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Why we need electoral reform

By Ntombenhle Khathwane

In the recent weeks, news headlines have been dominated by the textbook saga in Limpopo and Eastern Cape. This happens a few months before the ANC policy conference, during which it would be expected that the ruling party would discuss how to make its time in government more efficient. Although this was discussed, an important element was overlooked, and that is citizen involvement. Citizenship involvement in the broader South African polity is limited and it would serve the ANC and South Africa in general to increase the ability and impact of citizen participation by reforming the electoral system.

This year alone, government has been challenged through the expensive court system to deliver or to act in a proper manner numerous times. It was through a court challenge that Jacob Zuma was forced to act on the arms deal, it was through the courts that the rolling out of e-tolls was suspended and it was also through court action that government started to move towards delivering textbooks in Limpopo and the Eastern Cape.

What this points to is a deficiency in the chain of accountability because if government departments as headed by elected officials were under pressure to ensure they deliver, the rate of delivery would be much higher. This pressure would exist if SA had an open-list proportional representation (PR) electoral system.

The current closed-list PR electoral system is what creates a system of patronage and makes party members loyal to party factions instead of the South African public. Even though the ANC will argue that they ensure regional representation and attachment of elected officials through their constituency offices, the impact of a constituency office in bridging the gap between government and the people is in practice very little. After the normal voting process, the public has little impact on who gets voted onto the ANC party lists come election time. The closed-list PR electoral system also creates a hegemony of the party instead of a hegemony of the people because the party is in total control of who gets voted into parliament and possibly becomes a minister or an MEC and the people have no impact on the choices or the ability to choose who they think they will perform better.

Party insiders have always defended this closed-list PR system at national and provincial level saying that what matters is that there is a semi-open list PR system at local government level and this where it matters most because this is where delivery takes place. However, the recent publication of the audits of municipalities and the fact that most municipalities are failing to submit for audits illustrates that local government is very weak and unlikely to deliver anytime soon. The textbook debacle has a huge impact of delivery on a key area, education, which is a national and provincial mandate. Minister Angie Motshekga is able to be nonchalant about this huge failure because she knows that her lack of performance will not impact on her ability to retain her name high up on the ANC electoral lists, what will determine her continued political career is her relationship with the more powerful faction come election time.

As the ANC goes into conference in December and examines issues such as organisational renewal, it would benefit the ANC and the people of SA if the ANC pushed for a change to an open-list PR electoral system. The internal ability of the ANC to manage performance and curb corruption has obviously failed. The open-list PR system will make citizens partners in ensuring the public office bearers perform well. It will ensure that every politician works to the bone to deliver or else they risk losing their career. It’s time for the ANC to permit South Africans to become real shareholders in this business called South Africa. As shareholders, every vote will really count and impact efficiency, every shareholder will be keen to play a part in the business and every shareholder will be encouraged to know every part of the business called South Africa.

The current closed-list PR system limits democracy and doesn’t encourage citizenship and citizen participation, because what is the point if the party all on its own determines the people to be voted into parliament, legislatures and councils. The current electoral system permits very little real participation by the public and that is why government constantly finds itself under fire by the media and in the courts because these are the only ways through which government can be forced to follow a people’s mandate.

Ntombenhle Khathwane is an entrepreneur and social activist based in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga. She is passionate about democracy studies, identity politics and the African political economy.

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