Opinionista Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar 11 March 2021

It’s not just our electoral system that needs reform — it is the entire political landscape

Elected representatives and the political machinery they account to must be reminded that the exercise of public power is a privilege. Public power must be constrained and requires a deep respect for the country and its people.

The need for reform in South Africa’s electoral and voting system is essential to securing the constitutional dispensation South Africa’s people aspire to, and to achieve a fair and just outcome for the majority of South Africans. 

It is often an area that has been neglected by a series of office-bearers in South Africa’s executive as well as by parliamentarians, despite the efforts of various proposed restructures to strengthen our democratic processes and to ensure that our elected representatives serve South Africans, and not the narrow interest of party political machinery and agendas.

The pace of reform and change within the existing corridors of power is slow, and the consequence of not dealing with these issues continues to impoverish South Africans, enable malfeasance and worse and cause the death and despair of South Africans.

Reform in itself of our electoral system is a critical and long outstanding issue, which has continued to create structural anomalies that have created a culture of disrespect and rampant disregard for the rule of law.

The perpetuation of this structural imbalance has created a culture that is often rooted in narrow self-interest, as well as greed and factionalism rooted in a lack of state capacity, excellence or value for money.

The reform agenda outlined by President Cyril Ramaphosa has moved at a relatively slow pace, hobbled in part by internal factional battles within the African National Congress.

Political expediency and ideological gerrymandering are not unique to the ANC, but rather it is the cardinal calling card of the South African body politic. 

The original sin of our democratic dispensation has been the avoidance of creating a structural democratic system, process and outcome that enables larger accountability — accountability that extends far beyond mere compliance, but rather focuses on electing officials at all spheres of government who at all times remain answerable to the people of this country. 

Accountability acts as a panacea by creating systems of integrity, honesty and delivery.  

Instead, South Africa finds itself trapped in a never-ending cycle. A cycle that keeps those miscreants, dodgers and delinquents in positions of authority, privilege and power. 

Enough information and evidence are available in the public square to hold these delinquents morally accountable, but instead, they are able to use the internal political machinery to protect themselves while the slow wheels of justice turn. 

Each day, South Africans are reminded of the disregard and lack of interest in serving the people, and we can no longer afford to wait.

Elected representatives and the political machinery they account to must be reminded that the exercise of public power is a privilege. Public power must be constrained and requires a deep respect for the country and its people. 

Power is not absolute, nor should its exercise be assumed or taken for granted. These reminders are not going to become common cause for our body politic, but rather effort and commitment will need to focus on creating greater participation and ownership for the people to reclaim their rights and place in our democracy.

The battle lines between the people and those vying for power have been drawn, shaped by the squandered years of governance epitomised by the lost decade of Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, to the crumbling state capacity across all other spheres of government. 

Accounting and responsibility have become cursory topics within governing circles. The only effort is to simply comply with basic requirements instead of the proper accounting that is required. 

Efforts by former politicians have value in raising an issue that is often neglected, coupled with the mobilisation efforts of civil society, but above all this must be rooted in community participation and ownership. 

The bar has been set far too low in order to secure clean audits, but the larger question that must inform all government spending is this: does the expenditure seek to uplift and serve the people of the country?

South Africans, by way of our Constitution, have entrusted authority and power on the proviso that those entrusted will serve the people. Sadly, South Africans have been subjected to an abuse of power and, far worse, we have witnessed the violent and aggressive misuse and squandering of our democratic values and principles. 

South Africans could look at the theft of hundreds of billions, the unfolding events around Marikana or the Life Healthcare Esidimeni tragedy, and more recently the death of Mthokozisi Ntumba, who was shot and killed in an excessive response by police during a protest earlier this week at Wits University.

At a more fundamental level, the framework upon which South Africans rely is broken. Its shattering continues to kill, impoverish and hobble South Africans. 

The system is violent and focused simply on holding on to power and privilege for a few, and the only way to unravel this will require South Africans to mobilise more widely and with more focus on reconstructing a system that continues to violently respond to calls for change. A system broken not by the people of this country, but rather by greedy, despicable and shameless cretins. The battle to restore order cannot be left to this current class of leadership, but rather we need to begin to reimagine how participation is encouraged, enabled and expanded.

Reform within the electoral system has once again started anew, with much work undertaken in framing the present version of the Electoral Laws Amendment Bill. However, the shift towards more representative and constituency-based politicians will not necessarily confront the structural realities.

The introduction and enablement of a new crop of leadership are of course important; however, efforts by political elders (from various political bodies), civil society and the community must coalesce around the notion that South Africa requires a far more fundamental and deeper reconstruction, reimagining and recommitment to service.

Efforts by former politicians have value in raising an issue that is often neglected, coupled with the mobilisation efforts of civil society, but above all this must be rooted in community participation and ownership. 

The opportunity presented to South Africa is to choose beyond the ideology and values of the incumbent; to make choices beyond variances of the existing system and rather to forge new social compacting that demands not only more from prospective leaders, but also from communities, each other and our role in rebuilding South Africa. DM

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