BEN TUROK: Parliament remains remote from the daily concerns of ordinary people
Parliamentary system and the way it is meant to represent people's interests, especially that of young people, is not working
Six-million South Africans under the age of 30 have not registered to vote. The total number who have not registered is about 9-million.
Michael Donen has pointed out that the non-enfranchised almost equal the number of voters who supported the ANC in the last election and outnumber all the voters who supported opposition voters put together.
This is reason enough to worry about the health of our democracy. However, if you add the mood of disillusionment brought on by recent revelations of looting of public funds and the possible abstention of formerly committed voters, the total number of non-voters may be disturbingly large.
But my concern goes deeper than the immediate disenchantment with our politicians. I am not at all sure that our parliamentary system and the way it is meant to represent ordinary people's interests, especially that of young people, is really working.
I shall certainly vote in the coming elections and I know what party I shall vote for. But I don’t know who will represent me in the next parliament and who will reflect my views.
Indeed, despite having defended our parliamentary system for many years, I do not know the name of my MP, nor whether there is a constituency office where I live.
So the parliament that I am voting for is a vague institution rather remote from my day-to-day existence. If that is my experience, how much more so is it that of a young South African eligible to vote for the first time? Why should he or she care?
The remoteness of our political system from ordinary people now strikes me as never before. True, we have a constitution that guarantees human rights, defines the roles of various state institutions and confirms the rule of law.
Some people argue that the inherent flaw in our parliamentary system is party lists rather than constituency-based elections.
It does not, as far as I know, specify much about political representation or the role of political parties, yet the election is about that. Is there not a disjunction in our system that imposes no real obligation on the political parties we vote for?
Indeed, the selection of MPs is a cumbersome, bureaucratic process in which ordinary people have almost no say. An individual joins a party and attends a branch meeting. If he or she is very active they may be nominated for election to the council, the provincial government or even parliament. Thereafter the machine takes over. There is a long process involving list committees and the sifting of individual qualities until ultimately he or she may arrive in parliament. By that time the voter is long forgotten.
Having arrived in parliament he or she is allocated to a portfolio committee or two, placed in a study group and obliged to attend meetings of the party caucus, which is led by the chief whip acting under the direction of the top party leadership.
He will certainly have opinions but those opinions will be governed by a straitjacket of policies imposed from above by the top leaders of the party.
Of course, he or she will make speeches about the national interest and conditions and needs of the people, but these will be in general terms, reflecting national problems rather than those of the constituency he or she nominally represents.
Some people argue that the inherent flaw in our parliamentary system is party lists rather than constituency-based elections. We note, however, that in the UK members of the Conservative Party disagreed strongly on Brexit but when it came to the motion of no confidence they rallied behind the party leader. Clearly, in the first case they reflected public opinion and in the latter party discipline prevailed.
In our system there are constituency offices that employ full-time administrators whose task it is to be available for constituencies, take up cases and deal with government agencies.
But MPs are preoccupied with proceedings in the house, leaving little time for constituency work and reporting back. Even if that pattern was improved the system would not in itself be a participatory one. Parliament remains remote from the daily concerns of ordinary people.
It seems to me that collective action lies less in changing the mechanisms of voting for parliamentary parties than in the manner in which we conduct politics.
Throughout our educational system, students should be taught political studies, including different ideologies and the socioeconomic structures of our society. They should be taught how the interests of different groups in society are represented by political parties and how the interests of society as a whole are best represented.
Our young “born frees” are being solicited for votes on the basis of the popularity of individual leaders rather than the broad policies they represent.
And so, electioneering is a shallow — business a kind of popularity contest that does not resonate with the concrete interests and needs of ordinary people. I have no quick answers, but I do see the weaknesses of the present system and its lack of appeal to ordinary people, especially the youth.
• Turok, a former ANC MP, is director of the Institute for African Alternatives.