for parliamentarians in South Africa.
Events of the past 20 months have overturned the world of work. Analysts believe the outcomes are much more than what was predicted during the start of the pandemic. Much to the surprise of many, Parliament did not stop sitting or conducting its Constitutional obligations as a virtual and hybrid mode of work was quickly introduced (new normal). Prior to the pandemic, South African parliamentarians primarily conducted their work in person. This included attending meetings, debates, and committee hearings in parliament buildings. However, the pandemic forced parliamentarians to adapt to hybrid working, as restrictions on gatherings and travel were put in place. Hybrid working for parliamentarians typically involves attending some meetings in person, while others are attended virtually. This allows parliamentarians to participate in parliamentary proceedings from their offices or homes, using video conferencing technology. While hybrid work is by no means a simple solution it also has a number of implications for Parliamentarians and these include; increased flexibility, improved accessibility, financial implications, public participation, challenges of connectivity and technology and maintaining parliamentary culture and traditions. These implications are explained in detail in the following section.
Implications of Hybrid Working for Parliamentarians
It has to be agreed that hybrid working has provided parliamentarians with increased flexibility in their work. Prior to the introduction of the hybrid work mode Parliamentarians were required to attend in-person sessions in Cape Town. Those who are not from Cape Town had to be flown into the city and attend the sessions. With this arrangement, it was so difficult for Parliamentarians to be flexible as this arrangement demanded them to be in Cape Town for a certain period of time in order to attend sessions. Balancing Parliamentary work and their personal lives and time at home was difficult. In-person meant that Parliamentarians who do not reside in Cape Town which is the centre, now had two homes, for a job that’s time-bound. However, with hybrid, their flexibility was increased in the sense that they could also now be able to attend parliamentary sessions online and at the same time be home with their families and communities. This mode of work really helped parliamentarians to better balance their work and personal lives.
Consequently, another implication of hybrid working for parliamentarians is that it can improve accessibility for parliamentarians who may face physical or logistical challenges attending meetings in person. This includes parliamentarians who may have disabilities or those who live in remote areas. Moreover, it has to be agreed that the South African Parliament is located in the farthest provinces i.e. Western Cape. This is one of the reasons why the third opposition party in the country Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is calling for the relocation of Parliament to Pretoria so as to deal with issues of accessibility. and due to its geographical location it is actually inaccessible to the majority of South Africans, including Members of Parliament who spend a major amount of time travelling to and from Parliament. In this context, a hybrid is ideal as it enables parliamentarians who are in such a predicament to be able to conduct their parliamentary duties unhindered.
Challenges with connectivity and technology
Hybrid working requires reliable internet connectivity and technology. However, many parliamentarians in South Africa face challenges with accessing these resources, particularly those from rural areas or low-income backgrounds where issues to do with internet penetration are still a challenge. This has been the reason why opposition parties in South Africa have been against the use of virtual platforms in conducting public meetings to deliberate on contentious issues for example when EFF went guns blazing for Tshwane speaker Katlego Mathebe over virtual public meetings. In a Parliament of South Africa press release issued on May 15 2020, the National Assembly acknowledged the challenges of connectivity which were affecting hybrid work. The press release reads;
“The virtual meetings have not been without challenges, which included poor connectivity, suitable use of online video platforms and recently, the disruption of one meeting. All these challenges are not dissimilar to those parliaments throughout the world are grappling with, and are thus not unique to the South African Parliament.”
This is also coupled with load shedding which is now a daily problem in the country. It is difficult to join meetings if there is load shedding for some parliamentarians unless one has backup power. Further to that some Members of Parliament are technophobic (an overwhelming fear of technology) and are not familiar with applications such as zoom, MS Teams, and google meet which are used for virtual meetings and this can impact their ability to effectively participate in parliamentary proceedings.
Maintaining parliamentary culture and traditions
In-person parliamentary proceedings have long-standing traditions and cultures which are all detailed and captured in the Rules of the National Assembly. Hybrid work mode has challenged the maintenance of these traditions. The sense of community and collegiality that comes with in-person meetings has been disrupted. However, and most importantly virtual meetings have disrupted the parliamentary culture and tradition of openly holding the executive accountable for all its decisions. This has been seen in some instances during virtual parliamentary sittings there is an introduction of a “herd voting system” an approach which is undemocratic compelling parliamentarians to vote on some matters. Secondly, the culture of silencing parliamentarians from speaking which is also not part of Parliament’s culture is also one of the implications of hybrid. Targeted members of parliament who are too vocal and critical of the government have complained of being muted during these virtual meetings. This has been done to stop them from debating on matters of national importance or holding the President to account. on courts over rules for National Assembly virtual meetings
Saves the Fiscus
Having the in-person meetings means that the operating expenses such as parliamentary salaries and travel expenses of Ministers and Parliamentarians and their accommodation will be high. The salaries of Parliamentarians and the Executive are already bleeding the country’s Fiscus (See table below). On top of these salaries, they also get free flights and medical aid all of which is paid by the national treasury. Against this background, hybrid sessions cut costs as fewer people will need travel and accommodation. the costs associated with travel and accommodation drop.
While the move to hybrid has been a useful step in facilitating continued oversight and accountability during extraordinary times such as the pandemic period, it has not been without its trials. Parliamentarians continue to experience trouble accessing meetings some of these meetings and also even making use of the technologies made available. Further challenges include disruptions of Parliament sessions have been witnessed. For instance, Parliament’s Zoom meetings have been hacked with porn images and racial abuse. Considering these challenges, I however propose the following recommendations to help in ensuring that hybrid working challenges are mitigated in South African Parliaments so that the Parliament remains accessible and well run.
Invest in technology
To ensure that parliamentarians are able to participate effectively in hybrid working, the government should invest in technology infrastructure, including internet connectivity, video conferencing software, and other necessary resources. Parliamentary Constituency offices should be equipped with all the mentioned technology and with backup electricity so that Members of Parliament do not have to struggle to join meetings when required,
Provide training and support
Parliamentarians should be provided with training and support to ensure that they are able to effectively participate in hybrid working. This should include training on how to use video conferencing software, as well as other relevant skills.
Develop guidelines for hybrid working
The government should develop guidelines for hybrid working that address issues such as scheduling, meeting etiquette, and the use of technology. These guidelines should be regularly reviewed and updated to ensure they remain relevant and effective.
Evaluate the effectiveness of hybrid working
The government should regularly evaluate the effectiveness of hybrid working for parliamentarians. This should include gathering feedback from parliamentarians on their experiences with hybrid working, as well as monitoring the impact of hybrid working on parliamentary culture and traditions.
Hybrid working has become the new normal for many companies, institutions and organizations around the world, including South Africa. While hybrid working provides benefits, it also poses challenges for parliamentarians. The government should take steps to ensure that parliamentarians are able to participate effectively in hybrid working, including investing in technology, providing training and support, developing guidelines, and regularly evaluating the effectiveness of hybrid working.