POLITICAL NEWS - Ultimately, it took Chantal Revell, a descendant of the Khoi and San royalty, to initiate a change in South Africa’s electoral system. This has been a contentious subject for almost 20 years. An official task team was set up to resolve it and it has gripped the attention of opposition parties, elevating the subject to an election campaign issue.
South Africa’s Constitutional Court has ruled that the country’s Electoral Act is unconstitutional on the grounds that it doesn’t allow citizens to be elected to the national and provincial legislatures as independent candidates.
The case was brought by the New Nation Movement. This civil society group argued that the act infringed on the right to exercise individual political choices. Chantal Revell was the second applicant in the case.
Constitutional Court Justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga’s verdict is possibly a defining moment. By enabling independent candidates to contest provincial and national elections it promises to change various aspects of South Africa’s life. The ability of independent candidates to stand in national elections offers a wide choice that could entice apathetic eligible voters into the process and attract others away from established parties. The primacy of individuals over parties, however, might also weaken associational life built upon civic values in favour of divisive identities.
A hotbed of controversy
The controversy around South Africa’s electoral stemmed from the recommendations made by the electoral task team, led by former opposition leader Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, in January 2003. Previous elections were administered by interim legislation and permanent legislation was required in time for the next election in 2004.
The task team was mandated to probe whether the interim legislation, which prescribed voting for political parties – that is proportional representation – should be made permanent or revised.
Composed of various experts from government, South Africa’s electoral commission, the academy and the legal profession, the task team offered contrasting proposals. Most wanted the electoral system changed to a mixed one – providing for direct election of constituency representatives and for a political party.
Others wanted to retain the system of voting for parties, which then decide whom to send to parliament. Parliament adopted the minority proposal. Retaining the proportional representation system met all four principles that the constitution envisaged for an electoral system: fairness, inclusiveness, simplicity and accountability.
The majority view was unhappy that proportional representation fell short on enabling individual accountability. Nonetheless, it admitted that collective accountability was afforded through periodic elections.
Parliament was not the only interest group persuaded by the minority view. The public, too, was enamoured with voting for parties that decided who to send to parliament. Part of the electoral task team’s activities involved a public opinion survey undertaken by the Human Sciences Research Council.
The survey showed that between 74% and 81% of South Africans felt that the proportional representation system was fair. They thought it enabled equal representation and made sure that parliament was as inclusive as possible, especially in relation to gender and race.
But there was a feeling that members of parliament should be tied to particular constituencies. This was insignificant, though, in light of the general acceptance of the electoral system.
Consequently, there was hardly any popular outcry about the inappropriateness of the electoral system.
The Zuma factor
The brouhaha over the electoral system coincided with the election of Jacob Zuma as president in 2009. Implicated in corruption and fresh from a rape acquittal, Zuma was a perfect picture of notoriety. So long as parties provided a fairly acceptable slate of candidates, voters did not mind much that they didn’t elect them directly.