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Cigarettes in a mandatory ‘brown packet’ will be easier to replicate, says the DA. Picture: 123RF/DZIEWUL
Cigarettes in a mandatory ‘brown packet’ will be easier to replicate, says the DA. Picture: 123RF/DZIEWUL

Parliament’s portfolio committee on health has been running public hearings on the Tobacco Products & Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill, visiting many towns across five provinces to solicit the views of ordinary citizens. This follows the introduction of the bill to parliament on May 31 by deputy health minister Sibongiseni Dhlomo.     

This column will not attempt to evaluate the merits or demerits of the bill. Suffice to say it has many glaring shortcomings, which have already been pointed out in some detail by members of the public, the public health community, as well as business formations across the country.

This article merely seeks to evaluate the conduct of the hearings in light of the Constitutional Court ruling in Mogale and Others vs The Speaker of the National Assembly and Others, issued on May 30. The court made a number of determinations:

  • Summaries of legislation have to be made available in at least three dominant languages of an area where public participation is proposed; 
  • Invitations must be sent at least five weeks before public hearings, and provincial legislatures must give at least seven days’ notice of a hearing;
  • Parliament must undertake workshops and awareness programmes before public hearings are undertaken, and notice thereof must be issued timeously;
  • Copies of the bill must be made available before public hearings taking place, giving participants sufficient time to acquaint themselves with its contents;
  • Translation services of an adequate standard must be made available during public hearings;
  • Enough time has to be allocated to hearings to enable as many comments as possible; and
  • Information about public participation must be made available to the widest audience possible, not just a cherry-picked list of stakeholders. 

While it seems some effort has been made to comply with the ruling, there is still a wide gap between what the court determined and how the portfolio committee on health has gone about giving voice to members of the public. For instance, the committee has failed to provide five weeks’ notice in any of the provinces and towns where hearings have taken place. In most instances confirmations of venues have only happened in the same week the hearings take place. While parliament issues media statements at the conclusion of each of the hearings in a preceding province, it is highly debatable if these media statements constitute sufficient notice to members of communities in other provinces. 

In some instances parliament has deployed parliamentary staff to towns to conduct what it calls prehearings workshops. Unfortunately, the staff members sent are not versed in the full details and implications of the bill. This is not their fault. These are generally overworked staff members who are away from their homes for extended periods undertaking workshops on various bills. To expect them to know each bill in sufficient detail is foolhardy.

Perhaps our MPs feel threatened by the communities they ought to represent and feel the need to intimidate them with Nyalas, police in bullet-proof vests and crime wardens. 

In the event, prehearings have been woefully inadequate in empowering community members to understand the contents of the bill, develop an informed perspective, and participate meaningfully in the hearings. Questions can also be raised about the selection of individuals informed about public workshops. This seems to rely on the assistance of ANC councillors in the different municipalities targeted for hearings. There is no public notice of such workshops, nor is there an information campaign to increase participation.  

In terms of time allocated to hearings, the process has been a farce. Few hearings have finished at the appointed time. In the most egregious case the Heidelberg hearings started 75 minutes late and still finished at the appointed time, despite many attendees still waiting to be given an opportunity to speak. In Westonaria, the meetings ended a full 75 minutes before the appointed time, again despite many people waiting to be given an opportunity to speak. In Makhado, the hearing concluded a full two hours before time. This is box ticking at its worst. 

In Tshwane, more than 100 members of the public could not gain access to the venue due to space limitations. Many of those who were locked out engaged in a picket. This seems to have irritated the chair, who should have known better than to pick a small venue for a bill that affects thousands of South Africans. This is especially so because this is not the first time venues have been oversubscribed. Why parliament insists on finding venues that accommodate a maximum of 300 people is difficult to explain given the level of interest shown in all the provinces visited thus far. 

Worryingly, the conduct of presiding officers has been below what would be expected of a public representative who cares about giving voice to ordinary South Africans, beyond vested interests. In every province and town the chairpersons have insisted on recognising the same individuals who have been following the hearings across the country. In the worst cases, these individuals are given opportunities to speak in all hearings in a given province while residents of those towns are not recognised.  

In some cases presiding officers have shown the worst kind of disdain for community members. With minimal provocation from attendees, one chair went off on a tangent, admonishing attendees and threatening to pack up and leave. He also threatened members with eviction for the smallest transgressions, each time indicating his willingness to unleash parliamentary security on ordinary members who were jesting or vocally expressing their disapproval without being recognised.

In the worst case, the Westonaria hearings were flooded with highly armed SA Police Service members and Gauteng crime wardens (commonly known as Amapanya-panya). This was in response to vocal expressions of disapproval of the bill by community members of Heidelberg, which was done in song and slogan. Perhaps our MPs feel threatened by the communities they ought to represent and feel the need to intimidate them with Nyalas, police in bullet-proof vests and crime wardens. 

Parliament ought to remind its members and presiding officers that SA’s democracy can be loud. Members of the public hardly ever get opportunities to express themselves outside voting, and when opportunities do arise people can get a bit exuberant. While disruptive, our politicians should not act as if they do not come from these communities. After all, these are the very tactics many of them used to ascend the political ladder.  

Parliament has much work to do to give a voice to communities. What has come to pass with the tobacco bill is nothing short of disastrous.  

Gcoyi is MD of Frontline Africa Advisory.

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