Herds of State: South Africa in dire need of Electoral Reform.

by Iswamo Kapalu

On Tuesday, the National Assembly debated and voted on a resolution to remove the President. The resolution needed a super-majority of two-thirds of the Assembly to be of the view that the president had acted in serious breach of the Constitution and had to be removed accordingly. Since, in a full 400 member house, the opposition needed an additional 117 votes from the ANC benches to pass the resolution, there was no real doubt which way the vote was going to go. And this is the issue.

My problem does not lie in the fact that the ANC did not view the President’s actions as a serious breach of the Constitution, (because “serious” is a qualification that allows a great deal of discretion on the part of the Assembly,) but in the fact that the ANC decided. It was not the duly elected members of the National Assembly that voted in line with their consciences, senses of duty to constitutional values, or the interests of the nation, but the party machinery of the ANC.

This fact would have remained problematic irrespective of whether the ANC voted unanimously to remove the President because it would still have been the ANC and not the members of the National Assembly voting for the removal. This is because we have an electoral system where the members of the Assembly are beholden to party machinery and not the electorate. Because of this we have a party-line that is toed closely, irrespective of the feelings of the individual member. So when it’s time to hold a President accountable, it is not the oath sworn to uphold the Constitution that speaks but the fact that you will be redeployed to the position of “Ambassador to Azerbaijan” as soon as you vote outside the party line.

This turns parliamentary “debate” into lip service to the contestation of ideas. All “debates” become meaningless because the idea that will win is decided by shadowy party structures even when that idea is shown to be inferior in reason, correctness or constitutionality. This problem is structural and only structural reform to our electoral process can fix it.

That much was noted by leader of the UDM Bantu Holomisa in Tuesday’s debate. He proposed, among, other things:

  • The reform of the Electoral Act;
  • A fair and transparent party funding legislation;

Consultation with the citizens must produce an electoral system that creates:

  • A balance between the constituency and proportional elected representation systems;
  • A direct election of the State President by the electorate;
  • A vetting of candidates for cabinet positions;
  • An appointment of an independent Speaker of Parliament from outside of party politics.”

In those proposals is the realisation that some power needs to be taken away from parties and given back to the people. This should be done or history will repeat itself over and over again, no matter who is President or who has the majority in the legislature. The right reform also has the potential to give meaning back to the now ceremonial parliamentary debate. Giving the control of representatives back to the represented may well give them the incentive to rebel against party lines that are wrong in law or offend their consciences, transforming them from “voting cattle” into thinking, accountable and responsive leaders.

Mr Iswamo Kapalu
LL.B. (Wits)

Iswamo Kapalu is a young South African of Zambian origin. He holds an LLB from the University of the Witwatersrand and currently works as a researcher, writer and social justice advocate at the Jesuit Institute.

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