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South Africa’s electoral reform: We sure don’t need another political party

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Terry Bell is a journalist, commentator and author specialising in political and economic analysis, and labour matters.

The time has come for radical change that is in line with all the international human rights treaties and national legislations promising equal rights for all. Probably the best of these on a national basis is the South African Bill of Rights, which is, effectively, a political programme that would have the support of an overwhelming majority of the population.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

The last thing SA needs in any effort to clamber out of the deep social and economic mire the country is in is another political party, leader or set of revised economic policies. It needs truly radical transformation at a political and social level and the key lies with our electoral system.

It’s simple: we do not have a democratic political dispensation. Placing a cross on a ballot paper every five years to hand over political control to a party bureaucracy is democratic only in that voters willingly forgo the potential power they, collectively, have.

The interests of politicians – many of whom move seamlessly from political office to the boardrooms of big business – lie not with the voters, but with party bureaucracies. These bureaucracies, in turn, rely for much of their funding on the financial elites whose fundamental interests are diametrically opposed to those of the majority of the population. And those who pay the piper tend always to call the tune.

This is a global reality in professed “democracies” at a time of ongoing economic crisis. It has seen elite minorities accumulate massively more wealth while rapid technological advance, powered by artificial intelligence, threatens to make much of humanity redundant, perhaps the future subjects of begging-bowl income grants.

Clearly, the time has come for radical change that is in line with all the international human rights treaties and national legislations promising equal rights for all. Probably the best of these on a national basis is the South African Bill of Rights, which is, effectively, a political programme that would have the support of an overwhelming majority of the population.

Systems of direct democracy have existed in the past, usually on a village level, in Africa and elsewhere, so the possibility exists.  In South Africa we also have a recent history  – at the height of anti-apartheid resistance – of grassroots organisation in several townships and among early trade unions.

As the Reverend Frank Chikane and groups such as the Community Action Networks (CANs) have pointed out, people at grassroots level need now to start, democratically, to take control of their destinies.  This implies that representatives, wholly accountable to, and recallable by, the community should be elected to carry out specific functions; that any remuneration and benefits should be decided by the community.

This is real democracy in action and should be the goal aimed at by every person laying claim to be a democrat. The only questions that arise, are: Is this possible and, if so, how can it be achieved?

Units large and small of what could be a coalition of citizens already exist, in the form of religious communities, stokvels, CANs, trade unions and other groups that meet regularly. Two factors are missing: coordination and communication.

Communication is the essence and it is pointed out that millions of people can hardly be gathered together regularly to discuss and make decisions; that the partial democracy we now see globally – in one form or another – is the only answer. It is not.

Courtesy of the very technology that has made increasing millions of men and women redundant as workers, rather than freeing them from drudgery, it is perfectly feasible for every citizen to be kept informed, to discuss all issues and to decide and vote on appropriate actions. As we are constantly reminded, we live in a world village.

Because we are constrained electorally, at national level, by the present list system, with constituencies arbitrarily defined by political parties after the event, it will be necessary to adapt to this until change can be introduced. This would mean a “citizens’ coalition” putting up candidates for office who are broadly acceptable to voters in different regions or provinces and who are prepared to sign “constituency agreements” and agree to be wholly accountable to, and recallable by, their constituents.

The proportion of votes for such a citizens’ coalition in various regions should determine the boundaries of “constituencies” and who should represent them. Because every individual has a unique ID number, there can be little chance of duplicate membership or voting. Such a system would probably require a computerised “hub” with no political authority and would collect and collate the membership details of those subscribing to the coalition. It would act as a “switchboard”, passing on debates, requests and arguments from various regional groupings to every coalition member using perhaps specially tailored social media platforms.

This system should be transparent and checks and balances be put in place. What these should be and how they should operate should be a subject for debate should a national gathering come together to seriously discuss this proposal. It deserves serious discussion and could provide an example to the rest of the world. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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