ANC opts for the electoral system that has served it well

Alex | Sep 30, 2009
There are strong doubts over whether government seriously considered an alternative system.

List-system proportional representation (PR) - the simplest and most inclusive electoral system – was chosen by our constitution-makers for our first two national elections in 1994 and 1999. The Constitution did not stipulate what system should be used for subsequent elections, but stated that results should ‘in general’ be proportional to the votes cast for each party. New electoral legislation was therefore required for the 2004 elections. After much foot-dragging by the cabinet, an Electoral Task Team (ETT) was finally appointed in April 2002. The team was unanimous in agreeing that its recommendations could not be implemented in time for the elections. Opinion surveys commissioned by the ETT showed that most people were satisfied with the existing system: 72 per cent said it was fair to all parties and 81 per cent believed it ensured that there were many voices in parliament. However, many voters expressed a desire for closer contact with their political representatives: 71 per cent said they wanted to vote for a candidate from their area, 64 per cent believed MPs should live close to the people they represent, and 53 per cent thought candidates should be selected by party members rather than by party leaders. The majority view in the ETT accordingly recommended that 300 of the 400 members of the National Assembly be elected in constituencies and the remaining 100 on a national list. (The latter would be ‘compensatory’, should the constituency elections not result in proportional results.) It was estimated that 69 constituencies would be created (with boundaries conforming roughly to those of district and metro councils), with between three and seven MPs being returned from each. The minority view proposed the retention of the existing system unchanged, mainly because the ANC, NNP and ACDP argued that it is still needed to achieve reconciliation, nation-building and stability. However, there is nothing in the majority’s proposed system that would hinder the attainment of these goals, and it would enhance voter satisfaction. ETT chairman Dr F van Zyl Slabbert commented after the release of the report that it was clear to him from the outset that the government had no desire to change the system. He is right: it has served the ANC leaders well, putting immense power in their hands. DA member Ken Andrew denounced the ETT exercise as a ‘sham orchestrated by the government’. The cabinet accepted the minority’s recommendations but agreed that the ETT report would be reviewed before the 2009 elections.
Electoral systems are vital components of democratic political systems: they are machines that convert popular wishes into seats in parliament which, in turn, will determine which party (or parties) will form a government. The type of system chosen is also liable to be a matter of political controversy, since it can significantly affect the number of seats won by the parties in electoral competition.

For its first two national elections South Africa's constitution-makers opted for the simplest and most inclusive system of all, namely list system proportional representation (PR). The lists, moreover, were 'closed', meaning that a voter votes for a particular party list, and cannot rank his or her candidates in order of preference - as can be done with 'open' lists.

The Constitution of 1996 did not incorporate a particular type of system, but stipulated that the results of an election should 'in general' be proportional to the votes cast for each party. National legislation was to prescribe an electoral system, but the systems used in 1994 and 1999 would lapse after the 1999 election, leaving a legislative vacuum to be filled by the anticipated new legislation. The implication is that legislation will have to be enacted to reinstate the existing system in time for the elections to be held in 2004.

Foot-dragging has been the order of the day. The Electoral Task Team, chaired by Dr F van Zyl Slabbert, was unanimous in agreeing that its (majority) recommendation could not be implemented in time for next year's election. Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi, under whose departmental aegis (home affairs) questions concerning the electoral system fall, could barely conceal his irritation at the delays. According to him, cabinet sat on his proposal to appoint an Electoral Task Team for nearly a year, in spite of president Mbeki's statement that the issue would be finalised. It was finally appointed in April 2002.

Opinion surveys commissioned by the ETT showed a high level of satisfaction with the existing system: 74 per cent of voters were 'satisfied with the way we elect our government'; 72 per cent felt that the current system was 'fair to all parties'; 81 per cent believed that it ensured that 'we include many voices in Parliament'; 78 per cent that it gave voters 'a way to change the party in power'; and 68 per cent that it helped voters 'hold the parties accountable for their actions'.

On the other hand, voters expressed the view that they wanted closer contact with the politicians they elected: 71 per cent said that they wanted to vote for a candidate from the area where they lived; 64 per cent said that MPs should live 'close to the people they represent'; and 53 per cent that party candidates should be selected by party members rather than by party leaders.

It is worth mentioning here that earlier research, unrelated to the ETT, has suggested that substantial percentages of the electorate do not know who 'their' MP is, indicating that the informal allocation of 'constituencies' by individual parties has not been very successful.

There is general agreement among observers, as well as members of the ETT, that the present system has served the country reasonably well: it is fair, inclusive and simple. As the ETT noted, it has contributed to stability in the critical transition period during which, hopefully, democratic institutions have been consolidated, although how real and deep-rooted consolidation is will be a matter for debate.

The majority view in the ETT recommended that 300 of the 400 members of the National Assembly be elected in multimember constituencies, and a further 100 be elected on a national list. It was estimated that countrywide 69 constituencies would be demarcated, with between three and seven MPs (obviously depending on the population size of each constituency) being returned from each. According to the majority, constituency boundaries would be those of district councils (with perhaps combinations or sub-divisions of district councils along municipal boundaries) and metro councils (or subdivisions thereof). The same outer boundaries would apply for national, provincial and obviously also municipal elections. No constituency boundary would cross a provincial boundary. That meant that the same constituencies could be used for provincial as well as national elections.

The 100 MPs elected from national lists would be 'compensatory', should the constituency elections not result in generally proportional results, which, in the majority view, is unlikely.

The minority view proposed the retention of the existing system unchanged, principally for the reason that parliamentary parties representing 76,75 per cent of the electorate (mainly the ANC, the New National Party and the African Christian Democratic Party) told the ETT that reconciliation, nation-building and the pursuit of peace and stability were still far from being achieved, especially in respect of racial and ethnic divides as well as gender equality and equity. They maintained that the present electoral system would still be needed for the foreseeable future to support the attainment of these ideals.

It is difficult to follow the logic of this argument, or to think of empirical evidence that supports it. Conversely, there is nothing in the majority's view that would hinder the attainment of the desirable goals that the minority listed. What the majority proposed was not a radical change in the system, but its elaboration in a direction that would enhance voter satisfaction - as indicated by the research findings quoted above.

In a comment after the (delayed) release of the ETT's report Slabbert observed: 'It was obvious to me that the government, from the outset, didn't really have a serious appetite for changing the system'. He is right: why should it change a system that has served it well by putting immense power in the hands of the party leadership, a power that is massively compounded by the anti-defection clause (which requires members who switch party affiliations or are expelled from the parties on whose lists they were elected to vacate their seats)? Even the recent amendments to the clause, offering 'window periods' for 'floor-crossing', are calculated not to disadvantage the ANC by requiring that those changing party affiliation constitute at least 10 per cent of the party they are leaving - always a potential threat to smaller parties, but much less so for a party the size of the ANC, which now enjoys a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

Ken Andrew of the Democratic Alliance denounced the ETT exercise, saying that 'the whole process has been a sham orchestrated by the government'. Indeed, the ANC has known since 1996 that the Constitution required new electoral legislation in time for the 2004 elections.