Electoral reform in the air: Two new reports chart way forward for South Africa

In 2020, the Constitutional Court declared the Electoral Act unconstitutional because it doesn’t allow for independent candidates to be elected. Now the spirit of electoral reform is in the air, with two major new reports making suggestions for electoral models for South Africa to follow.

By Rebecca Davis.

What’s wrong with South Africa’s electoral system? According to the Constitutional Court as of June 2020, it is unconstitutional because it does not allow independent candidates to contest elections. Parliament was given two years to correct this.

According to multiple experts over the years, however, that is far from the only defect with the system. In fact, the drafters of the final Constitution anticipated the need for change and advised that the electoral system should be reviewed. Back in 2002, an electoral task team headed by Dr Frederik van Zyl Slabbert proposed that South Africa would be better served by an electoral model which combined proportional representation (the current system) with a constituency system.

A partial constituency system, it was felt, would enable a closer relationship between voters and MPs, with more meaningful representation of particular geographic areas and increased likelihood of accountability.

Now, a report on electoral reform commissioned by the Inclusive Society Institute has come to a similar conclusion. The panel, led by transition negotiator Roelf Meyer, includes Wits politics professor William Gumede, analyst Ebrahim Fakir and elections expert Dren Nupen.

Their report states at the outset that they wanted a model which, among other features, would accommodate independent candidates, would require minimal changes to the Constitution and be simple for the Electoral Commission to implement and for voters to understand.

Meyer’s panel believes that an electoral model purely based on the constituency system “would not make it possible to meet the constitutional prescript of the outcome to reflect, in general, proportionality”. It would also not result in a sufficiently diverse legislature.

On the other hand, a singular proportional representation model, now accommodating independent candidates, would be impractical to administer, they write.

“Imagine the length of a ballot paper should, say, 100 independent candidates wish to stand in addition to the 48 existing political parties,” the report states.

Their solution: a 400-seat National Assembly of which 300 seats are allocated via the constituency system and 100 seats via proportional representation.

The constituency system would see the establishment of 66 multi-member constituencies (MMCs), with three to seven representatives to be elected for each. These constituencies would be demarcated along present district and metropolitan municipal lines.

Based on the total number of registered voters in the 2019 general elections (26,756,649), each MMC would have between 270,000 and 624,000 voters, Meyer’s panel writes.

For those expecting an open list system — in other words, a ballot paper where voters select a specific candidate — that’s not quite how it would work. Instead, the ballot paper in each MMC will list only the names of the parties, followed by the names of the independent candidates.

The report states that the panel did consider the open list system — but “this was an option the panel felt best be left until later when voters have become more accustomed to the new system”.

The 100 seats left over in Parliament will be determined by the combined number of votes received by a party across all MMCs, divided proportionally.

The question likely to be on all politicians’ lips: which parties would benefit from a move to such a system?

Anticipating this, Meyer’s team modelled its proposal based on the results of the 2019 general elections. The result? Very little change in terms of results.

“The proposed system does not negatively (or positively) impact any party. It shows that the existing power ratios between parties would be maintained in the new system,” the report states.

One South Africa’s Mmusi Maimane, who has been vocally lobbying for electoral reform, told Daily Maverick that on the whole, his new movement was “pleased” with the findings of the report.

“The report largely aligns with the Electoral Laws Amendment Bill that is currently before Parliament, save for its proposal of a closed list system,” Maimane said.

“The Electoral Laws Amendment Bill differs by proposing an open list system. Crucially, an open list system addresses the issue of poor performing, unsuitable and/or corrupt individuals being protected by political parties. It cuts out the unnecessary political ‘brokers’ and gives direct power to voters and communities.”

With Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi having told Parliament earlier in February that a new electoral system was imperative to ward off future court challenges, South Africans can expect a veritable tsunami of proposals from think tanks.

From the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) comes a separate report on National Assembly electoral reform, due to be launched next week.

Recommending a “mixed-member proportional system”, it too leans heavily on the Van Zyl Slabbert report, but its proposed model is a little more complex than that proposed by Roelf Meyer’s panel.

In terms of the HSF proposal, voters will be issued with two ballot papers: one requiring a choice between candidates within their constituency, and one requiring a choice between parties contesting the election.

The seats in the National Assembly would then be filled both from constituency elections and party lists.

Like Meyer’s panel, the HSF proposes dividing the country into constituencies represented by between three and seven MPs.

“The number of the party list seats would be twice the number of constituencies and the number of the constituency seats would be 400 minus the number of party list seats. For example, if there were 55 (multi-member) constituencies, there would be 110 party list seats and 290 constituency seats,” the report states.

“Two party list MPs would be assigned to each constituency, using an algorithm designed to maximise the probability that voters have at least one of the MPs associated with their constituency belonging to the party they support. The allocation of individual party list MPs to constituencies would be decided by party caucuses in Parliament.”

When it comes to independent candidates, the HSF states that such candidates could either stand for election in individual constituencies or “they may stand, effectively as parties, as party list members”.

UCT politics professor Anthony Butler expressed some scepticism to Daily Maverick about the outcome of integrating independent candidates into a partially constituency-based electoral system.

“Who are these independents and how will they campaign?” Butler asked.

“Many of them will be the losers of factional battles inside established parties.”

Butler suggested that the type of independent candidate likely to thrive in a constituency-based system might be “someone willing to exploit local antagonisms and tensions, most notably around ethnic and racial division”.

Butler points out that established party candidates will need to back “non-racial doctrines their national parties need to succeed”.

Independents, he warns, “can run on the basis of ethnic division and local xenophobia”.

Electoral Commission (formerly IEC) officials, meanwhile, have previously warned about unrealistic expectations from the constituency system.

About six years ago, former chief electoral officer Mosotho Moepya warned that the view that the constituency system was a magic bullet to achieve political accountability was distinctly rose-tinted.

“The reality of experience in South Africa’s municipal elections and by-elections over the past 15 years shows that the theoretical link between directly voting for a candidate and accountability and performance is tenuous at best,” Moepya wrote.

“Statistics of by-elections in South Africa show that in over 85% of by-elections to date the party has retained its seat, calling into question any real consequence for non-performance.”

For the original article as published by Daily Maverick, please click here. 

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