As South Africa has focused on the pandemic for the past 18 months, meanwhile another process has slowly made its way through WhatsApp political groups and low-key Zoom conversations. It is a process that is supposed to bring about major changes to our electoral system with the aim of strengthening the crucial, but still largely absent, aspect of how a democracy works, called accountability. This follows a ruling by the Constitutional Court that independent candidates, full individuals, should be allowed to run for seats in parliament.
This opened the door to a possible departure from the system we currently have for national and provincial elections, which is proportional representation.
Wednesday Business day published a report suggesting that the ANC’s National Executive Committee had decided to implement very few changes in the way MPs are elected. This despite the fact that the majority of the panel investigating the electoral system opted for a much larger change.
This should come as no surprise. In many countries, any party or organization will be more comfortable with the system that brought it to power, and are unlikely to want to change it.
It should also be remembered that, in general, countries only change their electoral systems in extreme circumstances. In our case, there was Codesa after the apartheid government’s position became unsustainable, while other constitutions only emerged after periods of intense conflict or even war.
Usually it is very difficult to get consensus on what should change. As different models are being explored, political parties are likely to make their own electoral calculations and then agree only on systems that would allow them to get more votes.
There is an interesting dynamic to this for the ANC.
While the current system brought him to power and kept him in power for many years, it is possible that a simple constituency-based system could actually benefit the ANC. He may win even more votes in this system than he currently does.
Despite this, he opts for less change rather than more, perhaps because a drastically overhauled system would create more demands for longer-term accountability.
While there are many questions that electoral systems must answer, two major outcomes are needed.
The first is to ensure that the voice of the people is heard, that the system fairly represents the vote.
The second is to ensure accountability.
The problem we have right now doesn’t seem to relate to the first question: it’s hard to argue that proportional representation (which ensures that every vote is counted) doesn’t faithfully reflect the way people vote.
The problem lies in the responsibility. This became evident in Zuma’s day when people could only vote for the party, not for one person. Testimonies to the Zondo Commission showed that even if MPs could not justify their vote in Parliament, they had to vote as their party demanded. Otherwise, they would lose their jobs.
This led to calls for constituency democracy.
It has been suggested that there would in fact be multi-member constituencies. This would mean that some ridings would have MPs from different parties, and some would have MPs from only one party, depending on how the vote unfolded. Everyone will know who their deputies are and can thus exert direct pressure on them.
But that doesn’t seem likely to work in practice. The point is, in a country as large and diverse (both classically and geographically) as South Africa, most people still wouldn’t necessarily know their MPs.
Above all, this system does not seem to establish a direct link between voters and deputies. It is difficult to see how this system would establish the kind of accountability that the Zondo Commission has shown.
So it looks like for now the proportional representation system, with some tweaks to allow independent candidates to run on their own, is likely to stay.
While some may be disappointed, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
As has been pointed out by others (including Professor Anthony Butler), proportional representation forces parties to form national coalitions. To have significant political power, parties must attract diverse constituencies. It could prevent radicalization and the worst identity politics from entering our political system.
While there is no way to prevent the use of identity politics, removing a system that discourages identity politics may be foolish.
Also, as Jonny Steinberg wrote, the introduction of constituencies based solely on geography may well introduce other forms of ethnic politics. He cited the example of the Patriotic Alliance, which won several constituencies in recent by-elections.
It is a party that appears to campaign only among communities of a specific ethnicity. It also led to chaos in Nelson Mandela Bay, where the party held the balance of power between the DA and ANC-led coalitions. In an infamous incident, the head of their council, Marlon Daniels, changed his mind several times during a single voting process.
While the latest changes the ANC will accept have yet to be finalized publicly, this problem will continue to come up. It is perhaps more a demonstration of the failure of the elected parties than of the system. Defenders of our current electoral system might argue that it should be allowed to bring about a change of government before it is changed.
And they could also mean that making major changes could have unpredictable and difficult results, better to the heck you know than a system that could lead to even more chaos and instability.
But it seems undeniable that the continuous calls for change are a demonstration of the failure of our policy.
The question then may arise as to whether we should blame the system or whether we should blame the players. DM