“So much for the Prague Spring”, mumbled the chattering classes a year ago today as they waddled off to cast their ballots and so help end all the post-Polokwane fun Mzansi was having. With this little memory sparking anticipation of reams and reams of one-year reviews of the Zuma government’s performance by every other hack and its friend, I thought I’d take the chance to get in my five cents worth about a matter that is equally deserving of some opportune consideration. For aside from all the other romantic election-time stuff that always get me nostalgically swooning, there are also a number of things which are much sexier when voters are being wooed than they are in real life. Some of them may even be crucial to whether we are going to get our fledgling democracy into second gear or not. To my mind, one such issue is the little matter of our electoral system.
See, for a myriad of understandable reasons, such as whether we were going to chop each other’s heads off in the 94 elections or not, the chaps and gals at the multi-party negotiating forum decided we should have a proportional representation system until further consideration could be given to the matter. Such further consideration only came nominally at first when a bit of legislative tinkling ensured the 94 system could be carried over in time for the 99 elections. Whether it was because of the big chief’s nit-picking, his cabinet’s conscience, a stash of unneeded cash or a desire to throw the eye of the many conspirators who were so very much against them, the first Mbeki cabinet resolved in 2002 to do something about the matter. And so it came that white SA’s liberal pin-up boy of yore, Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, had almost complete free reign in assembling quite a nice little team to contemplate the matter.
So chuffed were the majority of the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission with each other that they easily agreed that the best thing would be to chop the country up into 69 multi-member constituencies that could contribute between three and seven public reps each, to make up 300 of our 400 members of parliament. The remaining 100 would then be supplied by a closed proportional representation list. So, they figured, election results would only be at variance of between 4% and 6% with full proportional representativity, which would not be too high a price to pay to give the great accountability conundrum a good whack or two.
Pity then the Mbeki cabinet did not like the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission enough to even peak at its report. Or perhaps they thought it would be too gratifying for IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who was the minister responsible for elections and ID books at the time. Since the former chief minister of KwaZulu was not particularly good at issuing the latter on time, we may have perhaps understood when we were told that it was too late to implement the 69-constituency option in time for the 2004 election. But once the report was still left to gather dust well after Buthelezi’s 2004 departure, we should have surely smelled a rat. The former chief minister did, and so did a whole bunch of other opposition party leaders, a number of whom even recorded it in their 2009 election manifestos. Yet, now a year after the election, Congress of the People president Mosiuoa Lekota has pretty much been the only opposition leader to audibly mention the need for electoral reform when he did so in March of this year.
One wants to encourage all our political parties to move on this issue, for it will not only be of benefit to the voter, but could also act as the greatest organisational development intervention that South Africa’s political parties could ask for. For one, it would force greater accountability to constituencies to replace the obsequious closeness that aspirational party activists currently think de rigueur for success. And as these activists would have to show their leadership in rallying constituencies behind them to get elected, they would already have proven a fair bit of the mettle required to really scrutinise legislation and keep government accountable on behalf of the electorate as competent members of parliament should do. They would have more freedom to do so too, as they would be beholden to their constituencies before they have to answer to their leadership.
This means less of a rubber-stamp parliament, less populist coups on important issues and more muscle for the electorate in directing the government to be what they deserve. It means less party funds absorbed by trying to artificially engineer accountability to “constituencies” and it means more in the way of a political culture that would be conducive to fostering an engaged civil society. In short, it means getting together to achieve more the natural way, and not because a strategist told a politician that it would be a good thing to say.