Opinionista Paul Trewhela 31 August 2017

A response to Thabo Mbeki on ‘The people shall govern’

The problem with Thabo Mbeki’s analysis, The people shall govern – what does this mean?, reflecting on the motion of no confidence in Jacob Zuma, is that it avoids the critical issue of representative government. All the sins of the ANC in government – from the Arms Deal to State Capture – flow from the powerlessness of the people enshrined in the Constitution.

It is helpful to consider this in light of the essay Considerations on representative government, by the English liberal John Stuart Mill, first published in 1861 ahead of the second great Reform Act in the United Kingdom in 1867, which enfranchised the majority of the adult male working class.

Mill wrote that “real equality of representation is not obtained unless any set of electors … have the power of combining with each other to return a representative”.

What was vital for Mill was “the tie between the elector and the representative”. He was clear about this: “Every one of the electors would be personally identified with his representative, and the representative with his constituents.”

In this form of parliament, MPs would be chosen individually by groups of voters, so that each MP was “the one who best expresses the voter’s own opinions, or because he is one of those whose abilities and character the voter most respects, and whom he most willingly trusts to think for him”.

(One needs to read this, bearing in mind that women were not enfranchised in the UK until more than half a century after Mill published these words, and that he and his late wife Harriet were among the foremost advocates of women’s emancipation. His essay The Subjection of Women, published in 1869, calling for women’s enfranchisement, was completed the same year as his essay on representative government).

Mill called for a “system of Personal Representation” as best able to provide government “in the most perfect manner which the circumstances of modern society admit of”.

In this system of personal accountability to voters, an MP who wanted to be re-elected would not be able to “forget his responsibility, take his duties easily, conduct them with a view to his own personal advantage, or neglect those free and public conferences with his constituents which, whether he agrees or differs with them, are one of the benefits of representative government”.

In the same way, this system would ensure that every MP had “the greatest latitude of individual opinion and discretion compatible with the popular control essential to free government”.

It is obvious that what Mill is considering here is the freedom of conscience of MPs. For him this was essential for democratic government, subject to the power of voters to re-elect or remove their MP at the next general election.

He continues: “A man of conscience and known ability should insist on full freedom to act as he in his own judgement deems best.” If some of an MP’s opinions are unacceptable to the voters who elected him, “it is for him to satisfy them that he nevertheless deserves to be their representative…”.

As it was, “Even now, is it not a great grievance that in every Parliament a very numerous proportion of the electors, willing and anxious to be represented, have no member of the House for whom they have voted?”

What is clear from Mill is that while South Africa through the Constitution of 1993/96 achieved universal adult franchise, the Constitution through its electoral law does not provide the electorate with representative government. There is no “system of Personal Representation”.

Precisely because voters do not “have the power of combining with each other to return a representative” in national and provincial elections, no ANC MP or any other MP has the freedom of a “man of conscience” to “act as he in his own judgement deems best”.

For the same reason, the great value of the no confidence vote is that it vividly showed voters how the basic political problem in South Africa is systemic, not personal. As in Steve Biko’s day, the problem is their own disempowerment, and they alone can change this by refusing to be second-class citizens – serfs – any longer, excluded from political control over individual MPs.

When there is universal adult franchise but no representative government, there is still no adequate democracy. The people remain powerless, and disenfranchised.

In his article, Thabo Mbeki writes: “The question is, according to our Constitution – do the MPs in our legislatures represent the political parties to which they belong, or do they represent the masses of the people who elect our MPs?”

The flaw here lies in the phrase “the masses of the people who elect our MPs”.

As Mill argued, democracy in a modern society needs a “system of Personal Representation” in which voters are empowered to hold MPs individually accountable to themselves at the next general election. As it is, the electoral law placed in the Constitution in 1993 treats the electorate of South Africa as one gargantuan, monolithic constituency covering 56-million people whose voters have the sole power of choosing a single political party to represent them. This is the opposite of representative government, and all the sins of the ANC in government – from the Arms Deal to State Capture – flow from the powerlessness of the people enshrined in the Constitution through this electoral law.

Thabo Mbeki continues: “Members of the ANC who also serve as Members of Parliament must understand that they have an obligation to act as both loyal members of the ANC and representatives of the people.”

Alas, this is not possible when “representatives of the people” is an abstraction, with “the people” considered as one vast faceless bloc and not as individual voters grouped together in constituencies, with the power of holding known individuals personally accountable to themselves.

In a parliament based on proper representative principles, a secret ballot would not have been necessary in the first place. MPs in a representative democracy would be confident of voting according to their conscience, knowing that their party headquarters cannot remove them from their seat – only the voters, at the next election.

For this reason, the craven behaviour of the majority of ANC MPs was shaming for the whole society.

In that sense, the secret ballot told the truth of a more terrible secret – that modern South Africa retains the despotic stain of the old South Africa, and that a further struggle for political reform still lies ahead. DM


"Man is by nature a political animal" ~ Aristotle