MAKING South African democracy work will take more than tweaking the way in which its citizens vote.
Electoral reform – changing the way in which representatives are elected – is now the flavour of the month among political insiders: politicians, academics and some citizens’ organisations. Proposals for a new system are circulating among them and they are competing to come up with the ‘winning’ system. Keeping the current system seems not to be a possibility which is discussed in polite company. The unspoken message is that, if you care about democracy, you must want a new system.
The Insiders Decide
The reason is a constitutional court judgement last year which ruled that it was unconstitutional to prevent independent candidates from contesting provincial and national elections. Independents are allowed to contest wards in local government but only political parties can contest national and provincial votes. Politicians become members of provincial legislatures or the national parliament if they are high enough on a list compiled by their parties. No sooner had the court ruled than the insiders were insisting that an end to this system was inevitable.
This is not strictly true. While most insiders now seem to believe that the court insisted on a new electoral system, that is not what its judgement said. It gave Parliament two years to change the Electoral Act, which governs how elections are conducted, to allow independents to stand as candidates. It didn’t say anything about which system was needed. It is possible to do what it asks while keeping the system much as it is now. But the insiders have wanted a new system for years and they saw the judgement as an opening. We don’t yet know whether Parliament will decide to implement the judgement by changing the system but the insiders have made up their mind that it must go.
The change, they insist, will transform party politics for ever. No longer will law-makers be accountable only to their party bosses who decide who to place on the list. They will have to account to voters because, if they don’t, they will lose the next election. For the first time in the country’s history, politicians and governments will be forced to serve the people rather than themselves.
But, for not the first or last time, the insiders are very good at recycling the latest fashions and theories, not at all good at understanding the country in which they live. Changing the electoral system is unlikely to have any of the effects which they predict.
They are right about the problem. An important reason for wasteful and ineffective government is that governments and law-makers are not accountable to most citizens. In democracies, they are meant to be servants of the people. But they often are not because one of the key features of democracy does not operate in the way textbooks say it should. They do not feel a need to listen to the people, partly because they don’t expect to pay a price if they don’t.
To underline the point, the most effective department in national government is usually assumed to be the National Treasury. Whether you love or hate what it does depends on your view of economic policy but even those who hate it would probably recognise that it is good at doing what they dislike. The reason is that the Treasury is accountable to markets and to those in the society who depend on them. If it offends the markets, the costs are visible within hours and businesses or trade unions will start to complain. If every government official and elected law-maker was as accountable to the people as the Treasury is to the markets, government would work for the people.
The Lesson of Local Government
So, accountability is key to better government. But a new electoral system will not achieve it.
To show why so, we should not need to trot out lengthy arguments – we should, rather, mention two words: local government. In local elections, voters choose a ward candidate as well as a party, so half the councillors are, in theory, accountable directly to their voters. But this really does happen only in theory. The local is the sphere of government in which South Africans have least faith – in townships and shack settlements, protests directed at mayors and councillors are common. Just about no one believes that directly electing councillors makes local governments more accountable.
There are good reasons for this. While distrust of political parties has grown, South African voters are more loyal to parties than those in many other democracies. Parties are often a part of people’s political identity, and to change parties is a much more serious decision than in many other countries. Many who have had enough of ‘their’ party simply don’t vote rather than supporting another party because this would mean, in a sense, changing who they are. An important reason is that parties express identities – race, language and culture. To name an obvious example, few black voters support the Democratic Alliance, fewer whites support the African National Congress. To add to this, legal racial segregation in living areas may have gone but where people is strongly linked to their identity – virtually no whites live in townships and shack settlements, blacks are still a minority in many suburbs.
If we put all three together, we have a recipe which weakens accountability despite the fact that ward councillors are directly elected. The strong loyalties, and the fact that people of similar identities inhabit the same living areas, mean that the largest parties are not likely to lose in their strongholds. While suburban residents often like to portray those in townships and shack settlements as unthinking voters who endorse the ANC whatever it does, many suburbs are far safer for the DA whatever it does than townships are for the ANC because their voters support the official opposition in larger numbers than township voters support the governing party. This gives party leaderships great power because candidates will only win election if they run on the party ticket – and citizens have little power because the party which wins in their area is unlikely to lose the ward.
It is hard to see how changing the electoral system would change this. Nor would it change a reality which often tends to escape the insiders. While elections are one way in which law-makers are held to account, they are not the only one: in democracies, citizens have a variety of other ways of holding law-making bodies to account, whether they voted for them or not. So, the question is often not whether elected law-makers and governments are accountable to citizens, but which citizens hold them to account.
One of the great ironies of South African politics after apartheid is that those who have the most votes are not those who wield most power. People who live in suburbs vote for a minority party, and yet they have far greater influence than township and shack settlement residents, most of whom still vote for a majority party. Not only are services better in the suburbs – governments are more likely to listen to them when they complain. That will remain so whatever electoral system the country uses.
So will the political reality of which the greater power of the suburbs is a symptom. Racial minority rule may have ended but government is still accountable only to a minority, the one-third or so of the adult population who have the resources and the political muscle to decide what is important and what is not. This is why the debate on land expropriation ignores landless people or why the discussion since Covid-19 has arrived has been about whether people in the suburbs should be subject to a lockdown, not what is being done to protect people in townships from disease and death. This is in many ways the real accountability problem and it will persist whatever electoral system the insiders choose.
The Wrong Cure
Given these realities, changing the electoral system won’t solve any problems. It may well make them worse because it will detract attention from the real issue.
The lack of accountability is not a product of the way South Africans choose their law-makers, but of the society in which they are chosen. The problem is not the party list system but the fact that, in many ways, the country has not broken with its past. This is why where people live reflects so starkly who they are and why people who are unhappy with the party which claims to speak for them find it hard to move to another. And it is why the majority of voters have very little power while a minority continues to influence what problems politicians will attend to and which they will ignore.
The important debate is how the country can change these realities, not how it chooses the people who, without other changes, will keep the problem alive rather than working to end it.
Prof Steven Friedman is a research professor at the faculty of humanities, politics department, University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.