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SA electoral system has reached its sell-by date

DM168

DM168 Reflection

SA electoral system has reached its sell-by date

Former South African president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: EPA-EFE/PHIL MAGAKOE / POOL)

To further demonstrate how flawed our current electoral system is, Rantho – despite her courageous work in the Eskom inquiry – was left out of the ANC list of MPs for the sixth Parliament.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In its June 2017 judgment, the Constitutional Court reminded Parliament of its important role not only of law-making but also its responsibility to hold the executive to account.

The Court prefaced its judgment by reminding South Africans that ours is meant to be an accountable government “of the people, by the people and for the people through the instrumentality of the Constitution”.

The ruling was a seminal point in the development of our democracy. It strengthened Parliament’s hand by clarifying its powers and the role of the Speaker in deciding how votes of no confidence are to be conducted. The court told then-Speaker Baleka Mbete that she had the powers – despite her earlier protestations – to determine that a vote of no confidence in then-president Jacob Zuma could be conducted through a secret ballot.

The court went further, to school Parliament about its role of holding the executive to account. “Those who represent the people in Parliament have thus been given the constitutional responsibility of … not only [passing] legislation but also bears the added and crucial responsibility of ‘scrutinising and overseeing executive action’,” said Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng, who read the judgment.

But, listening to the evidence before the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture this week, it is clear that Parliament has completely failed to exercise its duty as demanded by the Constitution.

Former chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Public Enterprises Zukiswa Rantho told Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo of how the ANC caucus in Parliament was split down the middle on the establishment of the parliamentary inquiry into corruption at Eskom. Uppermost in the minds of those opposed to the Eskom inquiry was not the fulfilment of their constitutional duty – of exercising oversight over the state and its entities – but rather their vested interest in saving the reputation of the party and their own skins. Rantho endured threats to her life and those of her family members.

Last week the former chairperson of the High-Level Review Panel into the State Security Agency (SSA), Sydney Mufamadi, told the State Capture commission of how Parliament allowed Zuma to “usurp” its role by signing a proclamation which effectively allowed political interference in the country’s intelligence services. As things stand, a whopping amount of R9-billion remains unaccounted for at the SSA.

Although it can be argued that the current crop of MPs were elected after the 2019 elections, the reality is that the status quo remains. This is not about the ANC, because other opposition parties equally expect their representatives to toe the party line.

A report by researcher Gareth van Onselen showed that 19 of the 31 MPs that the EFF had in the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces had either resigned or were expelled from the party between 2014 and 2019.

What this points to are two fundamental points, first that our Parliament is weak and second that the current electoral system is past its sell-by date. This is because MPs are beholden to the whims of the political parties they belong to. Through the current proportional representation system – at provincial and national level – the electorate vote for their preferred political parties, which then decide, without input from their voters, who is appointed as public representatives.

To further demonstrate how flawed our current electoral system is, Rantho – despite her courageous work in the Eskom inquiry – was left out of the ANC list of MPs for the sixth Parliament.

This is the same party that elected Pretty “MaMkhize” Xaba as a legislator in 2014 simply because she had been a vocal supporter of Zuma during his rape trial. Xaba’s claim to fame was brandishing a makeshift wooden machine gun while hurling unprintable insults at Khwezi, the woman who had accused Zuma of rape, outside the South Gauteng High Court.

That’s why Parliament needs to move with speed to amend the Electoral Act as directed by the July 2020 Constitutional Court ruling, which allowed for independent candidates to contest provincial and national elections. But Parliament must not just amend the Act to allow for independent candidates to stand for provincial and national elections. Within the current legislative framework, it also has an opportunity to overhaul the entire electoral system.

Granted, the proportional representation system has its advantages in ensuring that the smaller parties have a voice in the municipal councils and legislatures. But what South Africans need are public representatives who are directly accountable to their constituencies.

Though not perfect, the constituency-based system will go a long way towards empowering voters not only to hold their representatives accountable but also to decide who best represents their hopes and aspirations.

We deserve better accountability from our public representatives. DM168

Sibusiso Ngalwa is the Newzroom Afrika politics editor and Sanef chair.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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  • Hear, hear, but won’t be easy. As we well know Rantho was left out of the ANC list of MPs for the sixth Parliament BECAUSE of her courageous work in the Eskom inquiry. Even for opposition parties it would be like turkeys voting for Xmas. The only beneficiaries here would be the fidelity of the Constitution and the improvement of lives of almost the entire population of South Africa.

  • Good article Sibusiso. Members of parliament are not really accountable to the public, but by and large to their own political parties. There are of course exceptions, like Dr Khoza, and Mr Jonas…but they paid dearly for it. This is a problem worldwide as is so openly the case in the US, as seen in the last 4 years under Trump. However, our system with members of a party vote for the leaders, who then vote for the president and the top 6 is obscene, and one of the major reasons for so much corruption by ANC leaders.

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