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

In 2020, the Constitutional Court declared the electoral system of proportional representation unconstitutional because it prevented independent candidates from contesting the national and provincial elections.

The court ordered parliament to amend SA’s electoral law to allow independent candidates to contest the elections, and it gave parliament until June 2022 to amend the Electoral Act.

When SA’s constitution was drafted, the proportional representation system was selected due to its inherent simplicity, fairness and inclusivity. However, it was always intended to be a provisional system only. One of the biggest challenges with the current system is that it lacks accountability.

A ministerial advisory committee, chaired by Valli Moosa, was established this year to investigate and advise on policy options that will enable electoral reform. Among the proposals being mooted includes introducing constituency voting into the PR system.

The big question is whether the amended electoral system will bring with it more checks and balances and greater accountability, or whether it will cement the current majorities in parliament. Will the reform provide independent candidates with a real opportunity to succeed?

These were just some of the questions that were highlighted during a recent Business Day Dialogue, in partnership with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a foundation focused on promoting democracy globally. In the SA context, the foundation works to strengthen political institutions and promote a multiparty political system, explained country director Henning Suhr.

The ministerial advisory committee has suggested two possible options, said Sithembile Mbete, a member of the committee and a senior lecturer in the political science department at the University of Pretoria. The first, a minimalist approach, is to simply amend the act to allow independent candidates to contest the elections. The second option is to also incorporate constituencies into the electoral system in a more explicit way.

The expectation is that an amended piece of legislation will be submitted to parliament by the end of July for consideration, Mbete said. It will be parliament that ultimately decides what reforms are passed.

She said the peculiarity of SA’s current proportional representation system is that it has yielded a dominant party. In most countries, it tends to lead to greater electoral competition rather than less, as is the case here.

Meyer urged South Africans to get involved with the debate given that it affects every single citizen

Mbete warned against thinking that electoral reform would be a panacea to corruption, adding that there needs to be interrogation of the cause of the rot in political parties, and a bigger conversation around party accountability.

Roelf Meyer, the director of the non-profit In Transformation Initiative, said the debate around how to reform the Electoral Act was long overdue. He urged South Africans to get involved with the debate given that it affected every single citizen, not only political parties.  

Meyer is a member of the Inclusive Society Institute, an organisation founded to support and further deepen multiparty democracy. The institute has also been looking into the issue of electoral reform and came to similar conclusions to those reached by the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform Report in 2012. None of the commission’s recommendations were implemented.

Pointing out that the constitution is clear that it needs to allow for proportionality, he said a hybrid model which incorporates proportionality and constituent representation needs to be adopted to ensure greater accountability.

Political parties, particularly the dominant ones, benefit from the status quo, said discussion moderator Carol Paton, Business Day’s editor-at-large, which is why it is important that civil society has a voice in these discussions.

Watch the full discussion below:

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