Imagine being a voter having all the relevant information at your disposal required to make an informed decision on candidates running for public office, exercising your civic duty armed with the knowledge that you as an electorate have the power to elect the most capable person for the job. Picture being led by political leaders with legitimate qualifications and professionals in their fields whose ethics are above reproach. Better yet, imagine having the power to recall or even impeach a president who wasn’t performing well in office. These are some of the critical electoral reforms proposed by a panel consisting of Brigalia Bam, former Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), political analyst and columnist, Nompumelelo Runji and Bantu Holomisa, President of the United Democratic Movement (UDM). The debate held at the Guild Theatre in East London on 18th August, was jointly hosted by Democracy Works, the Daily Dispatch and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung South Africa (FES).
Facilitator and Executive Chair at Democracy Works Foundation, William Gumede opened up the discussion by pointing out what he considered a weakness in our current system of proportional representation. “Politicians want to please the party and not their constituency because they did not choose them,” commenting further that electoral reform would increase accountability among politicians if achieved. For the most part, panellists shared this sentiment but each had unique, nuanced perspectives in their varied arguments. Political analyst, Runji said the current bad governance at multiple levels in South Africa was “an assault on democracy itself”. Citing Gauteng resident’s resistance to government’s implementation of E-Tolls as an example, she added that undermining public participation was included in this assault. Runji went on to say the call for electoral reform came from people wanting to enhance their participation and encourage greater accountability. Bantu Holomisa, United Democratic Movement President and Member of Parliament said that the current proportional representation system was implemented at a very specific time and it was now time to review that system. “People need to elect a president and not depend on card carrying members,” he said to loud applause.
Audience members and encouragingly a strong youth presence including high school learners were captivated throughout the robust discussion engaging the panel with thought provoking questions. It was refreshing to see young people asking difficult questions with one young man challenging the panel by interrogating the question of are we were even capable of proposing such reforms considering that politicians proposing these reforms may not be in agreement with concerns that people on the ground may have. Bantu Holomisa was also posed the question by another young member of the audience as to what the possible alternatives to the current system might be with Holomisa suggesting a constituency based electoral system used in conjunction with the current system.
One of the conclusions was a relativist call to not expect systems-change to be a panacea for all social and political challenges SA faces but an important step in the right direction that would address some of the ills we face. With the knowledge that regular public engagements like this one can only add value to matters of national interest and deepening democracy the session concluded with the panel collectively proposing that as a first step it would be necessary to change the voting culture in the country. A culture they said, is subject to great manipulation and often informed by race and class politics. Changing the electoral system would not change the people elected or their behaviour in office – but changing attitudes and altering the realities some live in, like dire poverty, could be the crucial first step.
*The pictures are courtesy of the Daily Dispatch.