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South Africa


Direct presidential elections won’t prevent another ‘Zuma’ presidency — there are better ways of doing it

From top: Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. (Photo: Gallo Images / Veli Nhlapo) | Former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo: Leila Dougan) | President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

If Chief Justice Raymond Zondo really wants to fix South Africa’s electoral and governance systems for the betterment of South African citizens, then the real culprit he should be targeting is the closed-list aspect of South Africa’s proportional representation system.

Chief Justice Raymond Zondo’s recommendation that South Africa should provide for the direct election of the president comes at a time when the electoral system is already under stress.

Parliament is grappling with what is becoming an increasingly thorny problem of electoral amendments to allow independent candidates to contest at national and provincial level. Judge Zondo’s proposal is deceptively simple, but it would necessitate rewriting the Constitution and further complicate the electoral framework. 

What, therefore, are the reasons given for this recommendation? Are there political merits of presidential systems of governance? Is he suggesting an inappropriate fix and might there be a better way of redress? 

‘Solving’ the errant president problem

The Chief Justice’s proposal is rooted in a major finding of his Commission on State Capture: then-President Jacob Zuma failed to uphold his constitutional obligation to defend the nation from the massive corruption that the commission has documented. Judge Zondo notes that the conflation of party leadership with state leadership by the ANC deprives the voters of South Africa the right to choose both a parliamentary majority party and the nation’s chief executive. As he rightly complains:

“How did the country end up having as president someone who would act the way president Zuma acted? Someone that could remove as good a public servant as Mr Themba Maseko from his position just so that he could put someone else into that position who would cooperate with the Guptas and give them business.”

In proposing to redress the problem of an errant party leader, however, Justice Zondo ignored a deeply entrenched and well-known South African political reality — elections within the governing party, the African National Congress, are decided not democratically by party members voting, but by money, slates and “back-room” elite compacts. Few even within the ANC try to deny this anymore. As one branch leader summarised the matter to me prior to Zuma’s re-election in 2012: 

“The branches debate, find consensus, agree on policies and select a delegate to conference. It is all very civil and progressive. Then the branch delegate is sent to the provincial structures, encounters the slates, and nothing else matters after that.”

It is therefore not clear why the Chief Justice believes that ANC supporters might have preferred to vote for a different president than Jacob Zuma in 2012 or 2014. The ANC, as the governing party would almost certainly have endorsed Zuma’s candidature to a direct presidential ballot. It is also not clear why this ANC problem requires an electoral amendment as a solution. Had Kgalema Motlanthe, Gwede Mantashe or Cyril Ramaphosa wanted to contest against the ANC’s nominated candidate in the 2014 presidential race, they would have had to do so outside of the party, standing as lonely and exposed independent candidates. 

This is a scenario that plays out regularly in nearby African states where unsuccessful candidates for a party’s presidential nomination quit the party and opportunistically search for an alternate vehicle (often a soft-floor crossing to a major opposition party) to ride to the presidency. The results of such political adventures have been mixed for the candidate and the parties concerned.

However, what is extremely unlikely, given the way in which the 2014 elections played out, is that both party and presidential races would not have resulted in anything other than the re-election of one Jacob Gedleyikisa Zuma as president of the Republic. 

The presidential system in brief

Judge Zondo’s suggestion also begs another question: which direct presidential electoral system did he have in mind? There is a myriad of electoral systems, including different versions of the direct electoral model proposed by Zondo. The United States, one of the oldest modern democracies in the world, holds direct elections for its president, but its constitution’s separation of powers places hard limits on the powers of the president. The British, German and Canadian systems are largely parliamentary systems of government, and perhaps therefore the French system is the model which most aptly reflects the direct election aspirations implied in Zondo’s report. 

While the French model is more accurately described as a “semi-presidential” system, it is quite clear that the French president enjoys far wider powers than his contemporaries in the other countries mentioned. This is also a system of governance that was widely adopted by Francophone colonies after independence through north, west and central Africa. In many instances, the electoral system facilitated the challenge of “presidents for life” who accumulated increasingly more power within the executive at the expense of other branches of the state. 

The model proved so appealing to strongmen in institutionally weak Francophone Africa that several former British colonies began to incorporate this presidential aspect over time, resulting in one-party states in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda. In almost all cases, the results of the direct election of the president consolidated ever more power in the hands of the few, often at the expense of other arms of the state. Democracy in these instances was often the poorer for it. 

