Graham Sell: Closed party list system makes South Africans voting fodder

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa has one of the greatest Constitutions in the world, but many may argue that the country’s proportional representation system lets it down. Compared more established democracies — such as the US — South Africa lacks a system that holds representatives accountable to constituencies. One wonders if Jacob Zuma would even survive in such a system where constituencies would hold MPs liable or vote them out if they’re unhappy. In our current system, South Africans have simply become voting fodder, leaving parties like the ANC to ignore growing public concern. – Gareth van Zyl

By Graham Sell*

My first boss was quite picky about the correct use of terminology.

Graham Sell

I had just joined the organisation and referred to “doing my best for our clients”. His very direct response was “We don’t have clients, we have customers. Only prostitutes and lawyers have clients, because the end-result of their ‘consultations’ is exactly the same – you get screwed!”.

Sadly, politicians can now be added to this category. Bell Pottinger’s’ South African “project” says we can add PR companies, and the latest KPMG/McKinsey revelations say we can probably also add accounting and consulting companies. The list is growing almost daily, and the only people that this derogatory use of the word “client” should exclude today are sex workers.

They consistently deliver their services without pretending they are anything other than who they are, yet ironically they are also the only ones whose career choice is presently defined as being illegal and subject to immediate arrest. Go figure…

Globally, groups such as KPMG and McKinsey are bigger than the Guptas’ “empire” yet they are seemingly prepared to risk their reputations, not only in South Africa, but worldwide. The question is, have they been so corrupted by wealth that they are prepared to “prostitute” themselves to their “clients”, or can they still stand up for their code of ethics and put a stop to this pandemic of corruption? The ethics of Chartered Accountants, in particular, seem to have been suborned by the enhanced profit inherent in corrupt practises – remember Arthur Andersen’s spectacular fall from grace?

But as far as our everyday lives go, politicians are the worst offenders. On a national level they generously line their pockets with our money, while making the most outrageous promises that either cannot possibly be delivered or, if kept, will destroy the economy and devastate our already fragile society. Then on a local level there are far too many of them dragging service delivery down with their equally exorbitant salaries and corrupt practices.

So where do these so-called “professions” draw the line? More importantly, where do we draw the line? Our biggest problem is that too many people are listening only to what they want to hear, rather than hearing many of the inconvenient truths of our divided society, so the lines have become blurred.

If you think we only need to wait for 2019 to ring the political changes we are craving, I urge you to think again. Consensus of opinion is that 2019 will at best herald an era of coalition politics, but can a really workable coalition emerge from our dog’s breakfast of political ideologies? It is clear that the DA will not win an outright majority no matter what self-destructive actions the ANC perpetrate over the next twenty months or so, and they will probably also require more than one coalition partner to take control. But let’s fantasise for a moment, and assume the DA can take control with only one partner, which we can safely assume to be the EFF. Even then it is delusional to believe that a marriage of such incompatible ideologies can end in anything other than acrimony and eventual divorce. That is unless they both stray so far from their manifestos that they are no longer recognisable as the parties we voted for, with the electorate left powerless to object to such blatant misrepresentation.

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

In addition, given their antagonism, the EFF had no option but to use Jacob Zuma as an excuse for entering into municipal coalitions with the DA which, by the way, also provides them with a governance platform they otherwise would not have. But with JZ out of the way in 2019, it stretches the imagination to believe that the EFF would choose an alliance with the supposed defenders of “White Monopoly Capital” over an alliance with what would likely be a desperate, although ideologically more compatible ANC (and yes, now that the ANC have dropped “White” the EFF are emphasising it).

The whole debate then becomes a numbers game. Heaven forbid that they have enough numbers to cross the 66% threshold that allows them to change the Constitution, a possibility that we cannot just blissfully ignore when it has the potential to cause substantially more damage to our fragile democracy.  Even without such numbers, I don’t think Julius Malema’s ego would allow him to turn down the opportunity to become “kingmaker” to the party that rejected him in 2012. I also have a nagging suspicion that he still dreams of becoming ANC President one day, so wouldn’t be surprised to see an eventual reintegration of the EFF a few years AZ (After Zuma).

Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader Julius Malema

The real issue for me, as things stand, is that 2019 may only serve to prove the maxim the more things change the more they stay the same. All parties are guilty of engendering cadre loyalty through threats or patronage, or a combination of the two. Recent events in Mogale City, where DA councillors were subjected to “voluntary” polygraph testing to weed out the “traitor” who did not toe the party line in a secret no-confidence ballot, clearly demonstrates the hypocrisy entrenched in our closed party list system.

Until Radical Political Transformation stops party leaders from Monopolising Control over their deployees, you and I will remain nothing more than quinquennial voting fodder. We will also remain exposed to the risk of politicians of any and every party in power, capturing the state through the same fear and patronage tactics JZ has perfected. Politicians are supposed to protect citizens from corruption and rampant capitalist profiteering, yet the closed party list system is the foundation for a symbiotic relationship between them.

Here’s what we need to put the brakes on this politico-centric narrative:

  • We need the national electoral system to be changed to introduce more constituency accountability in the National Assembly – a change which must also include the ability to directly vote for our President of choice;
  • We need the Constitution to be changed to limit the executive powers of the President and his deployees: a change that must also include predefined and meaningful sanctions for office bearers who break their oath of office;
  • We need local government electoral and demarcation systems to be changed to reduce the number of politicians presently consuming service delivery resources. Too many councillors who have no discernible value other than accepting the patronage of their party – paid for by ratepayers out of public coffers.
  • We need to introduce legislation that compels political parties to disclose who their donors are and the amounts they donated. We need to know who is pulling the party’s strings when they take a specific position on an issue.

Simple enough you would think, but who is going to drive these changes? Not the established political elite, that’s for sure. They are too comfortable with the current dispensation where the cards are always stacked in their favour to the detriment of their constituents. In any event there isn’t a single visionary among the current crop of party leadership. None of them has the foresight to unite the country behind an ideology that is founded upon a belief that South Africa Works – not only functionally as an integrated society, but also as a nation that provides job opportunities for all.

A women wearing ANC regalia casts her vote during the local government elections in Hillbrow, central Johannesburg, August 3,2016. REUTERS/James Oatway

Under these circumstances might we look to France for inspiration? The three pillars of French democracy: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were being undermined by the divisive tactics of politicians. From the far right rhetoric of Marine le Pen, to the extreme left acerbic tongue of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and every shade of ideology in between, division was the order of the day. Emmanuel Macron formed En Marche in April 2016 to refocus attention on the pillars of democracy, rather than specific political ideologies. Membership of the organisation was free as long as the member signed up to the En Marche charter, and they were also not required to give up existing membership of another political party. Its charter states that the political status quo is the root of the country’s problem. It talks of “unblocking” (France) and re-energising a political landscape which had become bogged down by a distant, impractical political class. Sound familiar? Macron recognised that only through applying practical politics not party politics can the country begin dealing with the problems of the people.  

Election poster of 2017 French Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron.

Our situation has many parallels with pre-Macron France, so perhaps we should remind ourselves of the foundation of our own democracy, and see if we can’t find our way back to implementing those principles.  In South Africa we have Liberty and Political Equality in the sense that everyone has a right to vote, but Economic Equality has been stifled by a seriously deficient basic education system and political malfeasance in the form of patronage and corruption. As Economic Equality is the foundation for Fraternity, which would be a South African politician’s nightmare, it is unsurprising that they use this Economic Inequality as a divisive tactic in pursuit of furthering their own ends.

A short 14 months after formation, Macron’s vision broke the political mould and En Marche achieved an absolute majority in French national elections. We have around 20 months to rediscover the ethos of the Freedom Charter “that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people”. It is not too late for us to reach out as they did in France to like minded people, irrespective of their political affiliation or ideology, to make sure that South Africa Works. Macron showed us that we don’t need to limit ourselves to presently available choices – we have it within us to create a completely new political narrative, so let’s do it!

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