Graham Sell: The legislative defect – SA’s disproportional political system

In this insightful piece, Graham Sell asks the same question others with a slight interest in politics do. Why do we vote for a party and not a leader? This is the proportional representation voting system, which doesn’t allow you to vote for your candidate of choice. Yes you may vote for the leader’s charisma, but the party has the power to change them as and when they see fit. Sell looks at this legislative defect and says we should be diverting all our energy towards fixing it, which should also rid us of a satisfactory number of defective politicians. A great read. – Stuart Lowman

By Graham Sell*

Graham Sell

The Good Governance Africa (GGA) organisation’s latest journal[1] contains a special focus report on the quality of local government in South Africa, which includes their municipal performance index for all 234 local and metro councils. It makes very interesting reading in that it confirms that the majority of people have lost faith in the ability of their local councillors to properly represent them.

The journal also alludes to a lack of constituency accountability as being a factor in the disconnection between politicians and their voters when it says “….a legislative defect protects constituency-based town councillors from real accountability to their electorates. The electoral system at the local government level is hybrid, and includes an element of constituency-related activities as well as proportional representation. They then go on later to say “However, once elected, councillors are beholden to the whims of the party that nominated them. A political party can recall a councillor if it is displeased with that person for some reason.”

I am now going to try to unpack the “legislative defect”. First of all, contrary to what politicians say, you do not vote for “the candidate of your choice”. You actually vote for the candidate of their choice, namely a politician who has been selected by other politicians to stand in your ward. We have no say in the selection process, and in many instances we have no idea what their qualifications are, or where they were parachuted in from by their party. The constituency ward vote is therefore Hobson’s Choice[2]. In essence, nothing more than a party vote which leaves the ward councillor “beholden to the whims of the party that nominated them”, rather than beholden to their voting constituents. Strike 1 against constituency accountability

The proportional representation vote goes towards padding a council with additional politicians based solely upon their party affiliation. Proportional councillors are therefore entirely dependent upon their parties for a high enough position on the party list to be assured of a seat in council.

Proportional councillors have no “constituency-related activities” and are therefore even more “beholden to the whims of the party that nominated them”. In addition, a ward candidate who loses their constituency election can still be appointed a councillor because of the dual candidacy nature of the proportional party list. How democratic is that? The generally accepted terms for this political practice are cronyism and cadre deployment. Strike 2 against constituency accountability.

Even though we may have voted for the ward councillor, “a political party can recall a councillor if it is displeased with that person for some reason”. Without any further reference to the electorate, the party rules supreme. Heaven forbid that your councillor actually represents your interests when those interests are in conflict with the party caucus. It does not happen very often, because councillors know they will suffer sanctions. Strike 3 against constituency accountability.

This unacceptable “3 strikes” outcome is actually caused by a number of compounding legislative defects.

Defect 1 Our Constitution dictates the use of proportional representation in local government, but does not specifically preclude a ward candidate from also being a proportional candidate. Political parties frequently use this legislative defect to appoint losing ward candidates as proportional councillors. This is a deliberate and premeditated circumvention of the will of the voters, which further serves to entrench the power of a party over all their councillors.

Defect 2 The Municipal Structures Act No 117 of 1998 eliminates the need for proportional representation as envisaged in the Constitution. This Act stipulates that “The Demarcation Board must delimit a municipality into wards, each having approximately the same number of voters.” The Board, in conjunction with the Independent Electoral Commission, diligently conspires to execute this requirement. If you accept the premise that a ward vote is just a party vote in disguise, it stands to reason that, in the majority of instances, a voter’s proportional vote will go the same way as their ward vote. This being true, two votes for the same party across wards of equal size will result in the same outcome as having only a single ward vote.

In the vast majority of councils the PR vote therefore serves only to fulfil a constitutional requirement, and has no bearing on the outcome of political control. In fact, there are only nine coalitions among the 234 local and metro councils. Of these nine, there is only one council where political control would change if PR was eliminated. This essentially translates into having 4158 proportional councillors for the sake of one anomalous municipality that has only five wards and four proportional councillors of its own.

If you are still not convinced that the system needs to change then look at the difference in numbers between the top 20 and bottom 20 municipalities on the performance index.

The top 20 have a total of 450 councillors of which 233 are ward councillors and 217 are proportional councillors

The bottom 20 have a total of 920 councillors of which 463 are ward councillors and 457 are proportional councillors. The other striking statistic to come out of the bottom 20 municipalities is that they are all held by the ANC with overwhelming majorities. In fact, at 281 the ANC have more proportional seats in these municipalities than the total of 197 ward and proportional seats of all the other parties combined. At a cost of around R122m proportional representation in these municipalities is unaffordable, completely pointless, and in comparison with the top 20 suggests that more actually provides less.

If you are still not convinced, then you must be a politician. The rest of us have learned a couple of things: first of all, that all the power lies with party leaders and none with the electorate, which proves Mark Twain’s point that “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do it”; and second, that we must stop “the insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”.

We really need to divert all our energy towards fixing the defective legislation, which should also rid us of a satisfactory number of defective politicians.

  • Graham Sell’s involvement with the local ratepayers association provided first-hand experiences of the damage that can be done by proportional representative politicians at local government level. He is also the author of the anti-PR blog Disconnected Democracy.

[1] The GGA report can be found at or follow this link to go directly to the report itself.

[2] Hobson’s Choice – the choice of taking either that which is offered, or nothing.