South Africa


Our political system has failed – the election structure and the players within it may have to change

Our political system has failed – the election structure and the players within it may have to change
General election campaign posters for the African National Congress, Democratic Alliance, Economic Freedom Fighters and Freedom Front Plus on 18 April 2019. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The current electoral system did bring the ANC to power, and kept it in power for many years, but it is possible that a simple constituency-based system would benefit the party even more.

While South Africa’s focus has been on the pandemic for the last 18 months, during that time another process has been slowly winding its way through political WhatsApp groups and discreet Zoom conversations. It is a process that is supposed to see major changes to our electoral system with the aim of strengthening the crucial, yet still largely missing aspect of functioning democracy called accountability. This follows a ruling in the Constitutional Court that independent candidates, individuals in their own right, must be allowed to stand for seats in Parliament.

This has opened the door to a possible move away from the system we have now for national and provincial elections, which is proportional representation. 

On Wednesday Business Day published a report suggesting that the ANC’s National Executive Committee had decided to implement very little change to the way in which MPs are elected. This is despite the fact that the majority of the panel investigating the electoral system opted for much greater change.  

This should come as no surprise. In many countries, any party or organisation is going to be most comfortable with the system that got it into power, and they are unlikely to want to change it.

It should also be remembered that, generally speaking, countries only change their electoral systems under extreme circumstances. In our case there was Codesa after the apartheid government’s position became unsustainable, while some other Constitutions have only come about after periods of intense conflict or even war.

Usually, it is very difficult to get consensus on what should change. While different models are being examined, political parties are likely to do their own electoral maths and then agree only to systems that would get them more votes.  

There is an interesting dynamic to this for the ANC.

While the current system brought it to power, and has kept it in power for many years, it is possible that a simple constituency-based system might actually benefit the ANC. It is possible that it would win even more votes in that system than it does now.

Despite that, it is opting for less change rather than more, perhaps because a radically overhauled system would create more demands for accountability in the longer run.

While there are many questions that electoral systems must answer, two major outcomes are necessary.

The first is to ensure that the voice of the people is heard, that the system fairly represents voting.

The second is to ensure accountability.

The problem we have at the moment does not appear to relate to the first question: it is difficult to argue that proportional representation (which ensures that each vote is counted) does not fairly reflect the way people vote.

The problem rests with accountability. This came to the fore during the Zuma era, when people could only vote for the party, and not for a person. Testimony at the Zondo Commission demonstrated that even if MPs could not justify their vote in Parliament, they had to vote the way their party demanded. Otherwise, they would lose their job.

This has led to calls for constituency democracy.

There was a suggestion that there would in fact be multi-member constituencies. This would mean some constituencies would have MPs from different parties, and some would have MPs from just one party, depending on how the voting panned out. Everyone would know who their MPs were and so would be able to put direct pressure on them.

But that does not seem likely to work in practice. The fact is that in a country as large and diverse (both on the lines of class and geographically) as South Africa, most people would still not necessarily know their MPs.

Crucially, that system would not appear to establish a direct link between voters and the MPs. It is hard to see how that system would establish the type of accountability that the Zondo Commission has demonstrated is lacking.

So it appears that for now the system of proportional representation, with some tweaks to allow independent candidates to stand in their own right, is likely to stay.

While some may be disappointed at this, it is not necessarily a bad thing.

As has been pointed out by others (including Professor Anthony Butler), proportional representation forces parties to create national coalitions. To have significant political power the parties have to attract diverse constituencies. This could prevent radicalisation and the worst of identity politics from entering our political system.

While there is no way to stop identity politics from being used, removing a system that disincentives identity politics may be foolish.

Also, as Jonny Steinberg has written, introducing constituencies based solely on geography may well introduce other forms of ethnic politics. He has pointed to the example of the Patriotic Alliance, which won several wards in recent by-elections.

This is a party that appears to campaign only among communities of a specific ethnicity. It has also led to chaos in Nelson Mandela Bay, where the party held the balance of power between coalitions led by the DA and the ANC. In one infamous incident their council leader, Marlon Daniels, changed his mind several times during a single voting process.

While the final changes that the ANC will agree to have not yet been publicly finalised, this issue will keep returning. That is perhaps more of a demonstration of the failure of the parties elected than the system. Defenders of our current electoral system could argue that it should be allowed to result in a change of government before being changed.

And they might also want to say that making major changes could have unpredictable and difficult results, that better the devil you know than a system which could lead to even more chaos and instability.


