How SA’s ‘pressure-cooker’ proportional representation system burns us

In yet another take on SA’s dictatorial system of proportional representation, Donwald Pressly unpacks just how different things could be if even a watered-down version of the way more accountable constituency system was re-introduced. Right now, what we don’t have is a political pressure cooker valve where elected public representatives are directly accountable to the geographical populace that put them there – thus being able to act in their best interests. A pressure valve is needed that allows politicians to act according to their individual consciences and respond to those who put their backsides in the national, provincial or metropolitan seats – instead of cringing under the dictates of a party whip-driven list system. Floor crossing used to be the talk of the political day – when it was allowed pre-1994, giving individuals far more power to influence the outcome in the body politic and removing absolute obedience to the party line. Not to be confused with the apartheid political ideology of the time, this system was far fairer and way more democratic. The recent No-Confidence debate on President Zuma is perhaps the most powerful illustration of how differently things could have turned out were it not for this ‘toe-the-party-line’ system being in place. – Chris Bateman

By Donwald Pressly*

Donwald Pressly, Cape Messenger editor.
Donwald Pressly

South Africa’s political path would probably be rather different if it had not been for the decision of our constitution-makers to provide political parties – and their leaders in particular – with immense powers. We would probably would not still have the increasingly embattled Jacob Zuma remaining on as President of South Africa for so long.

So too, there may have been challenges to the political paths being taken by opposition parties and their leaders.

How the constitution was crafted was that people are not elected as individuals to Parliament, the legislatures or to town and city municipal councils. They are on party lists for Parliament and the nine provincial legislatures. At local government level councillors are elected to wards and from representative proportional lists. However, even councillors elected to wards on a party political ticket, must resign their seats – or lose their seats – if they decide to go independent or change political allegiance.

In the old South Africa with its deeply flawed apartheid constitution – which at the end of the era was made up of a ‘white’ house of assembly, a ‘coloured’ house of representatives and an ‘Indian’ house of delegates (with an overarching national (tricameral) assembly – floor crossing was allowed by Members of Parliament.  They did not have to resign their seats if they swopped parties – or simply went independent. Sometimes the MP would resign as a matter of conscience and go back to the electorate for affirmation. But that was not always the case.

In the new South Africa, from 1994, MPs could not cross the floor without resigning their seats. However, during a window period in the 2000s, this was allowed – largely to smooth the way for the National Party and the Democratic Party to merge, but the floor crossing tended to benefit the ruling African National Congress which at that point had been unsullied by the Zuma leadership. This system, however, was ended and now MPs must resign their seats if they lose heart in their political parties and leaders.

Members of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party leave the parliamentary chamber as South Africa's President Jacob Zuma delivers his State of the Nation address in Cape Town, February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Schalk van Zuydam
Members of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party leave the parliamentary chamber as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma delivers his State of the Nation address in Cape Town, February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Schalk van Zuydam

Whipping the dissenters into line 

The system South Africa now has, means that should MPs become disaffected, they must resign their seats in parliament or carry on rewardless (intellectually, of course, rather than financially) within their parties. Effectively they must put up and shut up – and fall in line – if they stay.

It is rather difficult for MPs under the present structure to oppose their leaders – and policy directions – if they so choose. The fact that there were 58 MPs who were not present to vote in the National Assembly vote of no confidence in President Zuma (which was defeated) last month, indicates that there is a more than a measure of resentment towards the incumbent president. There has been little talk of the ANC MPs who did so – who included Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – being punished for their non-attendance of the vote. However, MPs who do not attend votes without permission can face disciplinary procedures. There has been little talk of this, however. ANC MPs present were forced by a “three-line” whip to vote against the vote of no-confidence.

ANC flag. Picture courtesy of Twitter

One will never know, but if ANC MPs could have defied the whip knowing they would not lose their seats (and astonishingly high annual incomes which start at about R1 million a year), we may have seen the opposition led vote of no-confidence being passed. It would have changed the course of SA politics.

Toppling a few despots

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, not known for his articulateness, obfuscated his way through the turmoil that is going on in the ANC this week. Responding to questions about how members of the national executive committee – which include ministers and some MPs – had responded to the turmoil, said simply that political parties had different ways of dealing with their difficulties. He referred to the fact that the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, had suspended six councillors in the City of Cape Town. Their offence was that they had voted for a ‘non-official’ candidate for a sub-council chairman (which is sort of a junior mayor position). Rebel Councillor Grant Twigge was elected instead of the party (and Mayor Patricia de Lille) ordained candidate, Councillor Clive Justus. These councillors may end up losing their council seats (through losing their party membership).

Patricia De Lille
Patricia De Lille

The absence of a pressure valve in our politics emboldens the party bosses. The political problems become magnified when the party bosses are authoritarian or are simply fueling their own – or a factional – interests. While the jury is out on whether De Lille is one of those, we can safely say that President Zuma has little truck in fostering the interests of South Africa’s citizenry. But the Cape Town example of political bullying is, indeed, also a cause for concern. Those six councillors have stuck their necks out and they could lose their political careers as a consequence of it.

Willy-nilly floor crossing made easy, however, also has its dangers. But those dangers can be limited if one ensured that only “constituency” MPs and “ward” councillors be allowed to cross the floor. After all they would have to face the wrath or approval of their voters in a geographical area. They are likely to be more rooted and connected with their electorates than someone who is number 69 on a party’s national political list. It would mean that the parliamentary and legislature systems would have to be changed to allow for constituency MPs (and MPLs, members of the provincial legislatures). A good system to adopt would be to have half of a legislature and half of the national assembly representing constituency MPs (and MPLs). The other half could be elected like municipal councils are currently drawn – by proportional representation in terms of political party lists. This pressure valve would allow constituency MPs and ward councillors to defy their political parties and cross the floor. This would allow MPs and ward councillors to follow their consciences. It could change the course of history and topple a few despots.

  • Donwald Pressly is editor of Cape Messenger