When traversing many of the rural areas in North West, one cannot help but note the decrepit infrastructure. While service delivery in towns and cities across the country may be poor or uneven, in these areas it is nearly non-existent.
Take the time to converse with some of the locals and you will often be asked the same question: Where are our politicians?
Years of neglect have left many despondent. Others have taken issue with the current electoral system of proportional representation (PR)and questioned its viability in South Africa’s young democracy.
Such a call is not new, however.
In fact, well before the 1994 elections, and throughout his presidency, Nelson Mandela was pointed in his belief in a constituency-based electoral system on the basis that it was best placed to enable voters to hold their elected officials accountable, particularly in the rural areas. His concern was that with the adoption of the PR system, rural communities would be neglected by their MPs and remain on the periphery of society.
Three decades on, the country is yet to address his burning concern.
A trust deficit
Citizens’ confidence in various public institutions has waned over the years. This is palpable in a 2022 survey published by Afrobarometer, which found that only 23% of people in the country had trust in Parliament. Part of why this mistrust has manifested itself so deeply can be attributed to the lack of contact between members of Parliament and constituents, enabled by the PR system.
The main problem with a closed-list PR system such as ours is that members of Parliament and provincial legislatures are not elected through individual and delineated constituencies. Instead, their names are nominated to provincial and national lists by political parties. Thus, elected representatives’ attentions turn wholly towards their political parties and away from voters. This leaves those in charge of the nomination lists with significant influence and power of those who are eventually elected.
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It is important to remember that at their core, elected representatives are politicians who operate in an environment shaped by incentives. Given the poor living conditions in many rural municipalities and their distance from economic activity, an MP may feel no need to take part in addressing the communities’ needs, particularly as he or she is not in danger of losing their position through a direct election.
The key, then, is to turn their incentives away from appeasing party chiefs and point them towards voters. And the most effective way to do so is through introducing a constituency-based system to elect MPs and MPLs.
Bringing politicians closer to voters
Parliament has tried to bridge this gap by making provision for five constituency periods each year, during which MPs are expected to meet and discuss issues with the locals in their assigned constituency areas. Yet the same question remains: What incentive do MPs have to fulfil their obligations to voters?
Take for instance North West, where, according to the Auditor-General’s 2021/22 report, no single municipality has received a clean audit in the past five years. And a majority – 13 out of 22 municipalities – have been placed under administration for failure to perform critical tasks, such as providing water to their communities and dealing with sewage spills, among other things.
In a constituency-based system, the incentive to retain one’s seat in elections would force MPs, ministers too, from the province to readily engage with their constituents and take up their grievances and work with municipalities to resolve them.
Power, in this case, rests with the voter.
Fresh from their constituency work, MPs can raise matters concerning their constituencies during committee sittings and debates in the National Assembly, giving greater national attention to the challenges faced by rural municipalities, many of which need solutions to improve their financial sustainability and move them away from the continued reliance on grant funding provided by National Treasury.
The redirection of the incentives from the party to voters can, in some way, inject a sense of urgency into elected representatives to actively seek out their rural constituents.
Regular interactions between elected representatives and those residing in rural areas will also bring the latter closer and actively include them in the decision-making processes, which remains fundamental to strengthening our democracy.
Not only would this change in system encourage greater cooperation between councillors, MPLs and MPs, it will also establish a chain of accountability from local to national level. So, where there is a failure on governance recorded in, for instance, Naledi Local Municipality in North West, MPs and MPLs will feel compelled to address the councillors’ poor performance, or risk punishment by voters in an election. As such, voters would, to a great extent, be assured that both their MPLs and MPs will provide regular oversight on commitments made by councillors to them.
It is true that political parties will still have the final say in which candidates they put up. However, a constituency-based system will require them to choose the best within their ranks if they want to gain representation in Parliament. In this way, voters may no longer be subjected to poorly performing elected representatives.
Injecting a sense of urgency
The introduction of a constituency-based system will not resolve all the problems faced by rural communities. But, the redirection of the incentives from the party to voters can, in some way, inject a sense of urgency into elected representatives to actively seek out their rural constituents – rather than viewing their current work as a tick-box exercise to fulfil parliamentary requirements.
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Fostering a culture of accountability for elected representatives should be a priority. With lower levels of trust in Parliament and a growing trend of disillusionment with democracy, making this step is crucial.
It is encouraging then that after several attempts the country is closer to achieving considerable electoral reform than at any time before. Notably, Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has, over time, grown more vocal about the need for significant electoral reform. He is, in line with clause 23(1) of the Electoral Amendment Act, poised to establish an electoral reform consultation panel in August, the function of which is to make recommendations for potential reforms to the electoral system in time for the 2029 general elections.
Hopefully, when considering reform, all those involved in the process will take heed of Madiba’s concern and act to ensure the needs of communities, more especially rural ones, are no longer neglected by politicians. DM
Mokheseng Moema is a livestock farmer with an interest in South African politics and history. He holds an honours degree in public policy and administration from UCT.