Graham Sell: Good luck ending state capture with SA’s proportional system

JOHANNESBURG — South Africans have become used to a noisy political system. But if there is a change in power in 2019, will anything really change? As Graham Sell points out below, many parties will be looking beyond the Jacob Zuma era and the damage that he’s done to the ANC. But the closed list system of our democracy risks recreating state capture once again. Is there a case for MPs to be held accountable to a constituency rather, like it’s done in the US where representatives have to report back to their communities in public town-hall type updates? Time will tell; South Africa’s democracy is still in its early stages. – Gareth van Zyl

By Graham Sell*

Take a short time-out from the Zuptagate emails, the imminent vote of no confidence in JZ, and other cause célèbre that are presently occupying our minds, and start thinking about the 2019 National Elections that many believe will deliver the cure for all our ills.  

The first question I asked myself was – where can I find really meaningful socio-political engagement in South Africa? The ANC has lost its way and many of the good things they achieved are forever lost in the mire of State Capture, but in my opinion the main opposition parties are also not offering anything that even loosely resembles a meaningful alternative. In general, they appear to be relying upon votes against the ANC rather than votes for themselves in their quest for power.

Zapiro’s take on the Concourt’s decision to put the Secret Ballot call in Baleka Mbete’s hands. More of his magic available at

While not absolving the ANC or making excuses for the dire straits we find ourselves in, politically it is much easier in South Africa to be in opposition than in governance. For example, ConCourt case outcomes aside, for which we can thank Chief Justice Mogoeng and his team of Justices, the EFF has effectively done nothing but loudly criticise the governing party while promising impossibilities in their own manifesto, and simply disappearing from Parliament every time Jacob Zuma showed up.

Their seemingly confused grasp of economics has fathered (or should I say parented?) a legion of populist rhetoric resulting in what can only be described as EFFonomics. Their policy call for land expropriation without compensation for example, which is by far their loudest and most emotive call, is one that is completely divorced from reality.

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They shout “Give back the land” without providing any details of how mortgage bonds will be settled, how improvements on the land will be compensated, or whether it is all rural, urban and suburban land that will be expropriated, what criteria will be used for determining how land will be redistributed, or where the investment will come from to develop redistributed land if there is no ownership potential etc.

Graham Sell

It is more than likely that many of their most ardent supporters don’t realise that under an EFF government they will still never get to own any land – ever. This, along with an unrealistic recruiting rhetoric of promising free everything to 18-24 year-olds makes a recipe for an economic disaster that will only serve to push more people below the poverty line. Their ever-increasing racist rhetoric against minority White and Indian communities is cowardly. They have no vision for unifying the country so, like bullies on a school playground they simply resort to attacking those they think are too small and vulnerable to retaliate.

But then again, when was the last time any South African politician tried to realistically address our everyday problems? Julius Malema has confirmed via Twitter that politics is just a game and he believes he is good at playing this game. But then anyone can be good at a game if they are spoon-fed information on what their opponents are up to. There can be no doubt that Malema has a mole, or moles deeply entrenched within ANC leadership structures feeding him information.

So he is not the great oracle he tries to project, but rather has been gifted the political equivalent of playing a lottery after the numbers have already been drawn. Add to this his vitriolic personal attacks on Jacob Zuma, which sound more like the vented emotions of a jilted lover than a seasoned political leader, and the EFF can be recognised for what it is – just a populist empty drum intent on making the most noise. How EFF supporters will react not if, but when Malema goes back to the ANC, either as a coalition partner, or fully-fledged member, will make an interesting debate for another day.

On the other side of the same coin, the main opposition Democratic Alliance has become, to borrow from Winston Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. I am not sure if they are suffering an identity crisis, or have simply embraced the double-standards endemic to South African politics.Their reaction to losing a secret ballot vote in Mogale City was outrageous in the context of the imminent Parliamentary vote of no confidence in JZ.

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

Witch-hunting of councillors in Mogale through “voluntary” lie detector tests, while encouraging ANC Parliamentarians to break ranks from the party line and “vote their conscience” is the DA’s most egregious application of double standards. Then again, in a recent article on the subject of State Capture, Mmusi Maimane wrote: “It is one thing to deploy cadres in politically elected positions. Quite another to deploy them to other organs of state….”  This statement implies that it is OK to deploy crooks and incompetents to Parliament, Provincial Government and Local Councils, just don’t let them anywhere near a proper business!  

It is this type of statement that confirms Mmusi Maimane and the DA are also comfortable with maintaining the political status quo, where a deployees’ accountability is to the party (leader) first, and the electorate very distantly second. With the decline of ANC morality, the DA was in pole position to inherit the mantle of multiracial unification, but they have so far lacked the vision and tenacity to grasp that particular nettle. The politically expedient but generally unimaginative compromise over Helen Zille’s colonial tweet saga is a clear example of how not to handle perceived racism.  The internal politics of power became more important to the antagonists than the external perception of racism within their ranks, which served only to damage the DA’s image with their main target audience. They also seem to lack imagination and a cohesive vision, not about what the country needs which is obvious to anyone with ears, eyes and half a brain, but how to satisfy those needs. The limit of their imagination is to ask the electorate to “lend us your vote, and if you don’t see a difference after five years then take it elsewhere in the next election” – no policy substance, just a desperate appeal that stretches credibility a little too far.

South African Parliament building with Louis Botha statue, Cape Town.

So if the ANC is not an option, we can now choose between an unimaginative plea, and a long-ago bankrupted dogma. Hardly inspiring stuff is it? Even less inspiring is the lack of transparency in political party funding where none of them wants to tell us where their money comes from. Their solution to achieving more transparency is to increase public funding to cover the money they can no longer take from dodgy donors they don’t want to tell us about. This particular “solution”, touted on the basis that we South Africans must invest more in our democracy, proves that politicians inhabit a completely different planet than you and I.

We live in the real world of increasing joblessness and poverty, not in the elite world of SA politicians. Their world is so far removed from reality that they should be embarrassed by their ignorance of the plight of our people. Is this the best we can do South Africa – allowing ourselves to be channelled into believing that our only choice is between the relative evils of these three lesser candidates, or perhaps a self-serving combination of any two of them that brings them the power they crave?

We are being challenged to stand up and be counted in the fight against Zuma and State Capture but, as vitally important as this is, it is still only the tip of the South African political iceberg. Until the root cause of the problem, which lies in the almost limitless power invested in party leaders by the Proportional Representation closed list electoral system, is removed, the threat of State Capture will remain an ever present risk no matter who is in power.

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