MPs, Electoral Systems and Accountability in South Africa

Published in the Cape Times in September 2006

President Thabo Mbeki addresses Parliament; the weariness of the speaker suggests he’s been at it for a while. Pic: The Presidency

It’s not unusual to hear South Africans smugly declaring the globe-straddling superiority of our constitution – but when did you last hear someone saying, “We’ve got the world’s finest Electoral Act and the most independently-minded, accountable Members of Parliament: men and women who know their minds and speak them without hesitation.”

The Constitution specifies that we have an National Assembly, and that we all get to vote for it. But it’s the Electoral Act that defines the process by which our Members of Parliament are selected – the accuracy, or crudeness, with which our desires as voters are translated into representives – and we don’t have one.

Well, we do, sort of. We have the left-over, provisional arrangements made for the 1994 election. When the framers of the Constitution finished off their work in 1996, they also said a new Electoral Act must be in place by 1999. But somehow, no one quite got round to it.

Which is why Dr F Van Zyl Slabbert, who headed the Electoral Task Team (ETT) which made proposals for a new Electoral Act in 2003, could write then that, ‘Technically speaking we are without an electoral system’.

Since the government hasn’t yet adopted the task team’s recommendations, or come up with alternatives, this sorry state of affairs persists. How could this happen in the world’s most advanced democracy?

In making its final recommendations, the task team wrote that, ‘With very few exceptions a lack or perceived lack of accountability was identified [by those making submissions to, and participating in, the team] as a problem in the current system.’

The fact that, eight years after the Electoral Act was supposed to be completed, we are still without one, would seem to prove their point.

Surely, at least, the government has a timetable? The Minister of Home Affairs, the ANC’s Steyn Speed tells me, has responsibility for proposing legislation. But, ‘We don’t have a timetable,’ Nkosana Sibuyi tells me on the Minister’s behalf. Questioned further, Speed seems to backtrack slightly, offering a truism, ‘If the current electoral system is to remain unchanged, there is no reason to develop a new electoral law to replace the Electoral Act of 1998.’

The purpose of a new electoral Act would be to increase the element of accountability in South Africa’s voting system: the ETT concluded after its research that, ‘with very few exceptions a lack or perceived lack of accountability was identified as a problem in the current system.’

My own investigation into MPs’ accountability began when I started trying to figure out exactly who represents me in Parliament.

A search on the Internet demonstrated neatly how the appearance of transparency can be deceptive. ‘Getting in touch with government – from the President to members of Parliament to your local council – has never been easier,’ southafrica.info, which carries much government information, assured me.

But the promise is empty. A link on southafrica.info that promises to tell me ‘How to get involved in Parliament’ is dead. Emails asking the question ‘Who is my MP’ sent to the ANC, IFP, Western Cape Provincial Parliament, and GCIS (Government Communications and Information Service) either go unanswered, or bounce back – email addresses expired.

The DA’s website will only take messages if you agree to have your details permanently entered into their database, an honour I prefer to decline.

Parliament’s web page tells me: ‘Most constituency offices employ an administrator to be available to the public even when Parliament is in session. Contact the political party you support to find out about constituency offices in your area.’

The Cape Town city branch of the ANC (021 462 0786) refers me to the regional party office (021 447 7181). The regional office refers me to the provincial ANC office (021 425 5864). The provincial office refers me to the Parliamentary constituency office. Someone in the Parliamentary constituency office picks up the phone, but does not greet me.

While squawking out unanswered hallos, I try to imagine doing all this from a creaky phone box in Namaqualand. I put the phone down and call the speaker’s office (021 403 2549). Eventually, I am put back to the Parliamentary constituency office.

And I am then asked: which party do I vote for? How can we meaningfully speak of a secret ballot, I wonder, if one’s vote is disclosed the moment one actually talks to a parliamentarian? If I wanted to speak to ‘my MP’ in Khutsong, where a provincial boundary dispute led to so much violence around the municipal elections, the mere act of trying to visit a constituency office would betray my party loyalties and make a mockery of my so-called secret ballot.

But I pose as an ANC voter, and am told that the ANC MP representing central Cape Town is one Annelize van Wyk. I meet her in Seapoint and she is charming and persuasive – but three weeks later has completely failed to get back to me with information I have requested.

