LETTER: Messy electoral system is better than two-party dominance
South Africans will have to learn to deal with results of proportional representation
Jonny Steinberg (“Years from now, the nasty parties will hold us to ransom”, September 29) argues that SA’s proportional representation (PR) system will result in ghastly outcomes once the ANC loses its national majority.
He foresees the rise of parties appealing to South Africans’ worst instincts filling the gap left by a defeated ANC.
Steinberg argues that some sort of two-party system would be preferable, presumably something akin to the first-past-the-post (Westminster) system still used in much of the Anglosphere, and was used in SA before 1994. This, Steinberg argues, would result in parties which have to act as “big tent” parties, appealing to a wide variety of interests.
But there is no guarantee that such a system would result in such parties emerging. The National Party’s grip on the country for much of the second half of the 20th century shows this. More recently, the rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP in India also shows that a Westminster system is no guarantee against the rise of extremism in large parties (or in governing parties, in the BJP’s case).
One could be uncharitable and say that Steinberg is implicitly arguing that the great unwashed cannot be trusted with the grand project of democracy.
PR — for all its faults — is the best way of ensuring that as many communities, groups and interests are included in the formal political process. It is no surprise that, outside the Anglosphere, some form of PR is the norm in the world’s democracies (although PR is fairly common within the Anglosphere too). One could perhaps look to countries such as New Zealand and Germany, which have support thresholds that parties need to cross to be represented in parliament (5% in both countries) as examples of how to keep extremists out. But this can also be abused — until recently Turkey had a 10% threshold, mainly to keep Kurdish parties out of parliament — and some would argue it is fundamentally undemocratic.
The period of ANC governance is coming to an end rapidly in SA and the initial post-ANC period is likely to be unstable and messy. But this is the nature of politics. Learning to deal with the PR system is part of SA’s democratic evolution. It won’t be the fault of the writers of the constitution if voters fail to make it work. SA democracy needs to grow up and parties need to learn how to work together and govern in a PR system.
Institute of Race Relations
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