SA elections: Independent candidature still a pipe dream

With independent candidates given an opportunity to contest elections, they work 10 times more than political parties to get a seat.

Following the 2020 Constitutional Court ruling that the electoral system since 1994 was unconstitutional, the government and parliament have been pressured to adopt a route they have been avoiding since the era of Nelson Mandela.

While electoral reform has been called for, it has been hard for it to be realised because of a system that is structured around political parties.

For years, South Africa’s electoral system has marginalised independent candidates and, this on its own, has been a total violation of the constitution.

For the electoral system did not represent the constitutionally stated principle that anyone can campaign and be elected to public office, especially in national and provincial spheres of government.

However, this has benefitted political parties because, through proportional representation, they were able to parachute “yes men and women” to be lawmakers.

This has then led to parliamentarians being puppets of their political parties and losing their conscience when it came to making sound decisions that would better the lives of South Africans.

All this making them lax when it comes to holding the executive to account, as repeatedly shown by ANC MPs when they were shielding the Nkandla and Phala Phala scandals.

But in the wake of the ruling, parliament and government have surrendered to a minimalist approach in relation to the new Electoral Act, that was signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2022.

The Act allows for political parties to keep half of the seats in parliament and the other half be contested by independent candidates.

As much as this is a milestone for our democracy, there are a number of obstacles and questions arising, including how the Act can be implemented in 2024 without independent candidates feeling as if they are being disadvantaged.

With independent candidates given an opportunity to contest elections, it seems they must work 10 times more than political parties to get just one seat.

Currently, political parties are required to garner 1 000 signatures to be eligible to stand for election, while independent candidates are required to get 11 000 to 13 000 signatures.

This stretches the resources of independent candidates and clearly signals that only the super financially strong will be close to succeeding.

As for the rest, hope is lost.

Political parties have all the infrastructure and clout needed to get votes, but for independent candidates, they have zero base to get the votes.

They are largely unknown and it will be hard for them to win the trust of the electorate unless they are celebrities, and have millions of rands lying around to be used for campaigning.

And maybe this is one of the reasons why Build One South Africa leader Mmusi Maimane and Rise Mzansi leader Songezo Zibi have formed their own political parties, instead of contesting as independent candidates.

This is because they understand how our political environment is still not conducive for independent candidature.

There are a lot of issues that need to be considered when it comes to independent candidates. First, the Political Parties Funding Act might need to be amended to include them.

Second, since MPs elect the president, it is unlikely they will vote for an independent candidate to be head of state.

That is because we don’t have a system that allows for the electorate to vote for a state president directly.

So, this is another crucial issue to be looked into because if an independent candidate can’t easily be state president, this Electoral Act will be defeating its purpose.

There are still loose ends until this new system is a success and the 2024 general election will not be a year that caters for independent candidates sufficiently.

Hopefully, in the near future they will feature prominently.