Sell lacks coalition enthusiasm – high-table stakes, insignificant participants

The enthusiasm following last night’s news that the Democratic Alliance won the mayorship of the Johannesburg council may be short-lived, according to Trevor Ncube. But the 2016 municipal elections have breathed new life into South Africa. And while the ruling ANC may not hold certain individuals accountable for misdemeanours, at least the people are having their say. But political analyst Graham Sell, like Ncube, is not as enthusiastic about the coalition politics underway, given the power the smaller parties yield. Sell, who lived through the 2006 fickle marriage between the DA and ID in George, is highly skeptical of a process which gives otherwise insignificant participants such important seats at the high-table. A very interesting take on the current political landscape in South Africa. – Stuart Lowman

By Graham Sell*

Graham Sell
Graham Sell

Standing back from the political brouhaha surrounding coalitions, where the smaller alliance parties are extolling the virtues of Proportional Representation, and expounding that this is the way our democracy should work, there is something not quite right lurking in the background. Having lived through a 2006 fickle marriage between the DA and ID in George, Western Cape, I find it hard to be enthusiastic about coalition politics. And George was only a bipartisan coalition, not the multi-party entanglement that we face today. Call me cynical, but I have become highly skeptical of a “working democracy” that gives seats at the high-table, with all its trappings, to otherwise insignificant participants.

Do you think that’s a little harsh? It really isn’t if you look at what the current alliance partners of the DA bring to that high-table. At the very bottom is the ACDP who attracted 0.42% of votes nationally, followed by Cope with 0.44%. The IFP come in with a healthy 4.25% until you take out KZN, whereupon their contribution to the results for the rest of the country drops to 0.25%. The UDM chips in with 0.56% and the VF+ rounds everything off with 0.77% of the national vote.

Add it all up and they have a combined total, excluding the regional anomaly of KZN, of around 2.36% of the almost 30 million Ward & PR votes cast in these elections. For this they are now puffed up with their own importance, and are no doubt being rewarded with Mayoral Committee positions in DA-controlled municipalities across the country, whether they are needed to resolve a hung council or not.

I do, however, wholeheartedly support the stance of Bantu Holomisa of the UDM that local government needs to be de-politicised. What became abundantly clear again in 2016, is that a nanosecond after voting stations closed, politicians were already dividing up the spoils of our votes. We, whether DA, ANC or EFF et al, were consigned to looking on helplessly, crossing our fingers in the faint hope that our party wouldn’t sell out solely for the sake of power.

Locals cast their votes during the local government elections at the Johannesburg city hall, South Africa August 3,2016. REUTERS/James Oatway
Locals cast their votes during the local government elections at the Johannesburg city hall, South Africa August 3,2016. REUTERS/James Oatway

Municipalities that had a clear majority party were prevented from constituting themselves while “national party leaders” negotiated how much of their supporter’s mandate they were going to give away for the sake of grabbing power somewhere else. Party politics had already kicked in, and constituency responsibility and accountability already kicked out.

In my opinion, Gwede Mantashe is correct when he says that there is something wrong with the Proportional Representation system used for local government elections. He is incorrect, however, in attributing the ANC’s failure at the polls to the system’s alleged inbuilt bias towards “smaller parties”. In fact, the reverse is more likely to be true if you follow the discourse below. What is really wrong with the system is that it puts too much power in the hands of political party leadership, and not enough in the hands of their constituents.

Read also: Definitive 2016 SA election guide: RW Johnson on what results actually mean

The ANC’s singular problem in 2016 was a fundamental numbers game that revolves around voter turnout, or in their case the lack thereof. In this, they have no-one to blame but themselves for their dismal performance.

Be that as it may, there remain some issues with our PR electoral system that primarily lie in the IEC’s interpretation of the constitutional intent of the system, as well as their method of calculating seat allocations.

Starting with constitutional intent, it is hard to believe that the authors of our constitution intended for political parties to field a single candidate in a multitude of wards as a means to cheat the system. A candidate can only represent one ward, so to stand in more than one is effectively turning Ward votes in the additional Wards into a second PR vote. We all know that we only get one Ward and one PR ballot, so why are political parties allowed to subvert Ward votes in additional Wards into what can only be described as illegitimate PR votes? It has been said by the IEC and one or two political commentators that this is an acceptable political strategy, but for a number of reasons I disagree:

