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SA's electoral system is weak on accountability

- Judith February

We have heard it said many times before: the SA electoral system does not provide a sufficient link between the citizen and the elected representative.

The daily protests across the country point to a failure of participatory democracy where citizens clearly do not believe their voices are being heard. After 24 years of democracy, state capture, other forms of corruption and a lack of care have created deep tensions within communities.

Many have argued that our proportional representation-list system diminishes levels of accountability. Yet, we have also seen our local government system, which has greater built-in accountability, fail dismally in relation to links with citizens and accountability.

So, it’s a tricky issue and one which South Africa has been grappling with for a number of years. Nevertheless, the South African electoral system is characterised by simplicity, inclusiveness and a strong sense of fairness. These characteristics have, arguably, helped to strengthen our democracy and ensure the legitimacy of democratic processes among South Africans.

However, since the 1999 general elections, a significant weakness has emerged within the electoral system. South Africa’s use of proportional representation based on a closed party list system seems to generate a deficit in accountability, particularly in the context of one-party dominance. This weakness was most notable during the ‘Arms Deal debacle’ of 2000 where it was clear that party loyalty trumped the need for accountability.

Those Members of Parliament who stood their ground, like Andrew Feinstein, found themselves in the wilderness and ostracised by the ANC. Sadly there have been many examples since then of the ANC doing exactly the same - whether it was covering up for former President Zuma’s corruption in relation to Nkandla or on state capture in general, the party exercised its influence over those who dared to speak out. If the party ‘owns’ the seat, the MP is pretty much beholden to the party, no matter what.

Initially, the South African electoral system, as crafted in the interim Constitution of 1994, was welcomed. Near-perfect proportional representation (PR) with no threshold mirrored the national and provincial electorate, thus ensuring that the national and provincial legislatures were directly and widely representative and afforded a strong sense of inclusiveness. The system followed recommendations from comparative institutionalists, on design for ‘divided societies’. The results of the first election were widely accepted and therefore had a moderating effect in a potentially volatile time.

In its founding provisions, the Constitution identifies ‘Universal adult suffrage, a national common voter’s roll, regular elections and a multi-party system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and openness’ as essential components of any new electoral system.

In 2002 the Cabinet appointed an Electoral Task Team (ETT) to formulate the new electoral laws for the 2004 elections and beyond. The task team was chaired by Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert and consisted of members of government and civil society.

The ETT addressed whether or not an electoral system per se had the ability to guarantee accountability, as opposed to other institutional arrangements which govern representatives’ behaviour while in office like Chapter 9 Institutions. In a first-past-the-post system, representatives are individually scrutinised, but the party as a whole gets a less critical treatment.

With further deliberation, the ETT proposed a system that they felt did not drastically change the electoral system in a manner that would completely disrupt the administration of the elections, and could be modified in the future to continuously increase accountability. This system was supported by a majority of the task team, although there was a minority dissent. The majority proposal, better known as the '69 constituency option', proposes expanding the number of multi-member constituencies from nine to 69. The number of constituents per representative is drastically decreased. Three hundred of the 400 total seats would be assigned by this method. The remaining 100 would be decided according to national closed lists, in order to regain proportionality.

There were, of course, institutional constraints blocking the immediate implementation of these recommendations. The ETT pointed out the lack of time and funding available. The proposed model is sensitive to these constraints and presents itself as a compromise to ensure accountability.

It is worth noting that within the course of the ETT’s deliberations, an open list PR system was proposed to induce the correct balance between individual and party accountability. Voters would choose a party and then go on to rank candidates in the order in which they think they should be elected to Parliament, depending on the proportion of votes the party received. Candidates would be beholden to voters to rank them favourably. Proportionality would not be compromised. Challenges to an open list system arise with the sheer number of candidates (200+ in some cases), and the level of literacy required to vote in such a manner. The report was tabled in March 2003, and Parliament voted to revisit the recommendations after the elections.

Nevertheless, Cabinet adopted the ETT’s minority position, which was to not introduce any changes to the electoral system. The argument forwarded by Home Affairs Minister Buthelezi was that there was insufficient time before the 2004 election to implement the changes. This reason does not preclude the possibility for reform in the future, but the political possibilities for change are bleak. The recommendations have never been re-considered or adopted by Parliament. Attention was drawn again to the recommendations made by the ETT by the Report of the Independent Assessment of Parliament, who listed a reconsideration of the ETT’s report first on their list of recommendations for Chapter 9 institutions.

Overall, South Africa’s electoral system requires reform and the report by the ETT needs to be seriously addressed. The electoral system in its current form does indeed espouse and support democratic values of fairness and inclusivity, while maintaining its simplicity. But it is on the key democratic value of accountability where the system remains weak. The deficit in accountability found within South Africa’s electoral system has weakened key institutions and has enabled the emergence of a one-party dominant system and, more importantly, the dominance of party executives.

As seen in the infamous Arms Deal, party interests in the current system trump the public interest. If South Africa is to further the consolidation of its young democracy, ensuring greater accountability between the electorate and political parties is key. This will lead to a strengthening of the democratic fabric of South Africa’s society and perhaps ensure more responsive governance. That is needed more than anything else right now.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. This article was first published online on