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Electoral reform is overdue to halt the reproduction of...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Electoral reform is overdue to halt the reproduction of an elitist political culture

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Mmusi Maimane is the chief activist of the One South Africa Movement.

The current electoral system in South Africa gives political parties all too much authority. They have become the 'big business' of the political scene. There is now an opportunity to enable independent candidates to stand for election, thus introducing a more accountable framework.   

Earlier this month, a historic Constitutional Court judgment paved the way for electoral reform in South Africa, a move away from big political party dominance and towards a more accountable, people-centred model of governance. The highest court in the land ordered Parliament to change the Electoral Act to allow for independent candidates to run for seats in the National Assembly and our country’s nine provincial legislatures. This is a hammer blow to the elitist and detached political culture that has dominated South Africa for the past decade and more. The game has changed for all-powerful political parties. The people of South Africa – many of whom have been forgotten and left behind by government – will now have a greater stake in our democracy.

Harvard Law Professor Duncan Kennedy’s contentious 1982 essay entitled ‘Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy’ holds key lessons for the reform of the South African electoral system, decades after it was penned. In particular, warnings as to how political parties function as institutions, the political culture they entrench, and how this undermines the democratic values they so passionately vaunt.

Kennedy’s central argument challenges the notion that university facilities, particularly faculties of law, are neutral entities. Rather, he claims the reverse is true. In his own words, Kennedy argues that “Because [law] students believe what they are told, explicitly and implicitly, about the world they are entering, they behave in ways that fulfil the prophecies the system makes about them and about that world”.  

Academic faculties, and their institutional cultures and supporting curricula, tailor their subjects into almost homogenous products, at the end equipped to simply maintain the rigid status quo in their profession that follows. In that there exists almost no space for independence and autonomy: you’re part of the system, play by the rules or get left behind.

This is not a crusade against political parties. Rather, it’s an attempt to expose their modus operandi. More so, to demonstrate what we could avoid by electing independent, civic-minded candidates to Parliament – unrestrained by the agendas of any political party, and answerable to the voters and the voters only.

Political culture is very much the same, except driven by political parties themselves. Much like law faculties, the unspoken institutional culture of political parties seeks to squeeze out every bit of independence in priming one for public office. As a candidate, you must prove your mettle in a political party, demonstrating your unwavering loyalty to it and its fluid set of interests, before you can receive their “blessing” to stand for election. And by the time you’ve worked your way up into an electable position to serve the people, you are well within a cosy elite political bubble, far removed from an ordinary voter.

It’s at best counter-intuitive, and at worst deceitful and undemocratic. Political parties are the “big business” of the political scene. Their business model is loyalty to the party first, the electorate second. It is this perversion the Constitutional Court has ordered Parliament to remedy.

South Africa’s current electoral system – one of strict proportional representation – gives political parties all too much authority and preserves an ever-growing gap between the public and those in power. It discourages nuanced, multi-party problem solving, instead, it hardens ideological lines in a “winner-takes-all” approach.

But by introducing independent candidates, members need not be beholden to a political party. If political parties are the “big business” of the political scene, independents are the nascent entrepreneurs.  Unrestrained by political groupthink and the established ways of operation, independents can be at the forefront of innovation and change.

This is not a crusade against political parties. Rather, it’s an attempt to expose their modus operandi. More so, to demonstrate what we could avoid by electing independent, civic-minded candidates to Parliament – unrestrained by the agendas of any political party, and answerable to the voters and the voters only.

The phenomenon of state capture is preceded by party capture. This takes many forms, but the most insidious result is corruption and self-interest. The most prudent way to remove corruption and incompetence from our political system is to introduce a hybrid electoral system comprising of directly elected constituency-based MPs and indirectly elected party-list MPs. Checks and balances, but with real application and impact. This system was suggested by the Van Zyl Slabbert Electoral Task Team report back in 2003. The model exists, it’s now time Parliament moves to adopt it.

The people’s agenda needs to become the government’s agenda. That is why citizens directly electing their public representatives to Parliament is the answer. This is so that when an MP speaks in Parliament, the people of their community are represented. And when an MP fails the people, they are removed.

The current closed party list system which has governed our elections for the past twenty-six years has weakened our democracy and created a chasm between the people and those in power. Now is the time we take back our power.  DM

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