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Fixing a broken political system — citizens must reclaim their power and ditch the idea of a ‘national democratic messiah’

Fixing a broken political system — citizens must reclaim their power and ditch the idea of a ‘national democratic messiah’
From left: Daily Maverick journalist Queenin Masuabi, Leader of Build One South Africa Mmusi Maimane, uMngeni Mayor Chris Pappas and Rivonia Circle chairperson Songezo Zibi at The Gathering in Cape Town, 24 November 2022. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Cutting bureaucratic centralisation and fixing education are key to better public elected representatives, better public services and better political parties — as electoral reform, regardless of how crucial, is not a silver bullet, Daily Maverick’s The Gathering 2022 has heard.

It is time to ditch the obsession with “a national democratic messiah”, according to Futurelect founder Lindiwe Mazibuko, who pointed out that by the time of the 2024 elections, South Africa’s constitutional democracy would be 30 years old. 

And while electoral reform is key to moving away from political parties’ bizarre internal compilation of candidates’ lists, it is also important to regulate political parties.

politics mazibuko

Former Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko at The Gathering in Cape Town on 24 November 2022. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Speaking at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering 2022, Mazibuko said credit checks and police clearances were requirements for mid-level managers, but not elected public representatives.

“How many people holding seats in Parliament would lose their seats if they did not even pass one of these requirements?”

And as South Africa better regulated political parties, the country’s maturing democracy needed to also improve participation.

“Active citizenship is not a buzzword. We can reclaim power as citizens. We can reclaim it from the vested system dominated by political parties.” 

Citizen-focused expression

Rivonia Circle chairperson Songezo Zibi at The Gathering in Cape Town. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Such citizen-focused expression of social and political issues, rather than elite power plays, also emerged as key for Rivonia Circle chairperson Songezo Zibi.

While changing the electoral system was important, changing the balance of power between Parliament and the executive was equally so.

Currently, the bias was towards the executive and an imperial Presidency, which held much power, including the appointment of the prosecutions and tax authority bosses and directors-general.

“That’s why [Tourism Minister] Lindiwe Sisulu doesn’t go to Parliament and nothing will happen to her,” said Zibi in reference to a spat between the minister and the parliamentary tourism committee that had summonsed her after several non-appearances.

A less powerful President and a better representative Parliament, that could hold politicians to account, were needed as a real link between improved education and measures to resolve the unemployment crisis.

Like Mazibuko, Zibi talked of the naivety of thinking a single person would be able to turn matters around. President Cyril Ramaphosa, widely tipped as leading the 22 December elective contest for the presidency of the ANC, was just a reflection of the party he led.

“South Africans really need to move past the ANC,” said Zibi, pointing out that 28 million of 40 million eligible voters had not cast their ballots in the previous elections.

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That not only spoke to how the obsession with leaders and conferences had turned people away, said Zibi, but also the lack of impact of other opposition political parties as a voting choice. 

politics masuabi maimane

From left: Daily Maverick journalist Queenin Masuabi and Leader of Build One South Africa Mmusi Maimane at The Gathering in Cape Town. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Build One South Africa’s leader, Mmusi Maimane, said it was important to change how citizens thought about politics — political parties alone couldn’t fix the country. Electoral reform to bring about constituencies where elected public representatives directly served communities was key. As were coalitions.

Asked about how the fluctuations and no-confidence motions, particularly in Johannesburg, but also in Nelson Mandela Bay, triggered changes, Maimane said it was important to set out clear coalition plans that did not focus on political machinations.

“The instability of coalitions is not driven by mathematics.  It’s driven by politicians who do not fear citizens.”

Yet public service, which he has been rediscovering since resigning as DA leader and leaving Parliament in 2019, is central to a new politics.

“Coalitions are part of the future and we have to practise how they work. Constituencies are important. We are in service of people rather than political parties.”

Aside from municipal coalitions, the discussions about a different mode of politics also touched on dysfunctional municipalities — and how these must be put under administration.

Centralised power failure

politics pappas

uMngeni Mayor Chris Pappas at The Gathering in Cape Town. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

uMngeni’s DA mayor Chris Pappas, one of the youngest top municipal politicians, whose job specs since the November 2021 municipal polls have included fixing potholes and working at a landfill site, said the government’s district development model was little more than another layer to centralise power. 

This model did not have any funding attached to it; already, coordinating structures like mayors’ forums and joint municipal forums existed.

“The system of local government has been designed to stop things getting done. It’s become very hard because of red tape.”

What’s needed is decentralisation — and “more politicians who are able to technically understand the stuff officials are feeding us”.

That interrogation of what public service staff are telling councillors was important, as often officials would tell politicians that what they wanted to do was not possible or illegal. Yet, not enough politicians asked: Why?

“You have to crucially engage with the laws, the policies. If they don’t work, change them. I don’t think enough politicians do so,” said Pappas, adding that politicians needed to be “actively engaged not only on oversight but also in communities”.

Social issues were key to changing politics, said Zibi: “The Rivonia Circle [looks to] redefine what politics is, [to] ensure people find their voices and make that matter at the ballot box.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jimpowell says:

    The people shall govern
    www directdemocracy org za

  • jimpowell says:

    We, the voters, decide who gets employed as a politician by voting
    We, in paying tax (even if it is VAT), pay the salaries of the politicians
    That describes voters as the employers of the politicians
    DIRECT DEMOCRACY is a government system that ensures accountability to you, the voter!
    Never again vote for a politician that is not accountable to the voters
    The South African constitution and political system is considered one of the best in the world but worse than other constitutions in some of its content and application.
    – The system lacks in accountability of politicians to the voters.
    – The primary allegiance of proportional representation politicians is to their political party and not to the voters!
    – Many ward councillors see their political party as their first allegiance, not the voter in the ward, the employers of the politicians.
    – The President is controlled by the ruling party. Should be directly elected by the voters
    Our system is effectively a 5-year dictatorship
    We, the voters, are
    – The legitimate shareholders of South Africa, our province and our local government.
    – The employers of our politicians.
    As such, voters should have control over politicians and accountability of the politicians to the voters.
    A direct democracy system is where laws are passed with the electorate in final control, if they decide to exercise that right through referendum, the voters will attain accountability of the politicians to the voters.
    Contract of acountability required

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Great Stuff DM!! Needs to be read a few times. One thing, we often see a term “electoral reform” in articles and comments. Just what is meant by that? I take it as more about how the political parties choose their MPs and behave in Parliament than the parliamentary system of democracy. The ANC’s weird system of killing each other to get a seat is just not democratic! In fact, the entire ANC is weird. They must have a collective “Stockholm syndrome”.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Worth saying again, louder and clearer: “South Africans really need to move past the ANC,” said Zibi, pointing out that 28 million of 40 million eligible voters had not cast their ballots in the previous elections. For as long as we vote ANC they will remain an enemy of the people.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Civic education at schools is needed: most people do not have a clear idea of how parliament functions or of their rights. Engaging young people of the impact of not voting is crucial. It can be very interesting and empowering to feel that they understand what governs their life and that they can change things.

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