By Judith February

In South Africa, it’s becoming a matter of routine for presidential question time to be disrupted. Recent scenes in the National Assembly left little room for doubt – as if there was any after the chaos of the state of the nation address in February ­– that Parliament is fast losing the public’s trust.

President Jacob Zuma’s continued evasion of accountability on Nkandla and other matters has become a festering sore on our body politic. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will simply not let the matter go as the African National Congress (ANC) in Parliament, with the help of speaker Baleka Mbete, continues to shield the president.

The recent, rather absurd report by the minister of police, Nathi Nhleko, indicates just how far the ANC would go to protect Zuma on the issue.

Yet, the EFF tactics have become somewhat tired, and disrupting the House will hardly bring about the accountability they seek. There is also something fundamentally undemocratic about shouting down one’s fellow MPs and not adhering to the speaker’s rulings. Parliament should be a space for debate and deliberation, as well as persuasion.

What we recently saw was the politics of spectacle with an outcome that undermines Parliament as an institution and will, ultimately, render it dysfunctional. Is that the outcome the EFF wants? Leaders within Parliament as well as the presiding officers must find a way to reach consensus and prevent further damage to Parliament and its reputation. And the president needs to simply do one thing: pay back the money.

It seems unlikely, however, that either of these options will be realised, and it’s hard to fathom what can be done.

Deepening the link between citizens and their elected representatives

Some speak of a political solution. In February this year, after the state of the nation address, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa attempted some form of rapprochement between the opposition and the ruling party MPs. That failed miserably when Ramaphosa seemed unable to take his party with him. Ultimately, it will be up to the ANC inside and outside of Parliament to deal with the Nkandla matter and ensure accountability. But a lack of internal party democracy, complicated by the fact that the party owns the seat in terms of our electoral system, means there might be little incentive for junior ANC MPs to hold the executive to account.

We have heard it said many times before: the South African electoral system does not provide a sufficient link between the citizen and the elected representative. Many have argued that our proportional-representation list system diminishes levels of accountability. Yet, we have also seen our local government system, which has greater built-in accountability, fail dismally. So, it’s a tricky issue and one that South Africa has been grappling with for a number of years. Nevertheless, the South African electoral system is characterised by simplicity, inclusiveness and a strong sense of fairness. These characteristics have, arguably, helped to strengthen our democracy and ensure the legitimacy of democratic processes.

South Africa’s use of proportional representation based on a closed party list system seems to generate a deficit in accountability; particularly in the context of one-party dominance. This weakness was most notable during the so-called arms deal debacle of 2000, where it was clear that party loyalty trumped the need for accountability. MPs who stood their ground, like Andrew Feinstein, found themselves in the wilderness and ostracised by the ANC.

Initially, the South African electoral system, as crafted in the interim constitution of 1994, was welcomed. Near perfect proportional representation with no threshold mirrored the national and provincial electorate, thus ensuring that the national and provincial legislatures were directly and widely representative and afforded a strong sense of inclusiveness. The results of the first election were widely accepted and therefore had a moderating effect in a potentially volatile time.

Proposed changes would enhance accountability

In 2002 the cabinet appointed an electoral task team to formulate the new electoral laws for the 2004 elections and beyond. Chaired by the late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, the team consisted of members of government and civil society. It addressed whether or not an electoral system can guarantee accountability, as opposed to other institutional arrangements that govern representatives’ behaviour while in office, like Chapter 9 institutions. In a first-past-the-post system representatives are individually scrutinised, but the party as a whole is treated less critically.

With further deliberation, the task team proposed a system that they felt would not disrupt the administration of the imminent elections, and could be modified in the future to continuously increase accountability. This system was supported by a majority of the task team. The proposal, better known as the ‘69 constituency option’, proposes expanding the number of multi-member constituencies from nine to 69.

The number of constituents per representative is drastically decreased, and 300 out of the 400 total seats would be assigned by this method. The remaining 100 would be decided according to national closed lists, in order to regain proportionality. There were, of course, constraints in implementing these recommendations, and the task team pointed out the lack of time and funding. The proposed model is, however, sensitive to these constraints and presents itself as a compromise to ensure accountability.

It is worth noting that within the course of the task team’s deliberations, an open-list proportional representation system was proposed to correct the balance between individual and party accountability. Voters would choose a party and then go on to rank candidates in the order in which they think they should be elected to Parliament, depending on the proportion of votes the party received. Candidates would be beholden to voters to rank them favourably, and proportionality would not be compromised. Challenges to an open-list system arise with the sheer number of candidates (more than 200 in some cases), and the level of literacy required to vote in such a manner.

The report was tabled in March 2003, and Parliament voted to revisit the recommendations after the elections. Nevertheless, cabinet adopted the task team’s minority position, which was to leave the electoral system unchanged. The argument forwarded by the then home affairs minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, was that there was not enough time before the 2004 election to implement the changes. This reason does not preclude the possibility for reform in the future, but the political possibilities for change are bleak.

Reform is a necessity

Overall, South Africa’s electoral system requires reform, and the report by the task team needs to be seriously considered. The electoral system in its current form does indeed espouse and support democratic values of fairness and inclusivity, while maintaining its simplicity. But it is on the key democratic value of accountability where the system remains weak.

The deficit in accountability found within South Africa’s electoral system has weakened key institutions and has enabled the emergence of a one-party dominant system and, more importantly, the dominance of party executives. As seen in the infamous Arms Deal, party interests in the current system trumps the public interest. If South Africa is to further the consolidation of its democracy, greater accountability between the electorate and political parties is key. This may well also lead to a more responsive Parliament.

• First published on the ISS website. Judith February is a consultant in the Governance Crime and Justice Division, ISS Pretoria.