MAY 27: A general view of the first national assem
The first sitting of the National Assembly, on 27 May, after lockdown was announced two months before. (Photo by Gallo Images/Jeffrey Abrahams)
  • FF+ MP Pieter Groenewald has published a private member’s bill to make changes to the Disaster Management Act – and so make long lockdowns much harder in future.
  • South Africa has been in a national state of disaster for more than seven months, during which the national executive has used wide-reaching powers to ban alcohol and cigarettes and impose a curfew.
  • In future, Parliament should have a much bigger say in how the country is run during a disaster, Groenewald's draft law says.
  • States of disaster would be valid for only three weeks, and it would take a 60% vote in the National Assembly to extend them beyond another three months.
  • Disaster rules should be put before Parliament, which would be able to revoke them.
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If FF+ MP Pieter Groenewald has his way, South Africa is unlikely to see another lockdown such as that imposed for the coronavirus – at least not unless 60% or more of voting MPs in the National Assembly agrees with it.

In terms of a private member’s bill Groenewald published on Friday, Parliament would become a lot more involved in future states of disaster, with the power to veto the rules decreed by the national executive during such a state of disaster.

But first Parliament would have to agree that a state of disaster is required.

Should Groenewald's Disaster Management Amendment Bill pass in its current form, states of disaster would be valid for only 21 days. After that, Parliament would have to vote to extend it, and then for no more than three months. To extend it again, after the first three months and three weeks, would require a 60% vote in the National Assembly, and minority parties would get to have their say first in a public debate.

South Africa has been in a state of disaster since mid-March, and over seven months the national executive has used the wide-ranging powers that grants to ban alcohol and cigarettes, impose a curfew, close borders, and create new offences, all without legislative oversight.

One set of changes to the Disaster Management Act proposed by Groenewald would make that impossible. The minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs (and those cabinet members acting on her delegated authority) would still be able to issue decrees intended to mitigate the effects of a disaster – but such regulations would have to be brought before Parliament as soon as possible after they are published.

The National Assembly would then have the power to "disapprove" those regulations, which would immediately fall away to the extent disapproved.

The same powers would be granted to provincial legislatures and the councils of local governments for states of disaster at a provincial or municipal level.

"The national state of disaster as well as the accompanying regulations had severe consequences and a negative impact on the lives of every citizen in South Africa," says Groenewald in a memorandum on the objects of his draft law.

"Citizens’ basic human rights were restricted and certain behaviours and actions were prohibited. The economic consequences were disastrous and millions of people lost their jobs.

"The Disaster Management Act does not currently provide adequate legislative accountability and oversight over the regulations published in terms of it, the duration of a state of disaster, nor in respect of the extension of a state of disaster. 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."

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