Last week’s local government elections were the most significant political event in South Africa since the first democratic general election in April 1994. They suggest to me that the democratic process is alive and well in one of the most politically literate populations on Earth.
Ahead of the publication of the interim Constitution in 1994, the outgoing National Party and the incoming African National Congress foisted a despotic and undemocratic electoral law on South Africa. As Wikipedia puts it: “The 400 members of the National Assembly were chosen from party lists in proportion to each party’s share of the national ballot”.
The law provided no place at national or provincial level for constituencies, with the result that no MP is accountable to any defined group of citizens anywhere.
In this top-down system, MPs are accountable solely to their party managers, who are constitutionally empowered to remove any MP at will and replace him or her with another from the party list.
This is what RW Johnson, in South Africa: The First Man, the Last Nation, called a “scandalous political bosses’ charter — unique in the world”.
The Electoral Law determined that all members in the nine provincial legislatures, too, be elected by the same system of unmediated proportional representation.
Whether headed by Thabo Mbeki or by Jacob Zuma, the ANC government has taken no account of the 2003 report of the electoral commission’s task team headed by the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert.
It recommended changes to the electoral system, advising that constituency representatives should account for 300 members of the National Assembly, the remaining 100 being drawn from a closed national list (as all 400 are now drawn). Slabbert told the media that changes to the present electoral system should be evaluated in terms of fairness, inclusiveness, simplicity and accountability.
Last week’s elections show that these issues have become more acute in the eight years since then.
The ruling ANC’s refusal to pay attention to the Slabbert commission’s recommendations has now met with a significant response from the country’s voters in the only electoral forum available to them.
Only at the bottom-most tier in the political system — at municipal level — is there scope for South African voters to hold an individual politician accountable to themselves instead of to party bosses. This constituency (or “ward”) system exists only at municipal level and only for half the seats, the other half being subject to the same party-list system as for national and provincial assemblies.
This issue of “ward politics” versus “slate politics” is the frontline in the struggle for democracy in South Africa. It contests the tendency towards despotism and corruption, the inevitable outcome of the bad Electoral Law of 1994.
Now voters themselves have demonstrated their need to hold their “representatives” accountable through a constituency system. This was the first nationwide election in which the issue of accountability became pre-eminent. In this, as so often before in South Africa, the people have been ahead of the politicians.
Paul Trewhela, a former political prisoner, is the author of Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and Swapo (Jacana, 2009)
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