“Politicians are all useless” trips easily from the tongue. Too easily. It’s the cue for a familiar rant. Unfortunately, the evidence mounts by the day that in South Africa it is simply true. True across parties, true across races, true across age groups, true across classes. That universal incompetence short-circuits democracy. The only way out is to introduce the people’s ability to remove someone from office without having to select a replacement — the right of recall. We need to demand that right, and demand it now, or our votes will strip us of our power.
South African democracy has a strange imbalance. A ward councillor can be removed by a party with a single fax. A mayor can be removed by a sequence of secret back room deals, capped by a visit from a provincial official. A president can be removed by a secret ballot, or by pressure from his party. The only way a politician can’t be removed is by the votes of the people, unless they’re prepared to wait for two or three or five years.
If it turns out your local ward councillor does nothing but pass the buck, you must wait. If the mayor delivers nothing but media spin, you have to wait. If the President is captured, you have to wait. If the President is out of ideas, you have to wait. Perhaps sometimes Twitter will put enough pressure on a senior figure to remove someone lower down the chain. That’s about it.
More frequent elections would not be a good fix for this problem. Admittedly, a country in permanent crisis and seemingly permanent complacency could probably do with a bit more short-term urgency. Short-termism is preferable to no-termism. But presuming at some point in the future at least some parties produced leaders who did more than sit on social media and make sure they and their staff get home before five, at that point an overly frequent election cycle might have unwelcome effects.
The more important objection to frequent elections is that it does not change the incentives facing politicians. Most often, the choice in an election is between one clearly ineffective person put up by a party that appeals to me, and another almost certainly as ineffective person put up by a party that revolts me. The individual politician knows it isn’t really about them, and so as long as their party retains loyalty and they turn out the vote they will remain in office, with only internal party politics to fear.
The alternative to such unaccountability is to adopt a mechanism that was first adopted in the US in its “reform” era, a 100 years ago. It is known as “recall”, and it is quite simple. If some number of an office holder’s constituents sign a petition calling for them to be removed, the number ideally being 10% of the number of votes cast in the constituency, then a vote is called with a simple question: Should this person be removed from office?
If the ballot passes, the person is removed from office, and a by-election is run for the position they vacated. Their party can put up another candidate, but the person themselves cannot run again. The link between party loyalty and personal identity is severed, and no officeholder can simply wait out their five years while doing nothing.
It may sound like this would create a great deal of instability. But the petition requirements for recall are not small. For a ward councillor, the petition would require about a thousand people, just in a small urban ward. And the evidence from other countries is that recall initiatives tend not to make it all the way to the ballot itself. Indeed, one easy way that politicians take this weapon out of the people’s hands is to set the petition requirements too high. Nigeria has a right of recall in theory, but has a threshold of 50% of registered voters (not votes cast) just for the petition, so unsurprisingly no recall vote ever happens. In countries where recall is a credible threat, as soon as an officeholder hears that a petition is gaining real momentum they start to react. The office-holders start to, well, work.
Implementation would be simple, at least for ward councillors. The Municipal Structures Act already has several sections dealing with vacancies by councillors, such as through retirement or illness, and governing the by-elections to replace them. All that needs doing is to insert a sub-section specifying the procedure above. The mechanics are straightforward, and all that would be required is an amendment passed in Parliament.
It matters that the implementation of recall is simplest for local government, because that is where service delivery happens and where anger is boiling. That is also the level of government absent from next year’s election, when we will vote for national and provincial candidates. The ward councillors elected in 2016 have three years left before they have to face voters again, unless the national parties commit to implementing recall. Next year’s horse-race will have little relevance to the anger surging through the country in one protest after another unless it leads to the creation of real accountability in local government. That will only happen if the national parties commit to passing a right of recall once elected.
The parties will resist even the idea of recall, let alone its implementation. A citizens’ right of recall will fundamentally weaken their power. They will invent all manner of excuses to avoid it. They will bleat about “stability” and the “legitimacy” of representatives, and utter dire warnings about exacerbating “factionalism”. They will offer no actual evidence. Councillors themselves will moan about “fairness”, as if democracy is high school and they have been elected to school prefect instead of to represent their people. Leaders of the parties will know that their rank and file depend on the patronage that comes with being a councillor.
The only viable path is to compel them, by adopting a simple principle next year. We should not vote for anyone who will not let us fire them or fire their subordinates. To be credible, such pressure must be exerted at a large scale. It can and should be across parties. It will need to extend past the election day, or politicians will use their usual trick of saying they agree in principle, but the details must be worked out by some bureaucrats in some or other process. Then, of course, the bureaucrats will take two years to draft three sentences and will make sure those sentences serve their masters. We must demand the right of recall passed into law by the end of 2019, with at a realistic set of petition and voting thresholds, with no excuses.
For DA voters, for ANC voters, for EFF voters, say to party leaders: Will you let us fire you? Will you let us fire our councillors? Retain party loyalty, if we wish, but let us fire the person. If they won’t commit to that, why would you vote for them? And if another party will commit to it, maybe it’s worth thinking about a switch. For the many voters who haven’t decided on a party, when all of them are equally bad, why not use this issue as a means to decide — vote for those who will let you fire them, because then at least you can get rid of them.
Of course, some will say that under any condition you must vote. But as it stands, the day you vote is the day you lose all your power. This is only called democracy because of a dogma that protects extensive failure. Democracy means the people having power. Hiring someone with no ability to remove them for five years no matter what they do is not power. It is a farce. Next year, if hundreds of thousands or millions of voters decide it’s time to pull down the curtain on that farce, and they will not vote for anyone who will not let voters fire them, we can finally begin to restore some meaning to our democracy. DM