Is South Africa’s costly democracy producing incompetent leaders? A call for electoral merit to ensure quality leadership

Writing for the Free Market Foundation, Rejoice Ngwenya reflects on the effectiveness and cost of democracy in African countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa. Ngwenya questions whether the millions of dollars spent on elections in these countries are worth the while when the outcome is often crooked individuals in leadership positions. Ngwenya argues that the issue is not with weak or defective constitutions but rather the perverted internal systems of political parties, which fail to produce the best candidates. Ngwenya proposes an electoral merit system based on capability and integrity rather than eligibility based on voting qualification, to reduce the high cost of elections and increase the quality of leadership in these countries.

Is the high cost of Africa’s liberal democracy worth it?

By Rejoice Ngwenya

It takes a liberal democrat to appreciate that elections per se – not even those inspired by a constitutional, multi-party democracy – are not necessarily a sign of healthy democracy. China is one of, if not the second largest economy on the planet, but theirs is an authoritarian-type democracy, perverted with irretractable authoritarian partisan interests. Yet American companies step on each other’s toes to reap the best of cost-effective Chinese toll manufacturing. Most big clothing and tech brands of American provenance consumed voraciously by the world are ‘made in China’. So clearly, when it comes to personal, corporate and national business interests, the world cares very little about democracy, human, political rights and rule of law. Thus equating ‘liberal democracy’ with ‘development’ therefore becomes a misnomer.

It therefore is not surprising that China’s one-party state governance is a result of elections – expensive ones at that – whose ultimate outcome, President Xi Jinping’s new mandate – at least according to our liberal democracy standards, could not be a result of electoral liberal democracy. The National People’s Congress is well grounded in grassroots electoral systems, yet the mere fact that national leaders cannot be challenged makes this a defective ‘elective democracy’. The Chinese Communist Party is the ultimate authority that does not brook or tolerate criticism. Pro-Communist analysts will not agree with me, but I usually neither seek nor expect their concurrence, in my liberal world. 

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Yet the questions that remain lurking in my mind as both Zimbabwe and South Africa hurtle towards Municipal and Parliamentary elections – with the behaviour of Cyril Ramaphosa and Emmerson Mnangagwa – are these: are the millions of United States dollars we spend in our democracies worth the while? Why does our investment in democracy produce such crooked individuals? Are there other ways of going about it that create space for better candidates? Allow me to deal with some of these questions in this short treatise. 

Critics of American politics in Zimbabwe – mostly ardent followers of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-Pf) rubbed their hands with glee when a mob of supporters of former president Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. They argued that despite American electoral budgets calibrated in billions, the product is just as unfree and unfair as Zimbabwe’s. South Africans do not elect their presidents directly, so the national fiscus is spared the agony of the cost, yet questions are raised of whether or not the ‘savings’ are worth the while. If one considers what political parties invest in primary elections or grassroots elective processes, you can understand why we need to re-look at our electoral systems so that the high cost produces indisputable leadership quality. But like I have always opined, politics is not pure science.

The reason why African ‘liberal democracies’ end up with crooked presidential candidates in not so much about weak or defective constitutions. If you read both the South African and Zimbabwean constitutions, you will be convinced that in good hands, our countries would be the perfect democracy that everyone yearns. For me, the chaos begins when political party internal systems are perverted by influential people. Was Cyril Ramaphosa the right man for that job in the first place? If not, how is it that the African National Congress (ANC) ‘primary electoral’ system failed to produce the best candidate? The answer is much simpler than our Zimbabwe scenario, where incumbent national leadership was a result of a coup. The late authoritarian dictator Robert Mugabe had perverted the constitution for decades. Critics had also accused him of ‘failing’ to groom a successor – first mistake – liberal democrats do not believe in ‘grooming successors’. Ours ought to be a system based on merit, competence and electoral majority. Mugabe mentioned it on several occasions that Mnangagwa was an incapable leader. Even former information minister Professor Jonathan Moyo insisted in public that Mnangagwa was ‘unelectable’. Yet he ended up being president anyway because in Africa, if you control the military and other key state institutions, blissful presidential life is guaranteed. 

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Such cases are instructive and a good basis for a system that one can term ‘electoral merit’. Our constitutions – both party and national level – tend to stress eligibility based on ‘voting qualification’ rather than capability. Two hundred million electoral budgeted Rands down the line our countries end up with popular yet totally dysfunctional, if not corrupt presidents.

An effective, liberal electoral system must be applied like rocket science i.e., you only qualify to man the International Space Station because you have excelled in the astronaut test. A candidate who has no history of delivery; who has violated the constitution before, with no professional and individual integrity must not be permitted even to have his or her name on the primary list. In Zimbabwe, Zanu-Pf is notorious for deploying millions of United States Dollars into vote-buying. Just recently, traditional leaders where pampered with cars, medical aid packages and a ‘belated Covid 19 allowance’. Civic society organisations like Zimbabwe Peace Project have always argued that government food aid distributed on partisan basis is blatant vote-buying. Mnangagwa’s pre-election agricultural ‘input support’ is managed by Zanu-Pf party structures while of late, his government has promised South Africa-based Zimbabweans whose permits have expired that Zanu-Pf will ‘look after them’ back home. Opposition leaders correctly argue that in an economy that has a near 90% informal employment, such promises are mere vote-buying antics. Assuming Mnangagwa lives up to these, it simply increases the national electoral bill.

What it then means is that our countries should invest more in strengthening electoral management bodies and making them more independent. A compromised IEC or ZEC adds to the high cost of elections, because it does not punish electoral shenanigans perpetrated by ruling party hooligans who might even end up being national presidents.

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My conclusion is that there are obviously overheads that are unavoidable on the liberal democracy electoral bill. However, the mere fact that even voters’ rolls have millions of citizens that will never vote is problematic. Worse still, investing in ballot papers with candidates that will never see the light of day or even polling stations in wards with no interest in elections. All these factors add to the cost of democracy. By the time we have a bloated parliament with a boated cabinet created only for ‘jobs for the boys,’ our democracy becomes a laughing stock. It is time that we review our electoral system to make the high cost of democracy worth its while.

*Rejoice Ngwenya is the founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Market and Liberal Solutions (COMALISO) in Zimbabwe, and a contributing author for the Free Market Foundation. COMALISO works for a Zimbabwe that respects the free market, property rights and constitutionalism. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

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