Where South Africa’s governance failed and what can solve this

Judge Zondo’s recommendation for direct presidential elections doesn’t offer a real solution to the problem of a First Citizen determined to undermine the very Constitution that gives his position meaning.

Stakeholders from across South Africa are echoing the sentiment that “the problems of the ANC should not hold South Africans hostage.” But the ANC is a properly constituted political party, with every opportunity to reflect on their nomination of Jacob Zuma as president, yet went ahead with that confirmation in 2014 regardless of a damning Public Protector report, growing evidence of improper influence by the Guptas as early as 2013’s Waterkloof Airbase landing, and worsening Auditor-General and StatsSA reports. The ANC could have re-considered its candidacy and decided not to give Zuma a second term.

The ANC is wholly responsible for the consequences of the State Capture era, the theft of billions and the decimation of state institutions that stood in the way of the looters, a fact that Zondo makes clearly and categorically in his findings; seemingly to the surprise of none but the ANC. 

Beside the ANC in the dock stands South Africa’s legislature. While it might be tempting to simply lump the blame on the ANC caucus who throughout eight motions of no confidence protected their leader from a humbling exit, this is too simplistic.

The Democratic Alliance, a party that lately prides itself on its ability to build coalitions and form partnerships across the political divide, appeared happier to snipe from the sidelines and talk at the ANC rather than reach across the aisle to those within the governing party who now claim to have been increasingly perturbed at the conduct of their president during that time.

The Economic Freedom Fighters revelled in the chaos they were able to orchestrate within Parliament’s halls, interrupting every utterance by the president with fatuous “points of order” which may have thrilled observers with their revolutionary irreverence, but left Zuma unscathed regardless. 

The real fix?

If Judge Zondo really wants to fix South Africa’s electoral and governance systems for the betterment of South Africa’s citizens, and I personally believe that he does, then the real culprit he should be targeting is the closed-list aspect of South Africa’s proportional representation (PR) system.

It is this determination of the ordering of names on parliamentary lists that grants the senior leadership of political parties almost absolute power over their subordinates in Parliament, supports slate politics within parties, and is the primary reason why so many ANC cadres “deployed” to Parliament doggedly sang for their supper that sustained Zuma’s State Capture project for far longer than necessary. It is why, should the voter elect the DA, EFF or ActionSA into power in future elections, the legislature will continue to struggle to hold the executive to account.

It is why, in the final analysis, so many election analysts believe that the solution lies beyond the strict confines of the pure PR system South Africa currently uses. 

The ideas are already on the table, ever since the Van Zyl Slabbert report in 2003, right up to the recently rejected Lekota Bill proposed to the Department of Home Affairs Ministerial Advisory Committee. The sixth Parliament could start to rectify some of the wrongs its predecessor visited on South Africans by breaking the disproportionate influence of party leadership on their parties’ lists, through such interventions as introducing constituency elections and independent candidacy within the National Assembly.

Judge Zondo’s recommendation for direct presidential elections is misplaced, but only because the wrong aspect of the system was targeted. If South Africans want more direct democracy, and indications are that many do, then forget about direct presidential elections, and instead target direct parliamentary elections, with space for independent candidates.

These matters are already under discussion in relation to the Electoral Amendment Bill before Parliament. Disrupting the hegemony of political parties, and within those parties the centralised control of structures by the leaders, will increase the South African voter’s choices far more meaningfully than introducing presidential popularity contests. DM

Grant Masterson is Head of Governance Programmes at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.


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All Comments 3

  • Excellent summary of the issues. Until individual MPs are answerable to their constituents, democracy will be a concept not a reality.
    Even the author’s proposal leaves the Party (whichever it might be ) largely able to dictate who will represent us.
    Other forms of modified PR do exist, for example single transferral vote (STV) which allows your vote to count even if your preferred candidate polls poorly.
    France and other countries have two round voting systems which have a similar effect. Germany has its two vote system, one for a directly elected constituency member, the second for overall proportional representation. The latter allocates additional seats to parties to bring their total representation in line with the second vote.
    All of these systems have their own problems but are surely preferable to voting for a monolithic Party, unaccountable to its electors

  • OK – of course if the President is elected by the electorate & not by the ruling party, then it at least weakens the link between the President and the ruling party – currently, if the ruling party holds the President to account, they actually put themselves in the box because they put the person in the office in the first place. But if the voters elect him, then that impediment at least does not exis any more. But I agree that, if say 75% if parliament, as the Slabbert commission recommended, are elected by the voters directly, then the whole of parliament will be far more sensitive to the moods of the voters.

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