- This year's SONA will be a virtual, hybrid sitting, with only 50 people in the National Assembly chamber.
- This means less pomp and ceremony.
- The cost-saving will be used to modernise Parliament's technological capabilities.
No red carpet. No 21-gun salute. No military parade. No Imbongi. Social distancing, yes.
This year's State of the Nation Address (SONA) will be a low-key affair with only 50 representatives of the three arms of state in the National Assembly chamber and the rest participating through virtual technology.
Parliament's presiding officers announced on Wednesday that this year's SONA would take place on 11 February through a virtual, hybrid sitting due to the ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"In strict adherence to the National State of Disaster regulations, this year's SONA will take the form of a hybrid joint sitting, with at least no more than 50 Members of Parliament, representatives from the Judiciary and the Executive in the physical chamber and the rest of this category connecting virtually," reads the joint statement by Speaker of the National Assembly Thandi Modise and Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces Amos Masondo.
"Other categories that will virtually form part of this important event include Premiers, Speakers and other special delegates representing provinces in the National Council of Provinces, eminent persons, diplomatic corps, distinguished guests and members of the public.
"Due to the limited number of persons permitted within the precincts of Parliament, and Parliament's sensitivity to the prevailing conditions, various ceremonial aspects that usually characterise the SONA have been suspended."
She continued: "In this regard, there will be no red carpet and procession of the three arms of the state, physical participation of junior and civil guard of honour, eminent persons, Imbongi, military parade that leads the presidential procession onto a saluting dais on the steps of the National Assembly, the guard of honour by the National Ceremonial Guard and the 21-gun salute.
"Where possible and appropriate, some of these traditional features shall take place virtually in keeping with the significance and character of the Address."
President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to deliver the SONA from the National Assembly Chamber at 19:00.
Both houses would also participate in the debate on SONA through a hybrid sitting, on 16 and 17 February, with Ramaphosa responding to the debate on 18 February.
While R2.2 million is budgeted for the event, Secretary of Parliament Baby Tyawa expects that expenditure for the event would not pass the R1 million mark.
"We're not going to be serving anything other than the usual water. That's it," added Modise.
The money saved would be used to modernising Parliament's technological capabilities to enhance its constitutional functions of public participation, oversight and law-making.
In recent years, SONA has been characterised by disruptions by the EFF. Modise is satisfied that the rules governing virtual joint sittings are sufficient to deal with this, should it arise.
She said there had been joint virtual sittings where the rules proved adequate.
"The rules have been applied equally, without fear or favour, and that is what we intend to do," she said.
Parliament had also been hard hit by the virus, with 56 staff members having been infected.
"We are, however, greatly encouraged by the recovery rate of both Members of Parliament and staff. Sadly, we have lost 12 Members of Parliament and five officials since the outbreak of the virus. We once again extend our heartfelt condolences to their families and of those of thousands that have passed on since the outbreak of the pandemic," reads the statement.
"We also pay homage to all the health and essential services workers who have been on the front line daily, putting their lives at risk by taking action and tackling the pandemic head-on. We continue to urge South Africans to adhere to all safety protocols to help reduce the spread of the virus.
"As Parliament, we will continue exercising our vigilance in conducting oversight over the Executive as they implement their plans to reduce the rate of infections."