Defend Truth


Our electoral system makes South Africans feel powerless – the answer for democracy lies at the grassroots


Emma Ruiters is a development economist and writer who is currently completing her second MSc, at the University of Oxford, studying the relationship between innovation and industrialisation in African countries and Japanese patterns of investment.

The historic low voter turnout for the municipal elections is a clarion call for action. After an eternity of poor service delivery, crime, corruption, violence, poverty, unemployment and inequality, with no end in sight, South Africans feel forgotten and the future seems ever bleaker.

While some point fingers at the flaws of democracy for our condition, it is more likely that the fault lies with South Africa’s unique form of democracy. Measured against other countries around the world, South Africa was classified as flawed by the Democracy Index 2020, which measures the electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties.

South Africa has a closed-party list proportional representation (PR) system for national and provincial elections, as described by the Democracy Works Foundation. This means parties choose their candidates without any say from voters. Often candidates are selected based on their loyalty to the party and leader, rather than on competence or talent. These candidates get seats in the national and provincial legislatures and determine our laws and how we are governed. 

Once Parliament is elected, the candidates selected by the party become members of Parliament, who elect the state President. In other words, and very critically, South African citizens do not directly vote for their choice of members of legislatures, Cabinet or the President. 

Given that the party elects the MP to their seat, not citizens, their only interest is to please their own party members and not the people of South Africa in order to be rewarded. Hence, sycophancy and party loyalty are implicitly and systematically rewarded in the South African context. Voters and accountability have been all but removed from the system.

In this way, accountability can be spread across a group, diminishing its effect and allowing parties to prioritise party solidarity over citizens’ needs. As a result it is unclear who takes the fall if policy development, community action and service delivery are poor. The system, thus, does not weed out weak candidates and reward strong ones who deliver. 

Furthermore, the party is not responsive to regular “check-ins” or co-creation with a constituency, as an individual candidate who was elected specifically by that community would be. South African MPs have no link to a constituent base and thus have no social compact with the people. 

The lack of representivity is plain. The average age of MPs is 59, in a country where the average age is 27, according to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (2021). Young people with fresh ideas and energy should be able to run and be elected without the “blessing” of the party, but rather the blessing of the people. 

As mentioned, the President is also elected by these unrepresentative MPs. The party chooses the MPs and the MPs choose the President. It is not surprising then that it is challenging to get rid of poorly performing presidents in South Africa, let alone corrupt party factions.

How then do South Africans express their dissent? 

The only avenues for criticism of political parties in South Africa are newspapers, social media, the court system and protest. With the exception of the latter, all of these systems are reserved for the literate, voiced and those who can afford legal fees. And politicians can always ignore negative press. This is why there are no consequences for corruption. Justice is only for the wealthy and the corrupt can also afford lawyers.

The legal system should not have to arbitrate on behalf of voters. Voters must be able to, without any financial or personal cost, depose poor leaders. 

On protests, South Africans should not need to resort to endless, painful and violent means to get basic services. Yet that has become normalised in our communities. It is not hard to see why, beset as we have been by this poorly functioning democracy. 

Our current system makes South Africans feel powerless because it does not have accountability built into it. To make a better society for ourselves and for our children, we must reform our democratic system to make our leaders answerable to us. We must choose our representation directly as communities, not have them selected and handed down by parties we no longer trust. Issues, problems and concerns should have a direct channel from the local to the national level. It is critical that South Africa’s electoral system is moved to an open-party list PR electoral system where candidates are chosen by a constituency. 

We must choose people from our communities who we trust to represent and lead us. The answer for democracy lies at the grassroots. DM/MC


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  • Rory Macnamara says:

    those who did not vote did themselves a disservice never mind to their fellow South Africans. whatever our system is it is what we have and we must live with it. the fact remains that non voters may get a warm and fuzzy feeling but looking at the results now that fuzzy feeling must turn to shame.

  • Anwar Mall says:

    a well thought out piece Emma. I agree with your view.

  • Stephen T says:

    This is a good overview on the structural flaws in our democracy. The devil is in the details, as always.

    “We must choose our representation directly as communities, not have them selected and handed down by parties we no longer trust.”
    A nice ideal, but given our current context it would be practically impossible to implement. As a general trend, however, the closest we can come to this (without splitting the country into smaller bits) is a rigorously decentralised federal system. Yes, federalism has its pitfalls as well and are amply demonstrated by the clowns that the US seems to elect from both sides of their political spectrum. But generally speaking, a deeper federal system than our current provincial model would, in time, address many of the grassroots problems we now face.

    Ultimately, our political path seems to be nearing a crossroads. Do we centralise even further and risk a catastrophic slide into a unitary state (given that you can vote yourself into communism but you have to shoot your way out of it)? Or do we decentralise and risk introducing an even more complex system that might weaken the ruling party to the point where it concedes to the RET faction? The ANC has historically never been in favour of federalism at all, which is understandable given it’s insistence on ‘liberation politics’ and thus may well be the single biggest obstacle to any kind of shift into federalisation. It is a lose/lose game for them so I doubt they would even entertain the idea.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    Hitting the nail on the head. Clearly & succinctly put, Ms Ruiters, thank you. The political system also attracts a certain calibre of person, a bit like the Scouts attracts pedophiles.

  • Stephen T says:

    Now that I think of it, there is one other obstacle to electoral reform that is perhaps at least as big as the ANC itself. It is the gigantic elephant in the room that almost everyone and certainly all of the mainstream media refuses to talk about. The reason, I think, that it remains so unmentioned is that it can unravel so much of the progressive narrative as lies and half-truths that the media dare not let it become even a fraction of any the national debate. The media feeds off scandal more than it does the truth, and this truth has such solid supporting evidence that to refute it is sheer lunacy. The only option is to suppress it, which the media has thus far succeeded at.

    This simple truth that can render Emma Ruiters’ article completely moot is but a simple thing: population growth.

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