In the aftermath of many of the world’s worst man-made disasters, there were a number of reforms implemented to prevent such crises ever happening again.
After the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, nuclear reactors were modified and changes were made to the technology.
The 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in India resulted in chemicals companies increasing budgets for health, safety and environmental compliance and the government improving its monitoring.
After the 2010 BP oil spill, the worst in history, a host of technological and regulatory changes were imposed.
In South Africa, President Jacob Zuma’s tenure has seen the spread of cronyism and government corruption at the expense of the economy and citizens.
But, unlike other man-made disasters, there is no magic recipe to avert the recurrence of a kleptocracy, though there are some reforms that may help to make South Africa Zuma-proof in future.
Revisit the electoral system
The current electoral system is often cited as a key reason for the lack of accountability in government.
At present, the proportional representation system allocates seats in Parliament in direct proportion to the number of votes a party receives in a general election.
But MPs regularly fail in their duty to hold ministers, and the president, to account. As it stands, voters cannot vote out MPs who don’t perform.
The issue was raised by the 2003 Van Zyl Slabbert commission on electoral reform, conducted under the tenure of former president Thabo Mbeki, which proposed that at least 50% of the 400 MPs should be directly elected by their constituencies.
“We find ourselves in this crisis because Parliament is failing to do its job,” said Lawson Naidoo, the executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac).
He said, although the organisation hadn’t advocated for a particular reform to the current electoral system, it had often spoken to the ANC about revisiting it.
Naidoo said it could be that the constituency system, as seen at local government level, would bring with it a greater connection between voters and their elected representatives.
Casac commissioned a report last year from political analyst Steven Friedman on electoral systems, power and accountability.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian this week, Friedman said he didn’t think the electoral system was at the heart of the problem.
He said it would be useful to have recall mechanisms — allowing voters to remove representatives in mid-term primaries, which would be a form of expression for those loyal to their parties but unhappy with their representatives.
He said party primaries, which would allow voters rather than party activists to choose candidates, would also be a move in the right direction. “But that would only plug some of the gaps,” he said.
Furthermore, his research concludes that a switch to a more majoritarian system, using constituency-based representation, might hold few benefits and many costs.
“The public representation system works in many ways. It accommodates the small parties and provides more space for diversity,” said Susan Booysen, the author of Dominance and Decline: The ANC in the Time of Zuma.
“The split system Van Zyl Slabbert proposed would mean the constituencies would be so massive and diverse that it could be as bad as not having an MP at all,” said Booysen.
Ralph Mathekga, a political economist and the author of When Zuma Goes, said: “I have my fears about the call to change the electoral system. I don’t think we have fully absorbed what the proportional electoral system has to offer.
“We need to use the proportionate system but with stronger parties, each with stronger internal democracy.”
He said this could begin with addressing the capacity issues faced by MPs who are not sufficiently resourced. They are therefore often not taken seriously and are outgunned by members of the executive.
Ample resources and an increased research capacity would make a difference in how MPs could exercise accountability, he said.
Open up party funding
Political party funding is viewed by Casac as another side of the same coin, said Naidoo. “It is about accountability and transparency … the toxic relationship between money and politics is something we need to regulate properly.”
Parliament has failed to enhance transparency in this regard and attempts to challenge the issue in court have failed.
Mathekga said parties should either be funded only by the state or should reveal who funds them. “This is important for strengthening internal democracy within parties so they are not captured in the manner the ANC is,” Mathekga said.
In the Casac research report, Friedman notes that critics of regulating political financing have ignored a growing consensus, supported by compelling evidence, that the reason why America’s demo-cracy is subject to far more threats than these of Western European nations such as Germany is that the latter have implemented effective measures to regulate funding and the US has not.
“While there are clear constraints to implementation, however, the failure to act is likely to be far more costly than action which faces implementation challenges,” writes Friedman.
“The oft-cited risk that reform could weaken opposition parties because the governing party would then know the identity of their donors is implausible — a governing party which wishes to punish private donors for supporting opposition parties would presumably be willing and able to use its security services to find out who was paying what to whom.”
To get any traction on this issue, the ANC needs to make good on its promise to take a lead on this matter in Parliament — something it has failed to do despite committing itself to greater transparency in 2007 in its Polokwane resolutions.
Involve the poor in the debate
“We are a society ripe for unaccountable government,” said Friedman.
The reforms needed to safeguard the polity must in fact come from within society, he said.
“Middle-class people are able to exercise accountability. They know where to go, how to push the buttons and are used to being taken seriously — something poorer people are not used to.”
Friedman said, as long as the economy excluded most people, many other reforms would be of little use.
“In the political debate, there are not very many things which are said by people at the grass-roots [level].Until we start changing that, there is a limit to what we can do with the electoral system,” he said.
“What are we doing to get information down to grass roots?”
Mathekga agreed that the divide between urban and rural constituencies was still being exploited by politicians. “The rural constituencies need to get access to information … Information sharing is key.”
He suggested that the media should start framing issues in ways that these constituencies can access and relate to.
Vote with your feet
“Part of the potential solution, and it is beginning to emerge now, is the choices made by voters,” said Friedman, referring to how the ANC lost control of the key metros of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Nelson Mandela Bay in this year’s local government elections.
“The South Africa after the local government elections is very different to [the one] before. It’s the first time in our history that politicians [realised they] can’t take voters for granted. But will people use this power?” he asked.
Booysen said a culture change within the ruling party was needed, but this depended on a rise in political consciousness.
“We have limited powers in this; so much depends on the political culture in the ANC,” she said.
“If the ANC survives the next few year electorally, we can hope it might have learned a serious lesson. One cannot force that — one can only hope that the leaders, and the branches, will see the writing on the wall.”
Booysen said she believed smaller parties worked harder at being accountable to their constituencies.
“The ANC’s problem is their MPs see their accountability as upward rather than downward. That is the political culture of the ANC: it believes in democratic centralism, in discipline, and in keeping problems within the movement. That means not accounting,” she said.
Resolving this required a culture change, and losing favour with the electorate would appear the only way to force it, she said.
Booysen also said changes in the Constitution would be needed to Zuma-proof South Africa.
Much of the country’s founding document was written without having in mind that the president might be at the centre of constitutional issues.
Booysen said there had been several cases that showed the Constitution did not envision that the president would be exercising constitutional power over himself.
The setting up of a commission of inquiry, for example, is the responsibility of the president. But, following the release of former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s report that implicates Zuma in state capture, he will in effect be required to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate himself.
Changes to some sections of the Constitution would need to be approved by varying majorities within Parliament.