William Gumede
4 minute read
6 Oct 2008

What must be done

William Gumede

South Africa needs to adopt a new electoral system.

One worrying consequence of the way in which former president Thabo Mbeki was forced out by the 88-member national executive committee of the ANC is that the division between the ruling party and the state is now increasingly blurred.

In fact, South Africa is in danger now of becoming a party-state or “partocracy” where there is no clear firewall between the executive, legislatures and public institutions on the one hand and the ruling ANC on the other.

Yet, our constitutional democratic system demands a clear division between the party on the one hand, and the state and public institutions on the other. Parliament elects the South African president. Jacob Zuma, the ANC leader, could not be appointed as president of South Africa because he is not a member of Parliament. This means that the decision to fire Mbeki should have been debated in Parliament first. This is why there is a clear constitutional process, done through Parliament, for getting rid of errant presidents: impeachment or a vote of no-confidence in Parliament.

However, Parliament was only presented with Mbeki’s enforced resignation.

The same argument could be made for the ANC NEC decision to fire premiers and mayors. This is not to argue that parties cannot recall incompetent leaders. But so far, the ANC has not recalled many public officials for incompetency. Most ANC leaders in government have been fired for not toeing the party line. This includes Mbeki: he could have been recalled a long time ago for his refusal to treat those dying from HIV/Aids. Yet, at the end of the day he was sacked not for the very real mismanagement of policies under his presidential watch, but out of revenge, and to shield Zuma from being prosecuted for alleged corruption.

Ultimately, if the party should move to fire incompetent leaders, it must be done transparently in the National Assembly, provincial legislatures or municipalities. If not, it reinforces the idea that legislatures is nothing but rubber stamps for the ANC leadership, or a faction thereof.

Similarly, following the decision by the ANC’s national conference last December, the Scorpions, the directorate of special prosecutions, are now about to be closed down. Yet, this is a decision that should have been made by Parliament.

The problem now is that the ANC leadership assume that they are the South African nation, or euphemistically, the “people” themselves, rather than their representatives. This means that every decision taken by the ANC leadership is viewed as good for the country, without consulting the wider nation. It also means that decisions that are often purely factional ones are seen as in the interests of the nation as a whole.

Of course there are many problems inherent in a party state. The one is that if the party is paralysed by factional fights, tainted by corruption or run undemocratically, the country is also likely to be so. This is one of the reasons why many African countries run by former independence or liberation movements have failed to institute broad-based democracy when they came to power.

Can the worst effects of a party state or “partocracy” be reversed? The first thing is that the ANC must become more internally democratic. The truth, although the ANC’s Polokwane conference has made a call for greater internal democracy in the party, is that little has changed. A case in point is the fact that Zuma is explaining to ANC provinces, branches and ordinary members why Mbeki was so brutally pushed out when he only had six months left to serve. The decision should have been canvassed among the membership, branches and provinces beforehand. Following Mbeki’s forced exit, the purge of those seen as anti-Zuma in the ANC provinces, branches, legislatures, government departments and public institutions has begun.

An integral part of becoming more internally democratic is to make the ANC’s internal elections more democratic. Our electoral system that allows the party bosses, rather than the ordinary people, to decide who should be candidates for Parliament, provincial legislatures and local government should be scrapped.

This means that the elected representatives are more accountable to the welfare of the party bosses rather than to the people and to defend the Constitution — to which they pledged allegiance when elected.

It is even more urgent now that South Africa adopt a new electoral system, as already proposed in 2004 by the electoral task team headed by Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, to give more say to ordinary people, rather than the party, makes elected candidates accountable to their constituencies and allow them to be recalled by their constituencies if they fail to deliver.

Secondly, democratic institutions, the judiciary, Parliament and audit institutions must become more vigilant and assertive to defend democracy, the Constitution and its values. Thirdly, civil movements, non-governmental organisations and the media must do so also. Furthermore, ordinary citizens must also assert their rights more, and hold the government and public institutions accountable. Finally, South Africa’s opposition parties must get more serious, adopt more relevant policies, actually do the hard work of establishing properly working branches and elect more competent leaders.