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SA's electoral system fails the people

Nompumelelo Sibalukhulu

ANC MPs Ben Turok and Gloria Borman's disciplinary action has shown how flawed South Africa's electoral system is.

The disciplinary action faced by ANC MPs Ben Turok and Gloria Borman for abstaining from voting for the Protection of State Information Bill is an example of the dangers of a parliamentary system in which parliamentarians are answerable to their party bosses, not to voters.

The only sin committed by the two parliamentarians was to express their feelings honestly, to vote—or not vote—with their consciences. But the ANC still pushed the Bill through the National Assembly, in opposition to public opinion, as reflected in the majority of parliamentary submissions made so far that oppose the Bill in its present form.

No parliamentarian can be removed from his seat in Parliament by voters; removals can only be effected by parties. At the level of provincial and national government, there are no direct lines of political accountability between voters and parliamentarians. This is inherent in the design of the country’s electoral system.

Different countries use different electoral systems and variations or combinations of systems exist around the world. South Africa uses a closed-list proportional representation system. In this system, political parties submit a list of individuals to be elected as members of national and provincial legislatures.

Voters do not have the power to determine party lists, but instead vote for political parties, regardless of their dislike of certain individuals on the lists. In this arrangement, a party can put forward a criminal side by side with good men and women—knowing that voters have no choice.

The manner in which South Africa’s electoral system operates certainly does not give full expression to the will of the people. The system is also not designed to make it difficult for the will of the people to be usurped or subverted. Even if voters feel betrayed by the conduct of a parliamentarian, they are unable to remove such a person: he or she would stay on for as long as party bosses so dictate.

In a representative democracy, elections are a means by which citizens nominate representatives, giving them the authority to take decisions and implement them on their behalf.

Parliaments being law-making bodies in democracies, it necessarily follows that electoral systems represent the first step in law-making.

The conception of democracy as “a government of the people, by the people and for the people” has become commonplace. Immanent in this is the notion that, as a matter of principle, the architectural make-up of democratic institutions always ought to embody the will of the people.

Political engineers thus have a normative obligation to go beyond merely designing institutions that give full expression to the will of the people. They have a further obligation to build into institutions such mechanisms as would immunise democratic institutions against attempts to usurp the will of the people. 

This question has exercised the minds of system reformists since the advent of democracy and should exercise the minds of South Africa’s political engineers today.

The decision to adopt the proportional representation system for South Africa was informed by the quest for representivity in the new, post-apartheid political dispensation. The system was also advanced on the basis that it favoured inclusiveness. It was believed then that this system would be sensitive to and would help to unify the political interests that took shape before 1994. A practical way had to be found to represent both the majority (read black) and the minority (read white) in Parliament. This is why minority parties have thus far not made much noise about the need to reform our electoral system.

The underlying assumption was that if the government was representative of the country’s demographic make-up, it would necessarily be accountable. But this has not been the case. A major weakness of the proportional representation system is that it delinks parliamentarians from constituencies. It makes it hard for citizens to know which member of Parliament to approach with grievances or proposals. Even when citizens are able to identify the relevant MPs, it is not guaranteed that the views and demands of the citizenry will gain traction—especially if they are contrary to party opinions and policies.

MPs go against their party at their own risk. The cases of Turok and Borman are good evidence of this. Their decision to abstain from voting for the Bill was viewed as a punishable offence by the ANC.

Although the aim of proportional representation is to represent all existing opinions or groupings in society in the parliamentary landscape, it may have the unintended consequence of fragmentation, which is not limited to the proliferation of political parties that is characteristic of South Africa’s system.

Proportional representation systems provide political parties with an incentive to hold on to and perpetuate divisive or extreme views and policies to win the support of a socioeconomic, ideological, race or other interest group in society.

A key feature of South Africa’s political system is the resilience of race politics. Race has been deployed by the majority black ruling party and minority parties alike. The National Party used it to unite whites under its banner as their defender from the “swart gevaar”—the danger of a black majority government.

Former president Thabo Mbeki regularly labelled detractors and critics “anti-African”. He evaded questions of accountability by painting these as attempts to undermine black people in general.

Since taking over the reins of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema has instrumentalised race by pointing to white people as the chief obstacle to the advancement of black people in present-day South Africa. His singing of the struggle song Shoot the Boer and his call for the nationalisation of mines and the expropriation of land without compensation has exacerbated the fears and concerns of the white minority.

AfriForum has thus found currency for its fear-mongering. The Freedom Front Plus leader, Dr Pieter Mulder, has been emboldened to misrepresent the facts of South Africa’s history to elevate his own and his party’s relevance in the minds of his Afrikaner constituencies. The Democratic Alliance has also entered the fray, casting itself as a multiracial political party for which “race does not matter”. They thus hope to sell a post-racial narrative to South African voters.

The persistence of this type of fragmentation foments political conflict and frustrates unity and reconciliation in the long term. It distracts from the real issues of good governance and accountability.

Fundamentally, electoral systems are not mere means of aggregating votes—they have serious implications for the quality of leadership. An electoral system determines the calibre of individuals elected into office, the character of the legislature, the orientation and implementation of policy and the public’s attitude to the political system as a whole.

In contrast to the situation at national and provincial levels, at the local government level a dual or mixed electoral system attempts to combine the strengths of proportional representation with the strengths of constituency systems, which are considered best for constituency representation because each elected representative represents a constituency and every voter knows which MP to approach.

Voting in local government elections works like this: a voter can vote for the DA in a regional council and, at the same time, vote for a ward councillor of the ANC in the same region. It can thus be said that local government elections satisfy the dual demand for representivity and accountability in the political system. When community members are disgruntled, or when they have suggestions, they know who to approach. They thus know who to hold personally accountable for matters relating to where they live.

Communities in various municipalities across the country have expressed their dissatisfaction with local government performance through multiple protest actions. If locals had the opportunity to vote directly for a parliamentarian, they would call for the resignation of their parliamentarian when they deem it necessary. Yet this is what our current system does not permit.

Under current arrangements, MPs fear members of the executive more than the will of the people. Ministers are more powerful than voters.

Electoral systems are of great consequence to the nature and quality of our political system in general. In the main, it is beneficiaries of party patronage who are likely to resist the call for a radical change to our current electoral system. Such patronage entrepreneurs are enemies of ordinary voters.

Nompumelelo Sibalukhulu is a researcher at the Forum for Public Dialogue (fpd.org.za)

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