  1. It is a patently duplicitous and unethical practice. To tolerate it because “that’s politics” is admitting to accepting a much lower standard of behaviour from politicians than applied to ordinary citizens. If we are ever going to achieve clean governance, then politicians must be held to a much higher ethical standard than is currently applied.
  2. Accepting that a candidate can only represent one ward, they become merely “phantom” candidates in all other Wards in which they stand. Aside from each Ward vote being an undisguised additional PR vote, every phantom Ward vote received is disadvantaging legitimate candidates by taking “viable alternative” votes out of the Ward voter pool. This is particularly true for Independent candidates and non-list political parties, who rely solely on the Ward votes they receive, and cannot afford to have phantom candidates eating into the total votes available.
  3. If a candidate standing in multiple Wards happens to win more than one Ward, can you believe that they get to choose which Ward they want to represent? (and I always thought we were supposed to be choosing them!). The rejected Wards then have to hold by-elections at additional expense to taxpayers. While this situation may not yet have actually occurred, the principle itself is fatally flawed. Something that is unquestionably wrong cannot be allowed to continue simply because it has not yet happened.
  4. It has also been said that the large jump in the number of political parties contesting these elections (47% higher than 2011) indicates a vibrant democracy, where more and more people who are dissatisfied with the main parties are forming their own organisations. I am more inclined to believe that this sharp rise is primarily due to more people recognising that if they register a political party, they can exploit this multiple Ward candidacy loophole, which significantly improves their chances of taking a place at the public trough. Without a system change, I anticipate that as others catch on, we will see a further sharp rise in the number of registered political parties.

Moving on to the seat allocation calculation, it is actually simpler than the IEC would have us believe yet it is also, in my opinion, procedurally suspect:

  • The total number of valid Ward and PR votes cast in a municipality, excluding the Ward votes for Independent candidates, is added together. This number is divided by the total number of seats available, less any Ward seats won by Independent and non-list candidates. The result is a “quota” of votes needed for a party to be allocated a seat. The total number of Ward and PR votes obtained by each party is then divided by the “quota” to determine the total number of seats that each party is entitled to. The number of Wards that a party wins outright is subtracted from this determination, and the balance is awarded to the party as PR seats.

There are a number of issues relating to this that need exploring:

  1. Ward votes are used to determine who the outright winner of a council seat on a first-past-the-post basis is. Yet these votes are used again in the calculation of PR seats, which significantly raises the winning party’s chances of obtaining additional seats. The only explanation I have seen published for including these votes in the PR calculation is that this ensures that Ward votes for losing candidates are not “wasted” through omission. The problem with this confused logic is that the Ward vote differential between winning and losing candidates remains constant, so will have no real impact by being added to the PR vote. If anything, smaller parties are disadvantaged by this method of calculation as their PR votes are typically higher than their Ward votes. Theoretically, a small party could have more PR votes than any of the larger parties, yet lose out on a PR seat because the calculation has been loaded against them by the inclusion of bigger parties Ward votes.
  2. Then again, why use a separate PR ballot at all? The numbers bear out that a political party will generally receive both their candidate’s Ward vote, and the party-based PR vote from their supporters. This holds true in around 99% of cases, so we could save a lot of expense by just totaling the number of Ward votes received by a party across the whole municipality, and using this to calculate their proportional support without the need for a separate PR ballot.
  3. Another question that begs to be asked is why Independent candidates are excluded from the PR seat allocation process? It is true that they cannot earn PR votes, but if the IEC insists on including Ward votes in the seat allocation calculation, why not include Independent candidate’s votes as well? There are a number of instances where Independent candidates, while losing their Ward challenge, may have received enough votes to otherwise qualify for a PR seat. This is particularly relevant if the single candidate/multiple Ward loophole is eliminated from the political landscape. Had this been the case in 2016, at least one Independent candidate in Johannesburg would have qualified for a PR seat. And why should an Independent candidate not serve in a PR capacity if they attract sufficient votes? After all, we are told that local government should be about inclusivity and diversity, are we not?

Based on the above, our 2016 local government elections were free, but whether they were completely fair is open to debate. What is certain, though, is that something has to change in the system. We need better control over political party manipulation of electoral outcomes, and to push more firmly towards constituency accountability. We cannot continue to have a party’s national leadership involved in micro-managing local affairs by dictating who local coalition partners will be, and who gets rewarded with an office-bearer position. We need the best people running our municipalities regardless of their political affiliation, not disproportional representatives appointed for political expediency.

Zapiro's take on local government coalitions. More collision cartoons available at
Zapiro’s take on local government coalitions. More collision cartoons available at

I don’t purport to have all the answers, or any answers at all for that matter, but there are one or two simple principles that might bring a better balance to the constituency/party accountability debate.

First and foremost, electoral legislation must mandate that a Ward candidate lives in the Ward they are contesting. If they win the Ward and subsequently move to another area, then a by-election must be held. This will put pressure on the elected councillor to work in the best interests of constituents, without the option of being “redeployed” elsewhere by the party. It will also automatically deal with the single candidate/multiple Ward loophole as a candidate cannot live in more than one place at a time. Which itself should encourage a reduction in the number of registered “parties” to manageable levels.

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

Dispensing with a separate PR ballot, and using the sum of Ward votes alone to determine overall proportional support, will level the playing field for Independent candidates and non-list political parties, who can then also participate in the proportional allocation of council seats.

I am sure there are many ideas out there that will contribute towards improving the system. These ideas must be brought into the light of day before politicians, in particular ANC politicians, concoct an electoral system change that will further erode our requirement for more, not less, constituency accountability.

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