Picture: EPA/KEVIN SUTHERLAND
Picture: EPA/KEVIN SUTHERLAND

Jonny Steinberg (“Constituency voting could spawn even uglier politics”, June 3) raised a number of concerns about electoral reform, cautioning it is not likely to be a silver bullet.

This is true, but no-one lobbying for at least some form of constituency representation is claiming that it will be. South Africans are increasingly checking out of the electoral process (2019 featured the lowest voter turnout in a postapartheid election, and 20-million people who were eligible to vote chose to not do so).

South Africans are losing faith in our electoral system. While it is true that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, in this case something is certainly broken and needs mending. Reforming the electoral system may go at least some way in getting South Africans invested in the political process again.

Steinberg also expresses concern that a constituency system would allow the rise of toxic politics, providing the example of the Patriotic Alliance (PA) and its winning a number of wards off the DA in Johannesburg. In fact, in constituency systems two large parties generally emerge, with much less room for smaller (and possibly more extreme parties) to win seats and thus parliamentary representation — a phenomenon known as Duverger’s law by political scientists.

SA’s proportional representation system has allowed parties with very little broad support to be represented in various legislative bodies, not least the Johannesburg city council, where the PA won one seat of the 270 on offer with fewer than 4,000 votes.

Constituency systems themselves do not lead to toxic or divisive politics, and indeed the PA is not even one of the worst culprits regarding “spout[ing] extreme and distasteful politics”. The EFF, and to a lesser extent its parent party, the ANC, are as guilty of pushing forward a type of politics that scapegoats others and frames rivals as mortal enemies, rather than simple opponents.

However, Steinberg’s last line is telling: “There is so much to fix in the ANC. But a constituency system is not the right tool. To believe that is really just a wishful fantasy.” The aim of electoral reform is to fix SA’s broken politics — not to rescue our failing governing party.

Marius Roodt
Institute of Race Relations

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