To solve SA’s problems, we should fix, not replace, our current political system and its institutions
As our political, social and economic crises grow, so do the calls for various — some of them radical — solutions to our problems.
It is a season of discontent and tensions are on the rise throughout our society. This has led to some people offering different “solutions”, to them thinking “out of the box”, with suggestions that they believe could really change our society.
But it is possible that in some cases these proposals could make our situation worse.
Over the past few weeks, there have been many discussions about proposed solutions to our problems.
There are a number of reasons these proposals are being made now.
Such is the feeling of crisis, the sense that the centre cannot hold, that many people are looking for simple solutions that would restore a sense of peace and prosperity. And the proposals are usually relatively simple and easy to understand.
One proposal is to hold an early election, to dissolve Parliament and place the decision about how to solve our problems in the hands of voters.
Then there is the long-running conversation around electoral reform, which includes allowing independents to run for office, a wholesale reform as proposed by Mcebisi Jonas, that would even include direct presidential elections.
And there is the suggestion that there should be an amnesty for people against whom findings have been made relating to State Capture, under certain stringent conditions.
We cannot forget there’s an ever-growing feeling of anger at the establishment, at those in power who brought us to this ledge. The system, the current one that got them into power, should change, goes the argument.
But, looking at these suggestions, it is possible that they may create many new problems.
An early election
Take, for example, the proposal from Accountability Now head Paul Hoffman, and possibly supported by others, that we have an early election. This suggestion comes after the revelation that President Cyril Ramaphosa was allegedly breaking the law by keeping cash in US dollars on his Phala Phala farm.
While it may seem tempting, given the crisis both in the country and in the ANC, to hold an early election, it is likely that this would solve very little.
First, only the political parties we have now would be able to contest, as none of the new entrants would be able to organise themselves and their campaigns in time. It would be the incumbent political parties campaigning against each other, again, to split the winnings.
It is also likely that there would be a low turnout, as a large number of people would just not vote, bringing into question the legitimacy of our electoral system. In low polls, there’s a greater probability of a party winning because of its energised campaign to get its supporters to the voting booths and not because it is popular, thus further increasing the sense of illegitimacy for the entire process, including Parliament.
The new MPs would argue they have a full five-year mandate, thus increasing the prospect of a prolonged crisis.
Then there is electoral reform, often seen as some kind of panacea.
But this may negate some of the real advantages of our current system. As has been pointed out several times, one of the major strengths of our system is that any one group of people can get into Parliament with fewer than 100,000 votes. As it is a relatively low bar for entry, a variety of views and voices will be present in Parliament.
Then there is the fact that our system of proportional representation encourages parties to form national networks of support. This may help to mitigate against the worst of ethnic populism. It places a ceiling on how much progress can be made by a party seeking support on narrow ethnic lines.
Some of those proposing electoral reform want individuals to be allowed to run for Parliament. While the Constitutional Court’s ruling on this is final and constitutionally correct, it may not necessarily add much to our politics. Instead, it could run the risk of turning our politics into more of a popularity contest.
And there is no system that could guarantee that there would be a party with national support that would be able to operate as the ANC did during, for example, the Mbeki era. There is just no guarantee that what replaces it would necessarily be better.
The problems with amnesty
Then there is a proposal that has been made several times, for an amnesty for those implicated in the Zondo Commission findings.
This was first made by several lawyers, including Robert Appelbaum, while the Zondo Commission first heard testimony, before the pandemic. It has recently been reiterated in light of the commission’s findings.
Appelbaum & Co’s argument is that only with an amnesty can we have full disclosure and knowledge of what happened during the State Capture era, and get much of the money back.
The person who did more than anyone to launch the commission, the former Public Protector Professor Thuli Madonsela, is making a similar proposal. But hers is perhaps more nuanced and aimed primarily at those who played a smaller role in corruption. In particular, as she told SAfm on Monday, it is aimed at people who were drivers or clerks who may well have important information about what happened.
While these are interesting suggestions, they also give rise to big problems.
In particular, there is the issue of a precedent. It would be the second time in our recent history that people who committed crimes in South Africa were offered an amnesty (the first was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission).
One can easily imagine every person accused of financial crimes in the future arguing that they too should have the opportunity to apply for amnesty. And that if they are not allowed to, instructing their lawyer to lodge an application demanding one, all the way to the Constitutional Court.
Also, any kind of amnesty proposal might well delay the imposition of justice for the big fish, the people who really stole money during this time, as the process of granting amnesty could take some time to process, further delaying justice. However, it is not guaranteed that the NPA-led process would be faster or more successful.
And just the prospect of amnesty for full disclosure could well provide an incentive for a new, previously unseen Bacchanalia of lies, as the worst of the worst State Capture had to offer form a circular firing squad.
All of this suggests that while it is tempting to reach for any of these radical solutions, in fact they may not necessarily solve our problems.
Instead, it may be better to turn to what we already have. We should rather concentrate on what can be done with our current system before throwing important parts of it out completely, only to miss them later.
As an example, many who support the idea of an amnesty may be considering what they see as the impossibility of getting justice. They may point to the problems the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has in making cases against those implicated.
But this is not the best response. Surely the best response is to empower the NPA to deal with the difficult cases and decisions it will have to make.
Surely, the best response to State Capture is to ensure it does not happen again. One way of doing that must be to put those responsible in jail.
Must we give up on that?
The same holds true for our political problems. On current trends, it is possible that we are entering an era of more accountability, where politicians do have to worry about providing services to keep their jobs, unlike in the past.
It could be a serious mistake to throw this away for some kind of “reform” in the heat of the moment.
It is completely understandable that people are frustrated and angry, and want change. And they want that change to happen now. It is also understandable that drastic solutions are attractive; they could end up removing all of those who caused the problems our country faces.
But “thinking out of the dreaded box” could cost us dearly in the longer run. Certainly, it is better, and easier, to fix the institutions and systems that we currently have, to ensure there is justice and accountability for what has happened. DM
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