I switch parties and call up the DA’s Parliamentary office (021 403 2910) to ask, who is the DA MP for Cape Town?

‘It’s very difficult to define. It was Helen Zille, but of course she’s now the mayor.’

I am amazed. Helen Zille has been mayor for months and the DA has yet to choose someone else to represent DA voters in Cape Town in Parliament?

I call up the Independent Democrats (021 403 8696). Patricia de Lille gets back to me personally, within a couple of working days.

When I phone the IFP’s Cape Town office (021 403 2514), I can hear the call being shunted from line to line and exchange to exchange – but no-one ever actually answers.

How would relations with MPs be different if the Electoral Task Team’s recommendations were adopted. The task team suggested using the country’s existing 69 district council areas as a basis for constituencies, to avoid additional demarcation. But instead of having one MP per constituency, as in the Westminster system, voters would elect three to seven MPs per constituency, depending on the number of voters in the district.

Suppose a constituency was large enough to warrant sending seven MPs to Parliament; each party contesting that seat would nominate seven candidates. All should be resident within that constituency. Voters would vote only for a party. If the ANC got 5/7 of the vote, its first five candidates would go off to Parliament. If the DA and IFP each got 1/7 of the votes, they would also each send one candidate to Parliament.

This system, thought the ETT, could later evolve into an open list system, where voters not only choose the party of their choice, but the order of preference of candidates.

But what about smaller parties, you may wonder? Wouldn’t they be knocked out in this system? No, because only 300 of the 400 MPs in the National Assembly would be selected this way. Another 100 will be chosen from ‘top-up lists’, becoming MPs without constituencies. Votes from each district will also be added up nationally, and the small parties that have lost out at constituency level will get into Parliament through the top-up list. Inclusiveness, the much-celebrated virtue of the current system, is preserved.

The Independent Democrats, a very small party, supports the ETT proposals. The DA’s position is unclear: James Selfe, unaccountably, doesn’t bother to return five calls. If he can’t be bothered with a journalist, I dread to think how ordinary constituents fare.

Van Zyl Slabbert argues that the current system, where party bosses alone determine who gets into Parliament, gives excessive power to party leaders and makes MPs extraordinarily compliant, making Parliament little more than a rubber stamp for the ruling party and its president. He points out that none of the current tensions around Jacob Zuma’s position in the ANC, and the increasing divisions within the ANC-SACP-Cosatu alliance, have been reflected in Parliament itself.

The report of the ETT emphasized that no electoral system in itself can guarantee full accountability. But most ETT members agreed that a larger element of constituency representivity should be built into the system.

The recognition of the problem of accountability is recognised across the range of the parties which haven’t bothered to return my emails. Frene Ginwala has written that, ‘There is a very real danger that while the voices of the powerful may be heard, the majority remains imprisoned in the silence to which their history and circumstances have condemned them.’

‘We are far from having implemented the full measure of democracy of which our country is today capable, and which our people expect of us,’ said Buthelezi when briefing the Electoral Task Team. ‘My desire is that, in your deliberations you promote techniques which make political representatives more visible, outspoken and independently minded, and that they be penalised in one way or another if they become ineffective, invisible and indolent.’

When a parliamentary committee first considered the possibility of floor-crossing legislation, it specified that floor-crossing would ‘be neither fair nor democratic’ in the present system, and that the then ban on floor crossing should only be reviewed ‘in the process of devising the new electoral system after the 1999 general elections’. Yet we have ended up with floor-crossing without a new electoral system.

I’d like to imagine that when cabinet decides to take a decision on an electoral system that it will be one that dramatically increases accountability. Not because I have struggled excessively to contact my representatives, but because I’m not persuaded that constituents have any means of holding them to account, and because I don’t ever hear of backbench MPs taking a personal stand, or daring to challenge the party line. Which means they may as well not be there – if all MPs do is vote as directed by a party boss, Parliament is reduced to being a very large and expensive rubber stamp.

It might help were MPs protected by a secret ballot when voting on legislation, but they aren’t – at present there is practically no space or protection for the conscience of individual MPs.

And we, the voters, are now also prisoners of those same party bosses, with little leverage for pushing politicians to increase their accountability. Accountability is a value enshrined in the very first article of the Constitution. Perhaps it deserves more attention and debate than it’s currently getting.

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David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.

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