/ 15 August 2020

Electoral reform: It’s now or never

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Electoral reform should be done within the spirit of strengthening our constitutional democracy, encouraging electoral participation, enhancing accountability and embracing the technological advancements. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


The advent of freedom and democracy in South Africa ushered in a new electoral dispensation. All citizens regardless of race or gender were for the first time allowed to participate in electing the government of their choice as long as they were eighteen years old, had an identity document and appeared on the voters’ roll. 

The majority of blacks never had the right to vote before then, with women, especially black women, at a double disadvantage. As South Africa commemorated National Women’s Day on Sunday, August 9, tribute goes to the more than 20 000 women who on that day in 1956 marched against legislation that required African persons to carry the pass. 

As the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and the scourge of gender-based violence reaching crisis levels, recall the late Burkinabe president Thomas Sankara’s words: “Inequality can be done away with only by establishing a new society, where men and women will enjoy equal rights. Thus, the status of women will improve only with the elimination of the system that exploits them.” The GBV plague has become a monster and is spiralling out of control. It should be condemned with the strongest force possible, particularly since it is Women’s Month. 

The democratic dispensation introduced a system of three spheres of government, namely national, provincial and local government or municipalities. Prior to 2000, transitional local councils were in place at the local government sphere while August 3 marked four years since the 2016 municipal elections, and 20 years of local government.

The electoral arrangement towards the 1994 elections was transitional and dynamic owing to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa consensus at the World Trade Centre. An interim Constitutional was used until 1999, and the electoral task team was established via a parliamentary resolution in 2002. It was chaired by late political analyst, businessman and politician, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, in preparation for the 2004 national and provincial elections. Its core mandate was to “draft the new electoral legislation required by the Constitution”.

The majority view and recommendation in the commission’s report was for a “legislative provision for an electoral system that can evolve to a larger multi-member constituency system with a compensatory national list”. The system envisaged accessibility and responsibility between voter and representative, instead of a situation where representatives hide behind the party collective. 

The Electoral Act in its current form provides for an electoral regime where national and provincial elections are held separately from local government elections, with the open party proportional representation only applied at the municipal level. 

Electoral reform is overdue. We need to settle the closed proportional representation versus constituency system for the national and provincial elections debate once and for all. 

With time the number of provinces and municipalities should also be reviewed. 

The current proportional system is closed in that only registered political parties partake in the national and provincial elections. 

Documents like the report on electoral reform by the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission gather dust. 

The high level panel on the assessment of key legislation and the acceleration of fundamental change headed by former President Kgalema Motlanthe also expressed itself on the need for electoral reforms in its 2015 report. The following in the panel’s report is worth noting: “A constituency system will hold politicians more directly accountable to the voters and will better ensure that election promises are kept for fear of being voted out.” 

Though the constituency system might have dire consequences for smaller parties, it is a necessary move towards ensuring diversity of voices. The direct election of members by voters at the three spheres of government, as pan-African psychoanalyst and social philosopher Frantz Fanon said, could perhaps ensure that “a people gets the government it deserves”, by which we mean a government that advances their socioeconomic aspirations.

The Constitutional Court of South Africa recently declared that the Electoral Act 73 of 1998 is unconstitutional in relation to disallowing the participation and election of independent candidates to the national assembly and provincial legislatures. The system did not allow direct election of representatives by voters, but through the party candidate list, which resembles too closely the “pass one, pass all” approach.

The Constitutional Court ruling, coupled with the Covid-19 outbreak, has brought about a new normal and the matter of electoral reform back to the table.   

In the meantime, the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) has indicated its readiness to proceed with the 2021 local government elections. Technology has been at the forefront of ensuring that there is enhanced communication and business continuity in the midst of the current health crisis. This is perhaps an opportunity to introduce electronic voting instead of the snaking queues which are usually witnessed at the voting stations!

All stakeholders must accept the need for a new dawn, putting behind them past privileges.  we need finality on the matter of a closed proportional representation system versus a constituency system, and further, on whether elections at the three spheres should take place simultaneously or if the status quo will remain. 

Electoral reform should be done within the spirit of strengthening our constitutional democracy, encouraging electoral participation, enhancing accountability and embracing the technological advancements. It is now or never for electoral reform.

Kwena Manamela is an author and social commentator and Malesela Maubane is a public relations strategist and social commentator