But it seems undeniable that the continued calls for change are a demonstration of the failure of our politics.

The question may then turn to whether we should blame the system, or whether we should blame the players. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    players win hands down cos they use and abuse any system

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    There is absolutely no doubt that the players should carry at least half of the blame, especially (but not limited to) those of the ruling party. Rarely have we seen such a collection of cads, thieves, fraudsters, conmen & highway robbers on the pound seats of Parliament and City Councils. However, why local elections should be a carbon copy of national elections has always perplexed me. In fact, the entire system of macro-municipalities is at the root of this problem. Small communities with very particular issues and problems are dominated by larger settlements, and mostly ignored. They have no voice because they don’t have a representative on councils dominated by the large political parties who in the case of the criminal organisation who rules over most of it, the ANC, has to no interest in governing at all, but is there solely to increase the girth and bank accounts of their “honorable” MP’s. The DA is not far behind. Each community should be able to representation, and if this is large and unwieldy, so what? Democracy should be about the people for the people, and in our case (with that evil system of cadre deployment) it is certainly not. Let’s get rid of political parties at local level altogether. They have no place there, and shouldn’t anyway. That’s how we solve thát problem.

    • Stef Viljoen Viljoen says:

      Me likey!

    • Charles Parr says:

      Agreed, local government needs a completely different model where candidates are elected and political parties only play a very small role. The ANC won’t change the current system until it is forced to which can only happen by them being kicked out of cities and significant towns. One does of course have to realise how many municipalities have zero income except for the payment received from government.

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      Putting the DA on the near same level as the ANC when it comes to “no interest in governing at all, but is there solely to increase the girth and bank accounts of their “honorable” MP’s” is not in any way supported by facts as far as I can tell. Does that mean there is no corruption ever in the DA? Of course not, but there is literally light years between the ANC and DA.

      • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

        I’m with you Karl.

        They’re not perfect, no. But for those who don’t think the DA is is in a different league to the ANC, I recommend you take a drive round the country, ending your trip in Cape Town …if you still have wheels left on your car to get there.

        Then take a little drive around Cape Town and let’s have the discussion again.

  • Derrick Kourie says:

    Here are some fault lines in our system:
    * Too many prima donnas form their own parties without much of a policy agenda. They occupy too much media and other space without adding any significant policies to the mix. There should be a higher threshold for parties to enter into the system and mechanisms that impel smaller parties with similar policies to merge. The alternative of independent candidates, however, is a great one.
    * Large numbers of voters are ignorant of the importance of their votes, the consequences of not voting, the policies of the parties, the secrecy of their vote, their right to vote differently from the prescriptions of their rural chief, etc. Our schools should more aggressively educate learners about the system, and their rights and duties. And your public media should cease false promoting false narratives like “Your vote does not matter. They’re all the same. They’re all corrupt, etc.” Perhaps obligatory voting like in Oz?
    *The absence of an effective recall / revote system when radical failure occurs, such as at the Makhanda municipality.
    * An oversized parliament most of whose members simply vote along party lines. Perhaps votes should, by default, be secret.

  • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

    The system is not to blame. The anc is … They brought corruption and corrupted BEE and ridiculed AA and ‘I’m not in politics to be poor’ and ‘the anc is more important than the country and its people’.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Maybe we have to wait for the ANC to decline sufficiently so that coalition politics becomes the norm. Until then the ANC will not agree to meaningful change. The PR system suits its belief in Democratic Centralism very nicely thank you – even though the idea is a contradiction in terms. Hopefully coalition politics will bring some fluidity. Two changes that would deepen democracy are for elected representatives to be restricted to two terms of office like the President and for report back meetings after parliamentary sessions take place.

  • Evan Booyens says:

    I say cap all politicians income at a nominal income level, do an audit on them when they enter their position and only allow them government vehicles ie small and cheap. Let’s see how many of these politicians will still be so keen then.

  • Ion Williams says:

    The system relies on the players being morally sound. That is the reality of the current definition of democracy. It’s more of a dictatorial democracy. It needs to be rehashed to create a pure democracy where the individual decides what his portion of the social contract is allocated to. A totally rehashed architecture.

  • Just Me says:

    Our dynamics have shown that the ‘list system’ of democracy just does not work for South Africa, or probably for any part of Africa. That, coupled with the BEE codes (there have never been the first two BB’s applied anywhere) has been a death-knell for the South African economy and growth prospects, as all it has translated into is ANC super-corruption.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options