Opinionista Professor Balthazar 7 May 2019

The electoral system shows contempt for individual accountability of public representatives

Without careful reform of the manner in which Parliament is constituted, it is highly unlikely that greater fidelity to the accountability of the executive, save for the courts, will take place.

Visiting Cape Town compels the reading of an interesting political message. Driving along the leafy streets of the southern suburbs or the depressingly unchanged areas which remain a product of apartheid spatial geography, the posters of the political parties jump out at one, each promising nirvana in our lifetime.

That is to be expected in election season; what is illuminating is the absence of any poster informing the electorate who the ANC candidate is for premier of the province. The implication is: Vote for Mr Ramaphosa and he and the party bosses will provide a premier.

But I hear you say — the voter is entitled to know who will run the Western Cape as premier in the event of an ANC victory. That would allow for an informed decision by the electorate, but if the ANC wins the province, then it is the party bosses who choose and not the voters.

This oddity of the present election campaign is reflective of the fundamental flaw in the present electoral system. Voters are asked to vote for a party, not someone who will represent them in either the National Assembly or the provincial assembly. The ANC campaign in which voters have not the foggiest idea who will be the most powerful politician in the province merely exemplifies the idea of “trust the party to choose representatives for you”.

My concern was exacerbated when I read the new book Lawfare: Judging Politics in South Africa, co-authored by Michelle le Roux and Dennis Davis. In their book, the two authors show how, as the legislature exhibited increasingly supine behaviour toward the executive, the courts became the only independent institution to enforce any accountability upon the executive.

Like Pavlov’s dog, the majority of the legislature gobbled up the titbits that were on offer from the executive and its cronies and became suitably conditioned to behave as Zuma cheerleaders as opposed to independent parliamentarians representing the electorate. Le Roux and Davis refer to the Slabbert Commission that recommended significant changes to the electoral system to ensure, by way of some constituency-based voting, the public representatives elected would not only be accountable to the party executives, but also to the voters that sent them to Parliament in the first place.

The Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform reported in 2003. The essential idea was that multi-member constituencies would be devised and that a defined number of representatives would be elected for each constituency together with a second, smaller list based upon proportional representation.

The animating objective was to ensure that individual accountability would be enhanced as an MP or MPL would be wary of his or her voters when the latter expected a sensible response to, say, allegations of corruption of public funds.

In this way, those who controlled the party would not be able to behave with a cavalier approach to party candidates. A candidate against whom serious allegations of fraud or corruption were levelled could be voted down by voters who preferred that candidate’s particular political party, but who chose an honest and diligent representative from another political party. In turn, this would loosen the grip of the party caucus, thereby promoting a more accountable legislature fit for the purpose of holding the executive accountable.

Sadly, whereas the doctrine of separation of powers was intended to demarcate distinct functions for the three spheres of the State, the present model resulted in the judiciary being solely responsible for the heavy lifting required by the values of public accountability and transparency.

The Slabbert recommendations are obviously but one of a series of options that could be considered to reform the present electoral system that will operate again on Wednesday.

Given the past 10 years, in which a parallel state was created under the noses of Parliament, when if even 10% of the testimony given to the Zondo Commission correctly recorded corrupt conduct and where institutions designed to buttress the democratic fortress surrendered without demur, it should be blindingly obvious that change to an electoral structure that has reinforced such capture is an imperative.

Returning to key institutions such as the NPA, the Hawks, SARS and the Public Protector, it should be remembered that Parliament either has a role in the appointment of the heads of these offices and/or exercises oversight of their conduct and performance.

Without careful reform of the manner in which Parliament is constituted, it is highly unlikely that greater fidelity to the accountability of the executive, save for the courts, will take place.

While the country is correctly spending much time debating the ills of corruption, non-delivery and rank inefficiency of state organs, this debate is more about symptoms than causes. And while the root causes of corruption must await another column, a good start would be to fix an electoral system that in the main shows complete contempt for the idea of the individual accountability of public representatives. DM

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