OPINION: Sona 2015 exposed the flaws of our electoral system

Something needs to change if we are to continue being one of the most admired democracies in the world.

The 2015 State of the National Address (Sona) will forever be a case study for many academics and political projects, including parliamentary democracy, political accountability, our electoral systems and whether our leaders are preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.

For me, Sona exposed the flaws of our electoral system where Members of our Parliament from the African National Congress (ANC), Democratic Alliance (DA), Economic Freedom Front (EFF) and even the smaller parties such as the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and United Democratic Movement, are beholden to the parties, and not the voters.

If we had elected them and they did not depend on being scribbled onto some party list, they would not have behaved like they did.

In repeated polls, South Africans have indicated that they feel removed from their elected representatives. Many of us do not know who our national representatives are, what their mandate is and whether they are carrying our mandate of the mandate or the parties. Never was this as starkly demonstrated as with Sona 2015.

Lest we forget that the most basic foundations of our democracy are set forth in our nation's Constitution. For more than two decades, people around the world have looked to our nation and our constitution as a beacon of freedom and a model for the world to follow. All of this will soon be forgotten.

During the uproar over Sona every politician expressed outrage. No one missed the opportunity to face a camera and to express his or her outrage. They all called for accountability. Yet it seems that accountability has different meanings for different situations. I hope our elected officials will feel it should have the same meaning for all.

Why? Accountability is a prerequisite for viable efforts to improve the quality of life for all of us. Unfortunately under the current proportional representation system, when our leaders talk about the need to be accountable they are usually referring to others, not themselves.

The blame others syndrome is also evident every day and was there for everyone to see during Sona. The failure to define common ground and hold each other accountable contributes to our Parliamentarians reinforcing shrugging and paying lip service to accountability.

We need a wholesale reform of our democratic system. The problem is as long as every political party is only in this for what works best for them, we will not be guaranteed a system that works best for the people.

Leaders chosen by parties and not the people are getting tainted. They are letting us down. There are parties which rode to power through the politics of hate and division. Those who spoke compassionately of wiping the tear from every eye are failing to deliver. Many politicians' hands are either blackened by corruption or reddened through violence. Money and muscle are dominating. Criminals are feeling right at home in our legislatures. We despair over whether our politics could ever improve.

Luckily for us, ours is a blessed country. So what do we do? It's clear something needs to change, if we are to continue being one of the most admired democracies in the world.

But do we enhance our democracy with a new system, or do we improve it by forcing our politicians to be more accountable, more transparent, and more honest? Do we put in place more checks and balances or do we throw it all out and elect governments differently?

The answer won't be easy. Every option comes with pluses and minuses. The proportional representation electoral system has served us well and is approaching its sell by date. It is time to have a national conversation about what South Africans think, invest in real studies of the various options and how they work and don't work, and then decide.

At the moment there are two types of electoral systems in the 14-nation Southern African Development Community countries, the First Past the Post (FPTP) and PR systems. Nine countries use the FPTP system, a constituency-based system in which the winner takes all.

Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and our beloved country use the PR system which translates the number of votes cast for a party into seats in parliament. For example, 50 000 votes get one person on the party list to become a member of parliament.

Nothing except a fundamental reform of our electoral system and the adoption of a different system, particularly FPTP, will stop the kind of political bloodletting we are witnessing at the moment.

In the FPTP system, voters can at least point to someone who is supposed to be their representative, to whom they can communicate their needs, address their complaints, reward for their promises and successes, and punish for their failures.

In the PR system as we know it, Parliamentarians are just out there, not directly accountable to anyone but their party.

I know that critics have said long ago that some electoral systems are unacceptable to our situation since, among other things, they don't provide for a fair geographical distribution, and therefore people are either more or under represented.

I know that some academics say elections in pluralist democracies like ours fulfill a variety of functions including popular control over the government, alternation of leadership, and legitimation of power. The academics say on the other hand, in conflict-prone heterogeneous societies--where citizens are divided by socio-cultural and astrictive traits such as race, ethnicity, language, religion, or region--the debate involves an additional issue: how the electoral system may contribute to the peaceful coexistence of different social or minority groups within the same polity.

There are different types of electoral systems that are based on the PR representation like ours. In European countries, like German, Italy and Belgium for example, there

are number of electoral system that are based on proportional representation.

And in this respect, we would have to choose a system that is based more on our own environment and system of government rather than on anything else. A PR electoral system certainly has its advantages, but it also have its negative aspects one of which is what we saw at Sona.

What is now needed is a system of carefully thought out blue-prints that would take us to the next stage of debate. The struggle for a new electoral system should be based on thoughts, processes and beliefs because only these would save the day at the end.

Indeed, in many societies, electoral results and ensuing governments that neglect the interests of groups outside the regime often provoke instability and violence. We are experiencing that now.

It is time for humility to replace arrogance, for honesty to take the place of misdirection and, yes, accountability to supplant finger pointing. One of the key aspects of leadership is accountability.

Accountability must be the hallmark of elected officials and the unelected bureaucracy. We will then move from a vicious cycle of finger-pointing to a virtuous cycle of celebrating dedicated socio-economic development.

It matters who are our MPs and how they are elected. We should reflect upon their character and they will wield power and upon how that power will affect the free market through which we pursue happiness and exercise personal liberties. No one better understood the stakes than one of my favourite US Presidents, George Washington when he said: "Government is not reason. It is not eloquence-it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearsome master."

My wish is that the politics of the future will be like the politics of the anti-apartheid era, filled by leaders endowed with idealism, courage, vision, integrity, and character.

Rich Mkhondo runs The Media and Writers Firm (www.mediaandwritersfirm.com), a content development and reputation management agency.