Makhosandile Zulu
5 minute read
21 Nov 2019
4:55 pm

Democracy itself questioned at Zondo commission

Makhosandile Zulu

Following an exchange at the state capture inquiry, an analyst says the country should start thinking of more than just a mix of the proportional representation and constituency electoral systems.

Campaign posters fill the wall outside a voting station on May 7, 2014 in Bekkersdal, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Athol Moralee)

The chairperson of the commission of inquiry into state capture, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, suggested on Tuesday that it was possible that one of the challenges South Africa faced in reducing levels of corruption could stem from the country’s electoral system and how parliament is constituted.

Zondo made the comment during Reverend Frank Chikane’s ongoing testimony at the commission.

He noted that in order for one to be a member of parliament a person needs to be “on the list” of a particular political party, and that this could be a deterrent for some MPs to take a stand against wrongdoing if “the party doesn’t approve” of this, or if doing so would jeopardise the MP’s chances of promotion.

“If we have all of these things, how do we correct them so that future members of parliament [MPs] would be able to exercise their oversight functions properly, in the way that they should, and therefore maybe make sure that levels of corruption are reduced significantly and that those within the executive who are not doing a proper job are held to account?” Zondo asked.

Chikane suggested that the country’s electoral system was not functioning as expected, which “most people now agree” on.

“You know the proportional representation [system] was meant to make sure the minorities were represented; that’s what it was meant for, but it has turned out to be something else, where the party decides whether you are in or out and therefore you lose your right as a person to be yourself; that is the one thing,” said Chikane.

Zondo questioned whether a constituency system would not improve and strengthen parliament in its oversight functions.

“This is what sometimes comes to my mind in regard to members of parliament … that if, for argument’s sake, we had a constituency system, then if I’m a member of parliament and I’m opposed to wrongdoing [and] I want to hold to account a minister or the DGs, the president, the deputy president … [if] I believe what is being done is wrong and I really don’t want to be party to this and I’m a member of my party … if my party was against me doing what is right but I know that I might not get a promotion to be deputy minister, to be minister or chair of a committee, but my continued presence in parliament depends on my constituency and I know that my constituency wants me to stand for what is right, I think I would be encouraged to say, ‘It’s fine, I might not be minister, I might not be deputy minister, but I’ll still be able to look after my family and my children because I know that the constituency that I represent will re-elect me; they are happy with the job I’m doing … maybe that would ameliorate the situation of MPs who want to do the right thing but feel that under the current system they are too vulnerable because they can be removed by the party and then they’ll be gone.”

“I agree,” Chikane said, adding that there was “a push now” for a mixture of the proportional representation and the constituency systems, as is the case at local government level “so that you still take care of the minority but have a way in which people can be able to take a stand, and now we are vulnerable”.

When called for comment, senior researcher at the Institute of Global Dialogue Sanusha Naidu said the issue of reforming the country’s electoral system had been discussed in the Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert Report.

Naidu said the country’s current proportional representation electoral system “inherently enables the winner to take all; it doesn’t really have direct participation or accountability for the elected”.

She said that under the current system, the electorate does not directly vote for the president, members of cabinet, ministers and parliamentarians.

“What you are doing is that you are giving a party – who after the elections and all of the formulas have been conceived of – the ability to determine who they want to be in power, who they want to be ministers and who they want as parliamentarians,” she said, adding that this was a deep flaw in the the proportional representation system.

However, Naidu said no electoral system was “foolproof”.

“Electoral systems by their very nature are contradictory,” she said.

Naidu was of the view that South Africa’s local government sphere was “the most participatory level of electoral democracy”.

“Because here is where you actually have ward councillors fighting for their seat and fighting for the vote,” she said.

Naidu was of the view that the proportional representation system was an exercise “in capturing the vote but not really substantively representing the people”.

The electorate cast their vote with the hope that “the party will do right” by them “but they don’t”, she said, adding that this could account for the decline in voter turnout at the polls.

“The trust in the political parties has dissolved, there’s a disaffection that the electorate feels because they don’t trust the parties any more,” she said.

Naidu’s argument was that voting should be based on a meritocracy and that voters should not need to be members of a certain political party that they voted for during elections for them to be able to tell that party “watch your back because you are not doing the job that you should be doing”.

“But I can’t do that because the electoral process is such that the party that wins the most then determines who the president of the country is.”

Naidu said South Africa should consider much more than mixing the proportional representation system with the constituency system and “start thinking about the utility and the viability of layers of bureaucracy within the electoral landscape”.

“The big area of accountability comes in the local government elections where you really put people on their toes and they have to stand to account.”

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