FACTS AND FANTASIES
‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’ says Johann Kriegler as calls continue to push for progress in electoral reform panel process
Just days after First Chair of the electoral commission in post-apartheid South Africa, Johann Kriegler, warned that electoral reform doesn't create accountability and may compromise election processes, civil society continues calls for electoral reform panel nomination.
South Africa’s electoral system is not to blame for the country’s many crises — so, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”.
This was the view of former Constitutional Court justice Johann Kriegler, expressed in the annual Helen Suzman Memorial Lecture on Thursday, 16 November. Titled “Elections: Facts and Fantasies”, the lecture coincided with the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Helen Suzman Foundation.
Days after, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse sounded the alarm on Minister Aaron Motsoaledi missing the deadline to nominate an Electoral reform panel which will “independently investigate, consult on, report on and make recommendations in respect of potential reforms of the electoral system for the election of the National Assembly and the election of the provincial legislatures,” according to the Electoral Reform Bill that was signed in April 2023.
Parliamentary engagement and research Manager at OUTA, Rachel Fischer said the portfolio committee invited the Home affairs minister to brief it on the progress of setting up the reform Panel but she is hesitant it will be finalised this year. “it will mostly roll over till next year and we are not really convinced there is a political will to have this important panel established,” said Fischer.
Supporters of electoral reform say that electing individuals instead of political parties which then select people internally, will help “put the fear of God” into politicians who will fear individual retribution and be accountable to the electorate.
Kriegler, however, said accountability is a political decision.
“It is my settled opinion that the applicable electoral system is essentially irrelevant. Up to now the ANC would have predominated whatever the electoral system,” he said.
I am profoundly upset by the proposition by thinking, intelligent people that what will fix our system… is the election of individual candidates to sit in Parliament in their own right.
“President Zuma was allowed to get away with State Capture notwithstanding protestation because Parliament failed in its constitutional duty to keep a close watch on him. That failure was not a result of some legal abstraction, some political system recorded in the Government Gazette. It was plainly and simply the direct consequence of human beings being in breach of their oath of office.”
Saying “the IEC has delivered an unbroken chain of good elections, our track record has been outstanding”, Kriegler pointed out that we may not be sufficiently in awe of the progress considering how volatile the country was before democracy.
“May I also say that I am profoundly upset by the proposition put forward by thinking, intelligent people that what will fix our system, make Parliament responsible and accountable, is the election of individual candidates to sit in Parliament in their own right, to sit as singletons themselves. Ladies and gentlemen, that is twaddle. Do you know how Parliament works? Through systems of committees. Do you know that a single person simply cannot do their job as a single person, simply cannot do his or her job as a parliamentarian alone? You will be lost in your solitude, you will be accountable to nobody.”
Kriegler urged every concerned citizen to support the IEC as it conducts elections in 2024. Civil society “would be well advised to focus on promoting registration and participation” of the large portion of the electorate who had been left behind.
He concluded his speech by paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “It is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
Kriegler also paid homage to Helen Suzman as “the greatest parliamentarian”.
Suzman was a member of the Human Rights Commission and a philanthropist who is celebrated for speaking against social ills during apartheid and well after. She died in 2007 and the foundation was founded in her honour a few years later.
Kriegler chaired the Independent Electoral Commission in 1994 – a body on which he served alongside Suzman – and later headed the permanent Electoral Commission until 1999. He went on to participate in electoral missions under the auspices of the United Nations, the African Union and other agencies in more than 20 countries across five continents, notably in Timor-Leste, Kenya, Afghanistan and the Maldives.
Watch the full memorial lecture stream on YouTube.
Research director at the Rivonia Circle, Lukhona Mnguni, who attended the memorial lecture, said during the question, comments and answers session that he opposed Kriegler’s views, saying electoral reform is significant because it can bring Parliament close to people in, say, rural areas, and people who nominate an independent candidate to Parliament can hold that particular person accountable as they wouldn’t have a party system to hide behind.
What’s new in the election process?
On 17 April 2023, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the Electoral Amendment Bill into law.
The bill is aimed at expanding electoral participation and widens the pool of leadership choice for national elections.
The IEC outlines the implications of the Electoral Amendment Act, which allows and regulates “the inclusion and nomination of independent candidates as contesters to elections in the National Assembly and provincial legislatures for the first time”.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Defend Our Democracy calls on Motsoaledi to explain failure to appoint Electoral Reform Consultation Panel
The act also regulates a revised formula for the allocation of seats and their reallocation in the event that seats are vacated, and stipulates that the Minister of Home Affairs establish the Electoral Reform Consultation Panel. Following independent investigations and consultations, the panel will make non-binding recommendations on potential reforms of the electoral system for future elections of the National Assembly and the provincial legislatures after the 2024 polls. DM