Opinionista Vashthi Nepaul & Saul Musker 4 December 2014

Bringing the House down

In years gone by, an hour spent watching the National Assembly on television or YouTube was a guaranteed cure for insomnia. Sleepy MPs drawling on in technical jargon, the rituals of decorum and inertia, greeted the unhappy viewer. Now the tables have turned; riot police called into the house, fiery exchanges between opponents and House-of-Cards-esque political manoeuvres are the new bread and butter. Where before Parliament induced slumber, now it prevents our sleep. What on earth are we to do about it?

A day does not go by without some new spectacle unfolding in the halls of the national legislature. Media coverage and discussion of the dramatic events in Parliament has been exhaustive, a barrage of photographs and video footage and minute-by-minute accounts of the latest fiasco. Commentators around the country have waxed lyrical about the damage done to the institution’s credibility, the dangers of legislative gridlock, the farce and the tragedy of it all. Reading any daily newspaper, one gets the enduring impression that the façade of a harmonious rainbow nation has finally cracked.

And yet, in all of this brouhaha, few have taken the additional step of suggesting a solution. “Our political leaders need to pull themselves together,” declare the columnists. “The ANC needs to get off its high horse. Baleka must hand in her resignation. The EFF should stop clowning around. The DA should, well, do something.” Few reasonable people would disagree with the gist of these lofty desires. But they don’t represent real solutions to the current impasse. Relying on those in power to unilaterally do the right thing has never been a reliable course of action. If we are to fix Parliament, and restore integrity to our politics, we need to consider some bold systemic changes.

Before anything else, however, one thing must be made clear: Parliament was never perfect to begin with. The roots of our contemporary crisis stretch across the full breadth of South Africa’s democratic history. The nostalgia that is evident in some quarters, for the quiet calm of previous terms of office, is fundamentally misplaced. Indeed, the true source of our present despair is a structural lack of accountability which has existed since the very conception of our new order.

When the interim Constitution was being drafted, and negotiations towards a political transition were underway, the architects of the deal were most immediately concerned with what the new government would look like and how it would be constituted. A decision had to be made regarding our electoral system. We needed a system that would ensure majority rule while protecting minority interests and avoiding communal conflict. The obvious answer was proportional representation, with seats in Parliament allocated to political parties precisely according to their share of the national electorate.

The value of proportional representation is that it gives even small parties a ‘fair share’ of legislative power, allowing for a diversity of voices in Parliament and (in theory) a multi-party democracy. Constituency-based systems, like the first-past-the-post elections of the USA or the UK, adhere to a winner-takes-all logic of majoritarian government. In these systems, you can have the support of 40% of the electorate in any given constituency and walk away with nothing, losing out to your opponent with 60%.

Nevertheless, many South Africans consider proportional representation as simply the lesser of two evils. Time and again we are faced with the failings of such a stacked structure: the party list system means vital portfolios are assigned according to internal party politics rather than issues on the public agenda. The best interests of the country and citizenry are subverted when power is gifted to the wrong hands. Worse still, because the South African political landscape is littered with career politicians whose primary livelihood stems from a government paycheque, members of Parliament must vote with their stomachs, not their heads or hearts. The majority of MPs are playing a long game where the end goal is to be reinstated higher up on the party list. This means voting according to the party line above all else: above the interests of your portfolio, the interests of your people, or your moral conscience.

If anything, this system rewards with increasing power those with the least individual integrity, while more admirable public servants are curtailed by a lack of agency. It also means that blame for poor decisions is deflected by a massive and meaningless collective. The nature of our divided house means that accountability is lost. Seldom are individuals held to account for their votes. Seldom will the majority party seek to discipline one of its own for poor performance as a public representative – there is no need. The only people whom this system consistently benefits, then, is the ruling party’s MPs.

The only way to extricate ourselves from the current political crisis is to inject greater accountability into the electoral system; and that requires wholesale, systemic reform. The Democratic Alliance has proposed a vision of Parliament that is partly proportional and partly constituency-based, with 300 MPs elected by 100 defined constituencies and a further 100 MPs selected proportionally from national lists. The party claims that under this system, “the constitutional principle of proportionality would be given effect to”. This is a dubious claim. If only one quarter of the total seats in Parliament are allocated according to the national vote, the overwhelming majority of seats would be decided upon by constituencies which might, in some cases, vote narrowly for one party at the absolute expense of another. While it is technically possible, under the DA’s proposal, for the three MPs from any given constituency to come from different parties, this would be unlikely given that each voter would have only one vote and would still have to vote for a party rather than an individual (unlike in countries like Ireland, where the ‘single transferable vote’ system allows voters to rank individual candidates in order of preference, thereby allowing for a greater possibility of diversity amongst MPs elected). In short, smaller parties with support spread thinly across the country (and not concentrated in specific constituencies) would lose out rather definitively.

We still need proportionality – we can’t afford to exclude smaller identity-based parties, or to further fuel the hegemony of the two biggest. At the same time, we need to facilitate real accountability of MPs to their constituents, so that we can slowly erode internal party autocracy and increase civic engagement.

There is one system that can achieve both of these simultaneously – the mixed-member proportional system, or MMP, as used by the German Bundestag and the legislature of New Zealand. In these countries, voters receive two ballots: one national ballot, where they place their mark next to the party of their choice, and one constituency ballot, where they vote for an individual candidate. First, the winners of each constituency are allocated their seats in Parliament. Then, additional seats are awarded to each party in order to ‘top up’ their representation in Parliament such that, at the end of the exercise, the National Assembly is exactly proportional. (Imagine, for example, a Parliament made up of 400 seats: one party might win only 20 constituency seats, but win 10% of the national vote. That party would be allocated an additional 20 seats to make a total of 40, ensuring that it gets its proportional share).

Unfortunately, electoral reform is always the hardest change to achieve, simply because the majority party seldom has an incentive to support something which stands to reduce its numbers or make it work harder. If South Africans of every ilk want to consider real change then the Mixed-Member Proportional system needs to be championed loudly and simply. This could easily be a unifying item on the public agenda, as it appeals to all opposition parties and large chunks of civil society. Political parties and civil society groups should seize, in electoral reform, an opportunity to unite their voices, piggybacking on the public disdain for the antics of the current Parliament.

It is impossible to ignore the widening gulf between the governing and the governed. As South Africans seek to navigate an increasingly fractious socio-political landscape, we need to remember how new and susceptible to change our structures are. While we are disparate citizenry, we all desire better, more responsive and more accountable leadership. It is one of the few things upon which we could probably all agree. DM


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