Our democracy needs a major acccountability service

Published in Informanté, November 2012

ImageYou’ve probably heard it said a hundred times that South Africa has one of the world’s best constitutions. But do we have the world’s best parliament? Hm…

So what would a really great parliament look like?

Well, we’d probably have members of parliament (MPs) who run strong constituency offices and are visible in the communities they represent. They would be standing up regularly for the rights of the vulnerable. Like MPs in the UK and members of congress in the US, they’d have no hesitation in criticising the leaders of their own parties or big businesses that abuse their power and influence. But unlike US congresspeople, they would not be receiving enormous amounts of money from special interests and handing out endless favours in return. Unlike the British government, they would not be giving more attention to the needs of bankers than to those of ordinary people.

We have good people in our parliament, but who knows of a South African MP like that? Anyone? So why don’t we have a parliament like that?

A big problem is that our current institutions don’t give enough weight to the constitutional principle of accountability. Our electoral system with proportional representation does a great job of ensuring the balance of seats in parliament reflects our preferences for different parties. But it does a bad job of ensuring that parties and MPs are working hard for us, the people.

That’s because our MPs are currently chosen by parties, not by voters. The parties are mainly funded not by us (though they do get some taxpayer money) but by private, secret interests. That’s right – our current system of party funding is completely secret.

There’s every reason to suspect that just as you probably jump higher for your boss than you do for your customers, political parties jump higher for whoever’s giving them money than they do for voters. We just don’t know who the secret funders are, though the arms deal, Oilgate, Hitachi and other scandals affecting all parties offer some clues.

In October, there was a big fuss about an article on South Africa in the influential magazine The Economist. ‘South Africa’s sad decline’, said the cover. The government reacted defensively with a good list of things we are indeed getting right, but also not mentioning a lot of real problems.

One of the key issues The Economist pointed out is parliament’s ‘party-list method of choosing members, who are thus entirely in thrall to [party] bosses rather than to the voters’.

I’m a member of a new campaign called My Vote Counts. We believe that South Africa, like Germany and New Zealand, should have a mixed constituency-proportional electoral system, along the lines suggested by the Electoral Task Team that the government appointed in 2002.

The task team was headed by the late Dr Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert and did a great job, but parliament shelved the report. In 2009, another independent assessment of parliament recommended all sorts of other excellent measures – including a mixed electoral system – but yet again, parliament has failed to act.

In a mixed constituency-proportional system, we would still be sure that the balance of party power in parliament reflects our choice of parties, but we’d also have a chance to vote for or against particular MPs. A new electoral system could also sort out another problem – that it’s currently difficult to stand as an independent.

We also want a complete overhaul of party finance, a move to state funding of all larger political parties and total transparency on spending. True, this would cost taxpayers more to begin with, but should end up bringing us massive savings on money now lost to corruption.

If you support these ideas, there’s much you can do. Read up about the issues. Write to political parties and to the newspapers asking when they’re going to give us an accountable electoral system, and when they’re going to clean up money in politics. Raise the issue on radio call-ins and in social networks. Join existing campaigns.

It’s time we stopped looking to the rest of the world and assuming we can do no better. We weren’t shy about coming up with a groundbreaking constitution. Let’s do the same for accountability in politics, and show the world that Africa can be a leader, not just a follower, in advancing democracy.

Remember that brief time in the 1990s, when we had lots of really decent, principled people in parliament and government – and how good it felt when we were on the right track as a nation? If we want decent leaders again, we have to fight for strong institutions. Just like a car, a democracy needs constant repair and maintenance. It’s time we sent ours in for a major service. Time to get the electoral system and party finance properly replaced and repaired.


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

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