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Combatting corruption means getting rid of our electoral system

It is indeed true that there’s a good story to tell about South Africa post-1994 and that a solid foundation has been created to speed up growth and win the war against the triple ills of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Underpinning this success is the resilience of our rights-based Constitution that has been critical in proscribing the power of the state and the reasonable effectiveness of the chapter nine institutions and other economic regulatory institutions. The biggest risk, and indeed an inhibiting challenge, is the pervasive corruption that most people agree has affected every level of the state’s operating machinery.

It is also common cause that the growth of corruption reflects the degree of accountability inherent in our political system. We need to look into our closed-list proportional representation system to understand how the power of the electorate is affected.

The nature of the closed-list proportional representation system we’ve adopted is such that if you want to run for a leadership position in your party, it will be necessary to join or put together a group or faction that shares and supports your views and is willing to swear allegiance to you and the faction. The element of allegiance is critical to the success of the faction. But it must be understood that those who are excluded from your faction will not sit down and enjoy the glory of your success when the process has been concluded in your favour. They will be plotting how to replace you in the next election.

The other critical issue to contend with is that all those who were in your faction and were critical to the success of your election, will be expecting to be rewarded with senior appointments in the three spheres of government. This is the essence of the power of patronage. Under these circumstances competencies give way to loyalty. Our experience with the underperforming local government provides ample proof of the corrosive effect of this structural weakness in our political system.

The unintended consequence of this breakdown is that accountability to the public is compromised. Voters feel a sense of neglect from the people they voted into power. At the centre of the service-delivery protests is a sense of complete alienation from political leadership. This is a direct result of the electoral system we have adopted.

Accountability is important in ensuring that political leaders pay attention to the views of the public. Education and health are critical elements in our efforts to make a better life for all. And especially in these two areas, the voice of the public has been unheeded. The collapse of our public schooling and health system demonstrates an arrogant neglect for quality. It is inconceivable that underperformance has reached such deplorable levels in the 20 years of democratic dispensation. It is however inspiring that we now finally have a visionary leader with Aaron Motsoaledi as health minister.

The case for education is indeed depressing. There has been very little interest in the department of education to accept that quality of delivery should be the main focus. The issue of the drop-out rate and what contributes to it has received very little attention despite research available on the issue.

The impact of corrective interventions will not be immediate. And here lies the problem. Too much emphasis and publicity is given to end-of-year results for political point-scoring. Every parent surely ranks quality education as the most important concern and yet, the sad reality is that the system keeps ejecting no less than 450 000 young under-educated and unemployable youth into the labour market to swell the unemployed ranks. And most of these come from poor families. The implications for possible social instability are profound.

What then?

I think the moment has arrived for the ruling party to lead in changing our proportional representation system to a mixed system. This might win the party a huge moral upside and help it reclaim the legitimacy factor that has been the motivation for the high voter support it’s enjoyed in every election since 1994.