By: Letlhogonolo Letshele and Sheilan Clarke

Legislatures must ensure there is monitoring and public reporting of the response of the constituency office system during this period as an important element of oversight work.

From Whatsapp groups, to provincial task teams and virtual meetings; we have seen provinces being innovative in their response to COVID-19. It is no secret that South Africa was facing health challenges even before the pandemic. We decided to check in with provincial legislatures and to see what they have been doing particularly through constituency offices to assist  communities during this time. 

There are about 350 constituency offices around the country. During the 2018/19 financial year, Parliament allocated about R320 million to the running of these constituency offices while in the previous year allocated an estimated R309 million. Public funds are allocated towards this system each year, yet it is not clear how these offices operate and if political parties are assisting to provide services as they should be. Constituency offices are where the public can go to get help from their elected representatives about information on how to access a range of government services. Members of Parliament (National and Provincial) are assigned constituencies by their political parties, and subsequently those political parties are entitled to a monthly allowance from Parliament and Provincial Legislature for each MP to run a constituency office. Hence, the optimal functioning of the system is important, especially during a crisis. Ahead of the lockdown, some of the provincial legislatures including Gauteng, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal conducted constituency awareness campaigns. These campaigns included primarily the distribution of knowledge on containing the spread of the virus.  

While we note that the crisis has affected Parliament and Provincial Legislatures’ normal functioning in that it requires social and physical distancing, there are still ways in which constituency work can and should be carried. Some of the legislatures and constituency offices have collectively employed alternative strategies to keep the public informed with government’s developments regarding the virus. 

Constituency offices in Western Cape have set up various WhatsApp groups across the province to allow for the instant transfer of information to communities. They have handed over Personal Protective Equipment and warm meals and also conducted a hand sanitizer distribution campaign. 

There are also food drives in various constituencies. The spokesperson for the Western Cape Legislature told us that the DA in the Western Cape is deeply aware of the impact that COVID-19 has on the livelihoods of so many in the province, particularly our most vulnerable people. Together with councillors they try to identify needs in their communities and coordinate food relief to ensure it is distributed fairly based on needs. This is being done in the Athlone 2 constituency for example. They have also assisted with crowd control efforts at supermarkets and clinics in the area. 

The Secretary’s office of the KwaZulu Natal Legislature told us that all Members of the Provincial Legislature have been deployed to their different constituencies to perform constituency based oversight of the fight against the spread against COVID-19. The oversight includes the monitoring of compliance to the lock down regulations and the reporting of any transgressions to the authorities. 

In the Eastern Cape, Members of the Provincial Legislature together with members from the different political parties conducted coronavirus oversight visits. Likewise, the oversight assessed compliance of the measures put in place by the government to fight the spread of coronavirus in the province, especially in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro which has the highest confirmed infection cases in the province. 

Recognising that physical offices may not be operational, the contact details of all constituency offices and elected representatives attached to these offices must be made available by Parliament and the Provincial Legislatures for people to contact them electronically. Furthermore, legislatures must ensure there is monitoring and public reporting of the response of the constituency office system during this period as an important element of oversight work. This will assist in identifying if any areas or communities are not receiving sufficient attention.

At a time like this, constituency offices should continue playing a key role in providing communities with critical information, resources and updates in the safest and possible way, whilst adhering to social distancing and good hygiene practices.

*Note: All 9 provinces were approached for comment but unfortunately 5 did not respond.

This piece was originally published in News24.