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Electoral reform and the party fly in the accountability ointment

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Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

Elections are in the air in South Africa, along with the flip-side of accountability and electoral reform to achieve better responsiveness to popular will. Yet, it will be aluta continua to get a sound and all-round ‘system’ of answerability. The electoral system is but a tiny part of the overall problem.

In this analysis, I argue that South Africa’s accountability problem is to a lesser extent in the electoral system and to a far greater degree in the political parties’ culture of omnipotence. Hence, the elaborate and costly process of trying to change the country’s electoral system may very well be in vain. 

The pressures are on when it comes to elections and culpability for malfeasant government. The local elections of 27 October are a step closer with the Electoral Commission’s tentative electoral launch this week. It hopes to follow the example of many elections that have been concluded successfully internationally in Covid-19 conditions. South Africa’s local elections will probably fall between Covid-19 waves three and four. 

Given the constitutionally instructed task of reforming South Africa’s national-provincial electoral system of proportional representation (PR), and the seeming predilection for a system similar to that used at local level, the local elections will be closely watched.

Meanwhile, the electoral task team that has to recommend an electoral system to accommodate independent candidates is running on a tight timeline. Parliament has until mid-2022 to effect the change, and the special task team’s report is due on 23 July 2021.

Enhanced accountability by public representatives (and their parties) is the thread that runs through these developments. The problem of extracting accountability in South Africa, while political parties mediate, was demonstrated in the Zweli Mkhize saga of the past few weeks.

Regarding Mkhize, we saw a convergence of accountability being demanded in the public outcry, in opposition parties taking stances in Parliament, and court cases being opened. In the African National Congress, the National Working Committee pronounced in favour of discipline and the ANC’s Integrity Commission indicated that the now-on-leave minister would be appearing before it.

The ANC supported the processes, but also rallied behind the minister of health. There is a hostile world of opposition politics out there against which the ANC has to defend itself! In the state realm the Special Investigating Unit is investigating (report due at the end of June) and the president in his state executive capacity has put Mkhize on special leave. Measures to get answerability were established. Yet the party and state systems of accountability march to different drummers — and this is important for electoral system reform as well. 

Political parties and their cultures are the fly in the accountability ointment. As illustrated in the case of Mkhize, both interparty competition and internal dynamics intervene and often obstruct the extraction of accountability. Potentially prolonged processes have to be seen to unfold, and fair processes have to be realised to steer clear of accusations of “factional purging” and “elimination of competition against the president”. The legal and constitutional requirement of fair process within political parties is an important part of lawfare, but can also be twisted to defer accountability.

This context of party politics mediating accountability pervades revisions to South Africa’s electoral system. Following the Constitutional Court ruling of June 2020 that there will be two years for the electoral system to be changed to enable independent candidates to contest in national and provincial elections, as they do in local elections, the electoral system revision troops have been mobilised.

In general, the interpretation of the mandate has been to introduce a component of constituency representation to get independent candidates into the fold of electoral contests. In subsequent months the debate metamorphosed and by now the crucial thrust is that “constituencies” are promoted as the answer to leveraging accountability… while independents by chance will also be able to participate.

The Inclusive Society Institute has grasped the opportunity; it is promoting a multi-member constituency (MMC) system that converges in important respects with the electoral system that South Africa uses locally (50% each for ward and PR). It is in essence also a regurgitation of the Van Zyl Slabbert proposals of 2003. The electoral system had to be reviewed, because the Constitution said that the original proportional system was an interim measure and a review had to take place. Despite the Slabbert report, and probably appropriately, the purely PR system was retained. 

The MMC has the obvious advantage that it combines proportionality with constituency presentation. Seen in broad terms, this is positive. However, once dissected in terms of actual constituency base and party politics, it is clear that the problems will remain, even if they are dressed up differently.

For example, it is proposed in terms of the particular set of MMS proposals that 300 out of the 400 members of Parliament will be elected to 66 multi-member constituencies, with each constituency carrying between three and seven MPs. The MPs will be divided proportionally between the parties or individuals. (The other 100 will be elected on a proportional list basis, to ensure that the system retains its overall constitutionally prescribed character of proportionality.) However, these proposals have no solution to one of the problems of political parties: it is still the parties that will put forward their lists of candidates. There will still be no unmediated link between community and representative/s.

Even the ANC’s currently attempted local-level accountability plan, in which ANC branches will largely go with the most popular and community-endorsed candidate, is a better option. Another sound aspect of the current local system is that there is one candidate per ward. The MMC system has multiple members and responsibility for community matters is almost always obscured, even when local issues are translated into provincial and national actions. Also, as seen at local level, the dominant party will largely prevail in constituencies and the opposition parties in the PR segment.

The often logical-sounding principles of the proposed MMC system also veil other practical problems. The size of the constituencies, if there are 66 countrywide, and roughly 27 million registered voters in South Africa, would be in the region of 400,000 voters per constituency. When local councillors cannot handle municipal wards with fractions of this number of voters (by current statistics roughly 6,000 with a 15% variation permitted up or down) the mind boggles. Even if there were seven MPs in a particular constituency, they would be from different parties and the voter-load per MP would be well above 57,000 at the very best. Accountability is likely to remain a mirage.

The hold that political parties have over their representatives will further add to an MMC construct being a costly, wasteful and delusional exercise. Political parties will not relinquish this power — and their internal processes and expectations of deployee loyalties will remain paramount. Accountability depends on the attitudes and orientations of political parties, and not on the electoral system. This is what applies in South Africa. 

Independents, the actual reason for the current round of attempted reviews, will be in the system but will have minor chances against the big parties, irrespective of the electoral system. This is a risk they cannot be protected against — it is a game of the number of registered voters and quotas per seat. They may as well be accommodated by simply allowing their candidacies to be backed up by a personally chosen alternate should the potential independent MP die or have to resign, within a PR system. 

As they appear to be emerging, the proposed electoral changes are chasing the chimera of accountability, while seeking a way to accommodate independents as candidates, in a system that is constitutionally and practically geared to party politics. 

The current initiatives are akin to using a sledgehammer to kill a fly because of suffering a mosquito bite. DM

Susan Booysen’s latest book, Precarious Power: Compliance and discontent under Ramaphosa’s ANC, explores the question of how the ANC, discredited and disgraced in so many respects, sustains its popular following and electoral support. It is published by Wits University Press, priced at R350.00 and is available for sale and to order from bookshops and online retailers.

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