EFF tactics have become somewhat tired

By Judith February

It’s becoming a matter of routine for presidential question time to be disrupted. Last week’s scenes in the National Assembly left little room for doubt - as if there was any, after the chaos of the State of the Nation address in February - that Parliament is fast descending into an institution which the public will lose trust in.

Nkandla and President Jacob Zuma’s evasion of accountability has become a festering sore on our body politic. The EFF will simply not let the matter go as the ANC in Parliament, with the help of Speaker Baleka Mbete, continues to shield the President from paying back the money. The recent rather absurd report by the Minister of Police Nathi Nhleko indicates just what lengths the ANC will go to protect Zuma on the issue.

Yet, the EFF tactics have become somewhat tired. Disrupting the House in the way they did last week will hardly bring about the accountability they seek. In addition, there is something fundamentally undemocratic about shouting down one’s fellow MPs and not adhering to the Speaker’s rulings. Parliament should be a space for debate and deliberation, as well as persuasion. What we saw last week was the politics of spectacle with an outcome that only undermines Parliament as an institution and will, ultimately, render it dysfunctional. Is that the outcome the EFF wants?

The leaders within Parliament, as well as the Presiding Officers, need to find a way to find consensus to prevent further damage to Parliament and its reputation. And the President needs to simply do one thing - pay back the money.

At the moment, however, it seems unlikely that either of these two options will be realized, such is the stalemate on the issue. So it’s hard to fathom what can be done?

Some speak of a political solution. In February this year, after the State of the Nation address leader of government business, Cyril Ramaphosa attempted some form of rapprochement between the opposition and the ruling party MPs in Parliament. That failed miserably when Ramaphosa seemed unable to take his party with him.

Ultimately, it will be up to the ANC inside and outside of Parliament to deal with the Nkandla matter and ensure accountability. But what incentives might junior MPs have to hold the President to account on Nkandla? A lack of internal party democracy, complicated by the fact that the party owns the seat in terms of our electoral system means that there might be little incentive for junior ANC MPs to hold the executive to account.

We have heard it said many times before: the South African electoral system does not provide a sufficient link between the citizen and the elected representative. Many have argued that our proportional representation-list system diminishes levels of accountability. Yet, we have also seen our local government system which has greater built-in accountability, fail dismally in relation to links with citizens and accountability.

So, it’s a tricky issue and one which South Africa has been grappling with for a number of years. Nevertheless, the South African electoral system is characterised by simplicity, inclusiveness and a strong sense of fairness. These characteristics have, arguably, helped to strengthen our democracy and ensure the legitimacy of democratic processes among South Africans. South Africa’s use of proportional representation based on a closed party list system seems to generate a deficit in accountability, particularly in the context of one-party dominance. This weakness was most notable during the ‘Arms Deal debacle’ of 2000 where it was clear that party loyalty trumped the need for accountability. Those Members of Parliament who stood their ground, like Andrew Feinstein, found themselves in the wilderness and ostracized by the ANC. Initially, the South African electoral system, as crafted in the interim constitution of 1994, was welcomed. Near perfect proportional representation (PR) with no threshold mirrored the national and provincial electorate, thus ensuring that the National and Provincial legislatures were directly and widely representative and afforded a strong sense of inclusiveness. The system followed recommendations from comparative institutionalists, on design for ‘divided societies’. The results of the first election were widely accepted and therefore had a moderating effect in a potentially volatile time.

In 2002 the Cabinet appointed an Electoral Task Team (ETT) to formulate the new electoral laws for the 2004 elections and beyond. The Task Team was chaired by the late Frederick van zyl Slabbert and consisted of members of government and civil society.

The ETT addressed whether or not an electoral system per se had the ability to guarantee accountability, as opposed to other institutional arrangements which govern representatives’ behaviour while in office, like Chapter 9 institutions. In a First-Past-the-Post system, representatives are individually scrutinised, but the party as a whole gets a less critical treatment. With further deliberation, the ETT proposed a system that they felt did not drastically change the electoral system in a manner that would completely disrupt the administration of the elections, and could be modified in the future to continuously increase accountability. This system was supported by a majority of the task team, although there was a minority dissent. The majority proposal, better known as the “69 constituency option”, proposes expanding the number of multi-member constituencies from 9 to 69. The number of constituents per representative is drastically decreased. Three hundred of the 400 total seats would be assigned by this method. The remaining 100 would be decided according to national closed lists, in order to regain proportionality. There were of course institutional constraints blocking the immediate implementation of these recommendations. The ETT pointed out the lack of time and funding available. The proposed model is sensitive to these constraints and presents itself as a compromise to ensure accountability.

It is worth noting that within the course of the ETT’s deliberations, an open list PR system was proposed to induce the correct balance between individual and party accountability. Voters would choose a party and then go on to rank candidates in the order in which they think they should be elected to Parliament, depending on the proportion of votes the party received. Candidates would be beholden to voters to rank them favourably. Proportionality would not be compromised. Challenges to an open list system arise with the sheer number of candidates (200+ in some cases), and the level of literacy required to vote in such a manner.

The report was tabled in March 2003, and the Parliament voted to revisit the recommendations after the elections.

Nevertheless, cabinet adopted the ETT’s minority position, which was to not introduce any changes to the electoral system. The argument forwarded by Home Affairs Minister Buthelezi, was that there was insufficient time before the 2004 election to implement the changes. This reason does not preclude the possibility for reform in the future, but the political possibilities for change are bleak.

Overall, South Africa’s electoral system requires reform and the report by the ETT needs to be seriously addressed. The electoral system in its current form does indeed espouse and support democratic values of fairness and inclusivity, while maintaining its simplicity. But it is on the key democratic value of accountability where the system remains weak. The deficit in accountability found within South Africa’s electoral system has weakened key institutions and has enabled the emergence of a one-party dominant system and, more importantly, the dominance of party executives. As seen in the infamous Arms Deal, party interests in the current system trumps the public interest. If South Africa is to further the consolidation of its democracy, ensuring greater accountability between the electorate and political parties is key. This may well also lead to a more responsive Parliament?

This article was first published in Eyewitness News, 24 June 2015.


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