Electoral system alienates voters

South Africa’s electoral system urgently needs to be changed to make elected representatives more accountable and responsive and to give voters more power to dismiss incompetent ones.

One of the electoral changes the country desperately needs to introduce in conjunction with a change to the electoral system is an extra box to tick on the ballot paper, which voters who are unhappy with all the parties listed on the ballot paper, can tick.

This is very important in a political system where all the political parties are irrelevant and voters feel they have no credible choices in front of them.

SA’s current electoral system, the closed-party list proportional representative (PR) electoral system, adds to the disenfranchisement of ordinary voters and citizens.

In our current parliamentary and provincial electoral system, citizens vote for the party. The party decides on the order of the names on its candidates’ list. It is therefore, the party’s preferred list.

Once parliament is elected, the Members of Parliament elect the state president – not citizens who have to accept the choice of the party leaders.

The problem is that parliamentary representatives are accountable to political parties (leaders), not necessarily voters. MPs are not directly elected by their constituencies. The party leaders allocate MPs to “constituencies” after an election, which further undermines a relationship of accountability between elected representatives and constituencies.

The constituency almost never corresponds to where an MP comes from. The local “constituency” is often not even consulted about the choice of “their” MP.

That appointee therefore, has no obligation to be accountable to his or her deployed constituency – because the constituency cannot have him or her replaced if he/she does not perform.

There is little pressure on the deployed MP to listen to his or her “constituency”; all he/she needs to do is to please the ANC leadership that appointed him/her.

In the current system in order to advance, MPs serve the party leadership, uncritically doing the bidding of the leadership which has the power to reappoint MPs. The needs of the communities are therefore, not paramount. A community in the “constituency” of a hapless MP can appeal  for a better performance as much as they want, it is means little.

Party candidate lists are compiled in most cases by the party leadership, or through slate voting – ANC members vote for a slate of candidates attached to a leader. This was how Jacob Zuma was elected ANC president at the party’s national conference in Polokwane in 2007.

Once in parliament, members are rarely critical of executive or Cabinet ministers when they report to parliament, fearing that criticising the very people with the power to decide on whether they will be on the candidate’s list for the next elections will be deadly for their careers.

The whole system breeds a culture where the leadership of the party – and not ordinary voters or members – is in control.

The current system also prevents individuals from standing as independents for parliament.

Elections since 1994 have consistently produced racialised and class-based electoral national election results – rather than diversity.

The electoral system at the local government electoral tier is different to the PR-system of the national and provincial system. At municipal level there is a mixed electoral system, whereby half the ward councillors are elected by a PR list process, and the other half directly through local representation at ward level (a constituency system).

Although local government has a mixed electoral system, party leaders still tightly control who is on the list of candidates. Astonishingly, in the 2011 local government elections, the ANC only released their mayoral candidates after the elections – with ordinary members, supporters and voters having had no say whatsoever in who “they were electing” as their city mayors.

The ANC party leadership then handpicked the mayoral candidates and presented them  to their members, supporters and voters — after the elections.

Although there is a strong support in civil society for electoral system change, there is also strong political opposition to changing the electoral system.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has argued in favour of a mixed electoral system at national, provincial and local level. Cosatu proposed a 65% constituency-based, 35% proportional representation system.

Cosatu wants a referendum to test the electorate’s feeling towards a constituency-based electoral system.

In a discussion document for its 2006 conference, Cosatu said a constituency-based electoral system “will promote more dynamic contact between the people and public representatives, holds the possibility of people’s views being heard, and could introduce the element of constituents more directly determining candidates.”

The document went on to say: “The current system of proportional representation also undermines independent thought as individual careers depend on those in the party leadership and the deployment committee. Unless we can achieve it soon, the movement towards sycophancy is inevitable”.

When President Nelson Mandela left office in 1999, he called for a review of the electoral system. President Thabo Mbeki in 2002, established a task team, led by the late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, to formulate parameters for a new electoral system. Their brief included deciding on whether floor-crossing should be allowed.

The task team released its final report in January 2003, and members were split 8-4 on the final recommendation. However, the majority called for an alternative electoral system which combined constituency and proportional representation models – a mixed system, not unlike that of Germany which has a mixed-member proportional system where voters can choose between political parties and individual candidates.

The Van Zyl Slabbert committee proposed a new, more constituency-based electoral system along similar lines: it should be based to some extent on the current system, but with multi-member constituencies together electing 300 members of the National Assembly and with a compensatory closed national list providing for 100 members.

The minority ANC-aligned members of the task team opposed the constituency-based proposals – following instructions from the ANC national leadership. They recommended  the electoral system remain the same.

In 2003, Cabinet decided to reject Van Zyl Slabbert’s proposals and retain the current 400-member National Assembly and proportional representation electoral system.

The main reason why the current electoral system was adopted in 1994 was to include as many parties as possible into parliament. Some minority parties only secured seats because of the proportional representation system.

Even the Van Zyl Slabbert-led electoral task team found that the current electoral system is high on party fairness and party inclusiveness. It is also simple to implement. However, although the this system has boosted party representation and given room for a large representation of small parties, it has not brought about accountability.

The task team strongly questioned the system in terms of accountability in relation to voters. Many of the small parties are not very relevant to the ordinary voter, neither are they very accountable or responsive. A more constituency-based system would exclude such parties – but bring more accountability into the political system.

Clearly, SA urgently needs to make its electoral system more accountable and responsive to ordinary voters, rather than a plethora of small parties. A new electoral system must bring a direct link – accessibility – between voters and their representatives, must remain representative and must retain overall proportionality.

The current system causes alienation of voters from elected representatives, Parliament and the democratic system itself.

Finally, electoral reform cannot be implemented without broader institutional reform to make democratic institutions more accountable and responsive; and political parties must also become more accountable to their members and voters.

*This article appeared in the Daily Dispatch, though not online.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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