Civil society not giving up fight after National Assembly ignores its pleas and adopts controversial Electoral Amendment Bill

The National Assembly yesterday passed the Electoral Amendment Bill after a debate in which ANC and EFF MPs dismissed with contempt a bid by civil society organisations to persuade parliamentarians to reject the bill which the organisations say is unconstitutional.

But despite yesterday’s setback, civil society are not giving up their fight for electoral reform to get power back to the people, and will be pursuing “two strong routes”, said an upbeat Dr Michael Louis, chairperson of the Independent Candidate Association South Africa. He told Gateway News that the civil society alliance’s preferred option is to mediate with lawmakers to secure an interim solution for the 2024 election, but if that fails they will ask the Constitutional Court to declare the bill invalid.

Before yesterday’s vote in Parliament in which 232 MPs voted in favour of adopting the bill, 98 voted against and three abstained, a group of civil society organisations — which Louis says number 72 organisations and is growing — wrote to MPs urging them to reject the bill because of a flawed public consultation process, prejudice against independent candidates and failure to reform the electoral system. Signatories to the letter included Defend Our Democracy, My Vote Counts, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the Rivonia Circle, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution.

The ANC, EFF, PAC, Al Jama Ah and NFP supported the bill, while the DA, ACDP, IFP, FFP and COPE voted against it. The Good Party and AIC abstained.

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In June 2020 the Constitutional Court gave Parliament 24 months to redraft the Electoral Act to allow independent candidates to participate after it ruled their exclusion was unconstitutional. Parliament failed to meet the deadline which was extended to December 10.

ANC and EFF speakers in yesterday’s virtual National Assembly debate condemned the civil society campaign.

Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi dismissed civil society groups’ concerns that the bill fails to achieve meaningful electoral reform, saying: “The Constitutional Court did not make any finding as to which electoral system is better than the other or as to which one presents the better outcomes and accountability to the electorate, than the other.” 

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 EFF MP Thapelo Mogale. said: “We reject with contempt these nonsensical letters sent by organisations of stooges and puppets.”  

Louis told Gateway News the attack on civil society by the ANC and EFF was sad. For example, he said, Motsoaledi had dismissed the organisations’ opposition to the bill, on the basis that they just oppose for oppostion’s sake.

Even worse, he said, was the EFF’s claim that civil society is funded by white international capital — the Oppenheimers and Soros organisations for the purpose of state capture.

“Who does the EFF think put them in power? For civil society is the people. The South African Council of Churches, the trade unions — all their members are members of civil society and we are participants in that.”

“And that’s why we are saying power back to the people because we can’t allow MPs to write the laws as they see fit. Where do they get their mandate from?” said Louis.

With a new public participation process due to take place ahead of the bill going to the next stage — to the National Council of Provinces for debate — he said civil society organisations are prepared to negotiate an interim solution for the 2024 election provided there is a sunset clause stipulating there must be more participatory consultation after the election.

Regarding the second option — to go to the Constitutional Court, he said the Independent Candidate Association is already drafting legal papers seeking a declaratory order from the ConCourt that the bill is invalid.

He said that if they go that route they will ask the ConCourt to write in how the election must take place in 2024.

“We know that they [the Constitutional Court] don’t easily want to get involved in law making, but this is a critical situation that they have to do it,” he said.

Asked what interim changes to the bill civil society wanted, he said they did not want to tamper too much with the bill but there needed to be some changes to make it more representative and proportional. Specifically they would address the bill’s requirement that independents need twice as many signatures as party candidates to stand.

Asked how he believed Christians should respond to the battle for electoral reform, Louis said: “We need to get new voices and new actors onto the playing field. When a company struggles, it gets new people to come up with new energy, new, creative ideas.

“I believe we need new, God-fearing, equipped statesmen and woman who are called by God for such a season as this to to help take us out of the demise that we are in at the moment. We need more young people to stand in the gap and bring in their energy and new ideas.”

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