Open Meetings!

Posted in Blog

Recent weeks have seen an increasing tendency toward closed meetings being instituted by South Africa's Parliamentary Committees. Along with a number of our civil society partners and Parliament Watch, ODAC have issued a condemnation of this practice, including the tendency to initiate these closures without justification.

In Primedia Broadcasting and Others v Speaker of the National Assembly and Others [2016] ZASCA 142, ODAC - alongside media partners and others - challenged the threats to the openness of Parliament presented by the jamming of transmission signals by State Security, and interference with the parliamentary television broadcast feed. Importantly, that judgment confirmed the finding of Ngcobo J in the Doctors for Life case, which states:

"The participation by the public on a continuous basis provides vitality to the functioning of representative democracy. It encourages citizens of the country to be actively involved in public affairs, identify themselves with the institutions of government and become familiar with the laws as they are made. It enhances the civic dignity of those who participate by enabling their voices to be heard and taken account of . . . . It strengthens the legitimacy of legislation in the eyes of the people. Finally, because of its open and public character, it acts as a counter-weight to secret lobbying and influence-peddling."

Openness is the starting point for all Parliamentary meetings. And, if Committees wish to deviate from this, one of the things required is adequate justification for that deviation. Section 59(2) of the Constitution after all instructs that: "...the National Assembly may not exclude the public or the media unless it is reasonable and justifiable to do so in an open and democratic society" [Emphasis added]. In addition, sufficient consideration must be given to the reasons for closing the meeting, which must include consideration of the public's interests in the matters being discussed. It is particularly noteworthy for instance that, in looking at the list of meetings that were closed, these included those that were considering issues around SAA, SASSA, and Eskom, amongst others.

We join our partners in the call for more openness in our Parliament, and demand for:

  1. 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.We request this information by Friday 23 November 2018.
  2. Amendments to the Rules of the National Assembly to clearly stipulate that in the event of a meeting or part thereof being closed a) due consideration must be given to the question of public interest prior to a decision being taken, b) reasons for closing these meetings shall be made public, and c) prior notice of the closure of the meeting be reasonably provided to the public. We consider it important that these amendments should be considered and finalised prior to the closing of the Fifth Parliament in 2019, and should allow for public engagement in the process.
  3. In the interim we request intervention by your office to prevent Committees from closing meetings without following robust process and providing public justification for doing so.

You can read the joint civil society statement here.