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The final countdown: 365 days until direct elections become law in South Africa

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Dr Michael Louis is Chairperson of the One South Africa Movement (OSA).

This new model of independent candidates and community-led groupings will strengthen accountability in government, bring decision-making closer to the people and ensure the best, fit-for-purpose individuals represent us in Parliament.

On 11 June 2020, exactly a year ago to the day, the path to the second transition in South Africa’s political discourse began. In a landmark legal ruling, the Constitutional Court deemed sections of our electoral laws unconstitutional and ripe for change. The court ordered Parliament to give every individual the right to stand for election to the National Assembly and provincial legislatures in accordance with section 19(3)(b) of the Constitution. The court was very clear: Parliament had two years to make this change.

Today we are halfway to that deadline, with Parliament having just 365 days left to fulfil the suspensive condition of the judgment: to change our electoral laws to allow for independents, not aligned to any political party, to run for office.

In the words of renowned engineer, architect and futurist Richard Buckminster Fuller, “you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Up until this judgment, the existing model gave voters no option other than to vote for a political party in national and provincial elections. Political parties, acting as middlemen, would choose Members of Parliament based on the percentage of votes they received. These decisions are always behind closed doors, with the public as powerless spectators.

I am convinced this new model of independent candidates and community-led groupings will strengthen accountability in government, bring decision-making closer to the people and ensure the best, fit-for-purpose individuals represent us in Parliament. And the timing couldn’t be more suitable.

Contributions to electoral reform in our country have come a long way in the past 25 years since the drafters of our Constitution drafted the transitional arrangements. Many have traversed this terrain, laying the foundation for what is now certain to come.

Today we thank them in celebration. We thank the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission Electoral Reform majority report of 2002, which recommended a system with a mixed constituency and proportional representation as the preferred electoral system.

We thank both MP Pregs Govender’s 2006 Election Reform Report to Parliament, and former president Kgalema Motlanthe’s High-Level Panel Report for all agreeing with and endorsing the Van Zyl Slabbert Report.

The good news is that over the past year civil society has, with commitment and creative thinking, and alongside MP Mosiuoa Lekota and a team of six legal drafters, drafted the Electoral Laws Amendment Bill to give effect to the Constitutional Court judgment. The bill was published in the Government Gazette on 20 August 2020 and lodged in Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Home Affairs on 18 November 2020.

This bill honours and incorporates the aspirations of all previous commissions, making provision for a mixed proportional representation system as well as the constituency system as proposed and recommended by previous commissions and reports.

The bill will in effect lead to:

  • Independents having the right to stand for election;
  • Smaller national Parliament and provincial legislatures;
  • An open and transparent party list system;
  • Constituency-based elections made up of 52 constituencies;
  • A single transferable vote so as to ensure no votes are wasted;  and
  • Electronic elections.

The newly appointed Ministerial Advisory Committee under the leadership of Valli Moosa is finalising submissions to the executive on their electoral policy recommendation for Parliament to consider. It is with great interest that we await their recommendation, which is imminent.

However, we must appreciate that time is ticking and we cannot afford to dither or delay. The One South Africa Movement hereby submits the following for urgent consideration:

First, a firm commitment from the Speaker of Parliament and the minister of Home Affairs that neither will seek postponement of the Constitutional Court deadline ending 12 June 2022. This will be resisted with all our might. This is because it is entirely practical and possible for the changes to be implemented within the two-year period.

Second, the urgent finalisation of the appointment of a permanent chairperson of the Standing Committee on Home Affairs. Bongani Bongo remains with allegations of corruption pending against him and his position as standing committee chair remains uncertain.

Third, urgent momentum from Parliament to put pressure on the executive to submit their electoral policy. This is required before Parliament’s Home Affairs Committee can consider the desirability of the bill and whether a new bill needs to be drafted. If it is the case that a new bill should be drafted, it will take a couple of months to fulfil the regulatory requirements on following due process and to test constitutionality. The bill then has to be advertised again in the Government Gazette for a period of 60 days before it could be certified and presented to the Speaker. This makes the process of public participation impossible.

Our submission remains that the current bill be accepted as desirable by the parliamentary committee and that only Annexure 1A, which deals with the mechanics of the bill, is debated and amended to incorporate the executive policy as well as input from public participation.

We are elated to confirm that later this month the Independent Candidate Association of South Africa (ICA) will be formed. ICA is a statutory body that will be the custodian of all independent candidates standing for elections in national, provincial and local government as well as the custodianship of training, best practices, accountability, values and ethics.

I remain of the belief that the only way that the government can survive successfully is a continued collaboration with civil society and support from the very people that it has to serve.

Currently, our beloved country can’t cry any more and its children are at the risk of being the victims. It is easier to build children than to repair men. It remains the Kairos time in our history to leave a legacy and a strong foundation to the next young generation of leaders.

Let’s stand together as “we the people” form a common bond, united above geography, culture and religion, and form a partnership to govern in pursuit of justice and common good. DM

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