JUDITH FEBRUARY: SA’s electoral system is weakened by the lack of accountability


Given the daily dose of the Zondo commission into state capture and what seems like endless stories of the failure by government to deliver basic services, the accountability link between citizens and their public representatives appears to be seriously compromised. Political parties themselves also appear unable to muster the internal democratic capacity to hold their members to account as they should.

We have also heard it said many times before: the South African electoral system does not provide a sufficient link between the citizen and the elected representative. Many have argued that our proportional representation list system diminishes levels of accountability. Yet, we have also seen our local government system that has greater built-in accountability fail dismally in relation to links with citizens and accountability.

So, it’s a tricky issue and one that South Africa has been grappling with for a number of years. This past week, the Inclusive Society Institute released a report which is bound to start a new and welcome discussion on electoral reform.

The panel, led by Roelf Meyer, also includes William Gumede, Ebrahim Fakir and Dren Nupen. The panel is of the view that an electoral model based only on the constituency system “would not make it possible to meet the constitutional requirement of an outcome which holds ‘in general, proportionality’.”

The panel therefore recommends a 400-seat National Assembly of which 300 seats are allocated via the constituency system and 100 seats via proportional representation. The constituency system would see the establishment of 66 multi-member constituencies (MMCs), with three to seven representatives to be elected for each. These constituencies would be demarcated along present district and metropolitan municipal lines.’

Electoral reform discussions have a long history in democratic South Africa. At the end of 2017, a high-level panel on the assessment of key legislation and the acceleration of fundamental change recommended that South Africans should be able to directly elect their members of Parliament (MPs).

The panel has recommended that Parliament “amend the Electoral Act to provide for an electoral system that makes MPs accountable to defined constituencies on a proportional representation and constituency system for national elections”. The panel is of the view that the party bosses have become too powerful in exercising authority over MPs.

We know this to be so, given the way in which MPs have been required to toe the line on state capture, former President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla excess and in the several motions of no confidence vote against him.

The party owns the seat and thus has the ultimate influence over an MP.

In its founding provisions, the Constitution identifies “Universal adult suffrage, a national common voter’s roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness, and openness” as essential components of any new electoral system.

In 2002, Cabinet appointed an electoral task team (ETT) to formulate the new electoral laws for the 2004 elections and beyond. The task team was chaired by the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and consisted of members of government and civil society.

Every electoral system has its pros and cons, of course. The South African electoral system is characterised by simplicity, inclusiveness and a strong sense of fairness.

These characteristics have, arguably, helped to strengthen our democracy and ensure the legitimacy of democratic processes among South Africans.

However, since the 1999 general elections, a significant weakness has emerged within the electoral system. South Africa’s use of proportional representation based on a closed party list system seems to generate a deficit in accountability, particularly in the context of one-party dominance.

This weakness was most notable during the Arms Deal debacle of 2000, where it was clear that party loyalty trumped the need for accountability. Those MPs who stood their ground, such as Andrew Feinstein, found themselves in the wilderness and ostracised by the ANC.

Initially, the South African electoral system as crafted in the interim constitution of 1994 was welcomed. Near-perfect proportional representation with no threshold mirrored the national and provincial electorate, thus ensuring that the national and provincial legislatures were directly and widely representative and afforded a strong sense of inclusivity.

The system followed recommendations from comparative constitutionalists on design for "divided societies". The results of the first election were widely accepted and therefore had a moderating effect during a potentially volatile time.

The ETT addressed whether or not an electoral system per se had the ability to guarantee accountability, as opposed to other institutional arrangements that govern representatives’ behaviour while in office, such as Chapter 9 institutions.

In a first-past-the-post system, representatives are individually scrutinised, but the party as a whole is subject to less critical treatment.

With further deliberation, the ETT proposed a system that they felt did not drastically change the electoral system in a manner that would completely disrupt the administration of elections, and could be modified in the future to continuously increase accountability. This system was supported by a majority of the task team, although there was a minority dissent.

The majority proposal, better known as the “69 constituency option”, proposed expanding the number of multi-member constituencies from 9 to 69. Three hundred of the 400 total seats would be assigned by this method. The remaining 100 would be decided according to national closed lists, in order to regain proportionality.

It is worth noting that within the course of the ETT’s deliberations, an open list PR system was proposed to bring about the correct balance between individual and party accountability.

Voters would choose a party and then go on to rank candidates in the order in which they think they should be elected to Parliament, depending on the proportion of votes the party received. Candidates would be beholden to voters to rank them favourably. Proportionality would not be compromised. Challenges to an open list system arise with the sheer number of candidates (200+ in some cases), and the level of literacy required to vote in such a manner. The report was tabled in March 2003, and the Parliament voted to revisit the recommendations.

Instead, however, Cabinet adopted the ETT’s minority position, which was not to introduce any changes to the electoral system. The argument forwarded by then Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi was that there was insufficient time before the 2004 election to implement the changes.

Since then, unfortunately, the recommendations have never been reconsidered or adopted by Parliament. Attention was drawn again to the recommendations made by the ETT by the Report of the Independent Assessment of Parliament in 2009. That report listed a reconsideration of the ETT’s report first on their list of recommendations for Chapter 9 institutions. And then the high-level panel again raised the issue.

Overall, South Africa’s electoral system requires reform and the report by the ETT needs to be seriously addressed even all these years later. The electoral system in its current form does indeed espouse and support democratic values of fairness and inclusivity, while maintaining its simplicity.

But it is on the key democratic value of accountability where the system remains weak. The deficit in accountability found within South Africa’s electoral system has weakened key institutions and has enabled the emergence of a one-party dominant system and, more importantly, the dominance of party executives.

As seen in the infamous Arms Deal and now in the state capture allegations and President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Cabinet choices, party interests in the current system largely trump the public interest.

If South Africa is to further the consolidation of its democracy, ensuring greater accountability between the electorate and political parties is key.

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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