Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Should SA have a constitutional amendment to introduce a directly elected president? It’s one of those questions that sits somewhere between fantastical and intriguing. The desirability of the idea needs to be separated from the question of whether it is actually conceivable in the country’s current political environment.

In some ways, the question was asked and answered way back in the early 1990s and we are more or less forced to live with it as it stands. The big problem is that as soon as you hold the first election, the incentives for all of the parties change.

It’s probable, but by no means definite, that the opposition parties would favour the creation of an independently elected president now because it may provide a way for opposition parties to stand on the same platform as the representative of the majority party. In the eyes of voters, they would be seen for a brief moment perhaps, as equivalents of a sort. What great propaganda.

Authoritarianism can arise even when the president is elected by the party

For precisely this reason, larger parties would oppose the idea. In the context of South African politics, for example, which has a single, dominant party, it would surely be a tactical mistake. Consequently, from a practical point of view, it is a nonstarter. Even if all the opposition parties banded together, they would be miles short of being able to muster the two-thirds vote required to change this aspect of the Constitution.

Still, times change and politics change. If there is one thing that has become crystal clear over the past terms of President Jacob Zuma, it is that the old adage that the fish rots from the head is undeniable. South African institutions have been decimated by Zuma’s deliberate destruction of once hallowed bodies, often to promote his family, his financiers and his friends. And of course, to defend and protect himself.

Clearly, at the time the decision was taken to dispense with the idea of a separately elected president at the World Trade Centre back when the constitution was being finalised, the ANC underestimated the importance of the office, and for it to do so at the time was understandable. Nelson Mandela’s popularity was so huge that the institutions of politics were hardly necessary to boost his support.

The reason the ANC decided against a presidential system at the time was really ideological. Its communitarian heart rebelled against the idea of a leader who was totally outside of party control. But this decision was underpinned by another; the decision to opt for a proportional-representation system.

Proportional representation was chosen because, in theory, it would encourage inclusive politics. For the ANC, it had an additional advantage; proportional representation systems tend to put the power in the hands of the party.

The only problem is that much of this reasoning has unravelled. Technically, the great advantage of a presidential system is that it constitutes a physical expression of separation of powers, in this case between executive and legislative branches. It also provides the country’s leader with an explicit mandate and therefore independent legitimacy. In a sense, that is precisely the problem too, because the main criticism of presidential systems is that they tend towards authoritarianism. Yet, SA’s modern history suggests that authoritarianism can arise even when the president is elected by the party, perhaps even particularly when the president is elected by the party.

SA’s big current problem is that from the point of view of voters, the president gets elected by a voting pool of about 4,000 people rather than by a voting pool of about 30-million. This has never seemed as anomalous as it does now. Branch members are now accused of choosing candidates not so much on whether they are likely to be good public representatives, but on the basis of who are most likely to boost their own positions. If ANC branch members were selecting a candidate they knew would have to be appealing to the population as a whole, their selection criteria might be very different.


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