Don't hold your breath for a ward system
The Council for the Advancement of SA's Constitution argued through its director, Mamphela Ramphele recently, that our system of proportional representation is unsustainable in the long term. She argues the system gives all the power to "party bosses rather than the people" and that it allows public representatives to be unaccountable to the people. There is a "direct link between this system of government and MPs falling asleep in Parliament", she says.
It's a compelling argument. While MPs are given geographic constituencies, their lack of attention to them is legendary. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is famous for her nonattendance in the National Assembly. If MPs were elected by their geographic constituencies, this would change. Their voters would know how they behaved and whether this behaviour improved their lives or not.
However, it would not necessarily mean there would be dramatic changes overnight. If our system were to change, party bosses would still have a strong hand in choosing MPs for districts. It would be during the next elections that those MPs would find their behaviour judged by voters for the first time. So there would be some time before there was a strong incentive for public representatives to change their behaviour.
Changing the system would also not be the immediate panacea for all our problems. As National Union of Metalworkers of SA general secretary Irvin Jim puts it: "There will be no fully accountable government until there is a change in the power relations between the classes." In other words, the rich would still have the upper hand. This is true. The residents of Bishopscourt would have a much better idea of how their interests were being represented in Parliament than the voters of Qunu. But Qunu's MP would still have more of an incentive to watch his back than MPs do now.
But the lesson from the part of our government that is based on constituencies is not encouraging. Currently, local government councils are elected through a system of proportional representation and wards. Given that local government appears to suffer the most from the problem of unaccountability, it doesn't appear that this system encourages better behaviour. But perhaps that's also because the system is so complicated that many voters don't fully comprehend it. A simpler system might yield different results.
The negotiations that led to our compromise in the mid-1990's, which saw proportional representation being introduced, were about making sure minorities were given a voice in law-making. They were to ensure no group could rule with a completely free hand due to its numerical superiority. If proportional representation was abandoned completely, the ramifications for the Democratic Alliance (DA) would be huge. It seems unlikely that, outside some parts of the Western Cape, there are any parts of South Africa that have more white people than black people. However, if we accept for the sake of argument that voting is about race, the current system would appear to hand overwhelming power to the African National Congress (ANC) almost in perpetuity. If MPs were elected through geographic districts, there is a chance that voting would become less about racial identity and more about policies, class and competence. Instead of the country being blanketed by pictures of party leaders, there would be images of different people in different areas. And it would be up to each of those people to ensure their performance won their party enough votes to run South Africa.
It would probably also be the death knell for attempts to create a two-party system. Movements representing groups in certain places would almost certainly win seats - the Landless People's Movement in KwaZulu-Natal could suddenly have a voice in the National Assembly.
So would parties representing geographic interests - the United Democratic Movement could increase its percentage of the vote. The Freedom Front Plus may lose out as its voters are too spread out.
For the system to be changed, both the ANC and the DA would have to vote to change the constitution in Parliament. The DA might find this a more attractive prospect, even though it could be wiped out. For the ANC, it would mean the end of party deployment. But, more important, it could break the stranglehold racial identity has on our politics. And for that reason it would appear unlikely to be in the interests of its current leaders.
Stephen Grootes is an Eyewitness News Reporter. Follow him on Twitter @stephengrootes
This column first appeared in The Business Day