SA electoral system lacks accountability

We have 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.

Recently, the High-Level Panel on the assessment of key legislation and the acceleration of fundamental change (HLP) recommended that South Africans should be able to directly elect their 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.

Of course, we know this to be so given the way in which MPs have been required to toe the line on state capture, Nkandla and in the motion of no confidence vote against the President.

The party owns the seat and thus has the ultimate influence over an MP. Makhosi Khoza is a fine example of what happens when an MP speaks out against her own party.

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 the 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 Frederick 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 Members of Parliament 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 (PR) 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 inclusiveness.

The system followed recommendations from comparative institutionalists on design for ‘divided societies’. The results of the first election were widely accepted and therefore had a moderating effect in 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 like Chapter 9 Institutions.

In a first-past-the-post system, representatives are individually scrutinised, but the party as a whole gets a 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 the 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 to not introduce any changes to the electoral system. The argument forwarded by then Home Affairs Minister Buthelezi was that there was insufficient time before the 2004 election to implement the changes.

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, who listed a reconsideration of the ETT’s report first on their list of recommendations for Chapter 9 institutions. And now the High-Level Panel has yet again raised the issue.

Overall, South Africa’s electoral system requires reform and the report by the ETT needs to be seriously addressed 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, party interests in the current system trump the public interest.

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

This will lead to a strengthening of the democratic fabric of South Africa’s society and ensure more responsive governance.

This article was published in EyeWitness News. To view the article on their website click here

Judith February is a consultant on governance matters and affiliated to the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice.  Prior to that she was Executive Director of the HSRC’s Democracy and Governance Unit and also Head of the Idasa’s South African Governance programme.  Judith has worked extensively on issues of good governance, transparency and accountability within the South African context.  She is a regular commentator in the media on politics in SA and in 2009 served on an ad hoc panel to evaluate the effectiveness of South Africa’s Parliament. She is a regular columnist for Media24 and also an occasional columnist for the Daily Maverick and other publications.  She is the co-editor of “Testing democracy: which way is South Africa going?” March 2010, Idasa. She was awarded a summer fellowship in 2009 at the Freeman Spogli Institute for Democracy Development and the rule of law at Stanford University, California and in 2012 was awarded a Spring Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC.

To see Judith February's extensive list of publications on our website please click here.

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