Pretoria - With the end of the current parliamentary term looming, there is a flurry of activity from committees seeking to finalise legislation before their time is up; perhaps none is as disheartening as the portfolio committee on health.
The committee has been conducting public hearings, so far in Limpopo and the North West, ostensibly to give South Africans an opportunity to express themselves on the contents of the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill. During the committee’s briefing on the bill on May 31, the chairperson of the committee emphasised to fellow MPs the Constitutional Court’s judgment in Mogale & Others v Speaker of the National Assembly & Others, which had been delivered the day before. The judgment affirmed Parliament’s responsibility to facilitate meaningful public participation.
In summary, the court held that Parliament had a duty to give notice of public hearings at least five weeks before they take place, conduct stakeholder workshops three weeks before, provide the bill in at least three dominant languages in the area, provide food and transport for participants, and allow participants to ask questions seeking clarification.
In practice, the process undertaken in reality for the new tobacco bill has largely disempowered stakeholders from meaningful participation. For instance, notice of the hearings was given on parliamentary platforms only a day before the hearings. Stakeholder education took place in the same week as the hearings, and venues were confirmed late.
In his interpretation of the Mogale judgment, the chairperson of the committee informed the audience during the public hearings that the session was not meant to be a dialogue and that members of the committee would not entertain questions from the floor. In Limpopo, the presiding officer used her opening remarks to express her views about the harms of tobacco and the government’s duty to protect the health of the nation.
While this may be true – everybody agrees on this point – it goes without saying that her role as chairperson of the session required her to provide an impartial overview of the provisions of the bill, a summary of the law-making process and guidance on how the session would be conducted.
While many participants agreed that the government has a duty to institute control measures to curb the appeal and accessibility of tobacco products, especially to people under the age of 18, the debate concerns how this should be done and whether the proposed bill is the answer to the problem of nicotine addiction.
Given that stakeholder education and advertisement of the sessions have been so poor, it is remarkable that most of the sessions have had a reasonable turn-out. However, it is clear that the ruling party has gone to great lengths to mobilise voices in support of the bill through its ward structures and local branches. To that extent, such ward representatives seem to have been given the task of mobilising and sourcing attendees to be bussed into the sessions to support the bill.
It is troubling that the Department of Health and its subsidiary, the South African Medical Research Council, have acted in concert with some NGOs, including the US-based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, which are openly funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. These entities – patently influenced by foreign interests – have been bussing in so-called South African youth from the South African Tobacco Free Youth Forum and Protect Our Next to support the bill at every session held thus far.
This behaviour calls into question the independence of the South African Medical Research Council.
In the midst of all of this, genuine public participation appears to have been sacrificed in favour of advancing agendas through the subversion of the principle of public participation.
* Motsumi is the spokesperson for the South Africa Tobacco Transformation Alliance.
** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.