Call for parliamentary disaster management oversight……


parties to debate disaster management oversight proposals 

…….article dated 5 August 2021……

A Disaster Management Amendment Bill, originally published for comment in October 2020, has now finally made it to Parliament and sits for process with the Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional affairs (COGTA), its content.  Its purpose is to bring back disaster management oversight to Parliament.    Experience of the last year shows that existing legislation in terms of the Act side-lines the parliamentary process, allowing the temporary executive disaster committee and the COGTA executive what is termed by many as excessive powers.

The  new Bill proposes amendments to the regulations, at present vested in the name of COGTA Minister, Nkosazana-Dhlamini Zuma, and contained under the Disaster Management Act, which would give Parliament powers of financial oversight and regulatory competence as with any other law of general application.

At present Parliament has to sit and wait for updates to the Act, sometimes for months, in order to endorse in hindsight any regulations by the disaster management committee.  It is also unclear with whom financial authority lies when it comes to budgetary control, thus leaving National Treasury second in the queue when it comes to money matters.

Situation pre-empted

New proposals, drawn up originally by FF+ leader, Dr Pieter Groenewald in February 2021 and then tabled, a Bill on the subject was  debated recently in the light of current  debate surrounding the lack of budgetary control related to  the COVID disaster.  Enough support was received on its introduction for the Bill to go forward “on a motion of desirability” indicating that it may get  ANC support  Consequently, the first stage has been to call for public comment.

What is proposed

The Bill was claimed in initial debate to a sensible one.   It proposes: –

  • to amend the duration of a state of disaster;
  • any action required of a state of disaster is effective forwards;
  • only the National Assembly, provincial legislature or municipal council may extend a state of disaster;
  • provide for the requisite majority needed to extend a state of disaster;
  • provide that a resolution to a state of disaster may only be adopted after public debate
  • provide for oversight by the National Assembly or provincial legislature over a state of disaster
  • dealing with the lapsing of a state of disaster in terms of regulations and by-laws

Where we are now

The current Act has faced much criticism in that by its nature has provided national government with wide-ranging powers and un-limited power over the lives of citizens with little or no practical oversight from Parliament.  Probably, it was stated, nobody imagined a state of disaster lasting as long as is the case in the current instance.

The amending Bill now under debate states in its preamble, “In a constitutional democracy, any legislation, which has such severe consequences, and which impacts all the citizens and their human rights, should be subject to more legislative accountability and oversight.”  In introducing the Bill, Dr Pieter Groenewald, stated that events currently before the House show that this is a key statement underlining the necessity for the Bill.

For example, while the current state of disaster to deal with Covid 19 was originally set to lapse on 15 June 2020, the Act provides that it can be extended by COGTA’s minister for one month at a time without question.     “These would be enormous powers in the wrong hands”, says Pieter Groenewald. “As it is, neither Parliament or the citizens of South Africa have had any say in decisions. ” At the moment disaster management control is effectively in the hands of the ANC executive, with the President acting as spokesperson, with Minister COGTA Minister, Nkosazana-Dhlamini Zuma, carrying the burden of regulatory authority.

More orderly

The proposed legislation states that the National Assembly, a provincial legislature or a municipal council, are the only entities that may resolve to extend a declaration of a national, provincial or local state of disaster respectively and make provisions for how long those entities will provide oversight. The authority to call a state of state of disaster, not to be confused with a state of emergency, will still rest with the Presidency after consideration with the Cabinet. All regulations will commence only from a date agreed to going forward and not retrospectively.

Looking back

The amending Bill acknowledges in its introduction the current lack of oversight and puts it upfront that  there is presently not sufficient legislative accountability and oversight over regulations published in terms of the  Act or accountability for decisions on the duration of any state of disaster defined as such, or in respect of the extension of a state of disaster, or on the regulations imposed on citizens.

Looking back, whilst the original purpose for not including parliamentary oversight and the intent to leave all matters with the Presidency and COGTA, including extensions of time and national interest, was stated as being a necessity in order to speed up reactions times and provide a centralised control system over a three-tier government in a disaster, the concept of short-circuiting controls is also acknowledged as a weakness in the Act. The Bill before Parliament acknowledges the need for alacrity as stated before but calls for legal and financial oversight only to be transferred back to Parliament in terms of democratic principles and the Constitution. No comment has been received from Minister Zuma on the subject, probably her department wishing to stay neutral.

Going forward

To debate the introduction of the Bill, the COGTA portfolio committee met with members of the current National Disaster Management Centre, and the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) and parliamentary MPs, including Pieter Groenewald, to discuss matters. Chair Faith Muthambi felt it important to invite public comment as a result of the meeting.

Parliament has therefore called on all, including the critical element of business, to “Have their Say” on the proposals and indicate their views. (Comments were due 26 August)

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