I recently read a newspaper article suggesting that South Africa is getting close to becoming a failed state. This might sound alarmist to some people, but I can assure you that the signs are there. A failed state is one whose political or economic system has become so weak that the government is no longer in control. The more familiar term for this scenario is “state capture” which happens when the ruling elite and/or powerful businesspeople manipulate policy formulation and influence the game’s rules to their own advantage.
South Africa has Chapter 9 institutions supporting constitutional democracy. It also has an independent media and judiciary. Its constitution is hailed as one of the most progressive globally – with a Bill of Rights as its cornerstone. So how can it become a failed state? The fault line is with its citizens’ lack of full participation in the workings of democracy. Part of the hindrance is the current electoral system. Proportional representation (PR) – in which parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them – hinders participative democracy.
In a recent judgement by the Constitutional Court, this system was found to be problematic in that it strips citizens of the right not to affiliate with a political party. The court ruled that individual candidates must be allowed to contest elections independently. The PR system is problematic, too, because it enables gatekeeping of the party list by politically-connected people. The voters have no say on who goes on the list and where. Furthermore, it compromises the legislature’s independence to hold the executive to account because members of parliament are beholden to the gatekeepers of the list and those who deploy the party cadres.
The current electoral system was meant to have been used for the last time during the 1999 elections. A task team chaired by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert was appointed in 2004 to oversee the change, but its work was stymied by politicians too comfortable with the status quo. Thankfully, the apex court has taken over the initiative. It found the Electoral Act void and unconstitutional in that it bars independent candidates from participating in national and provincial elections.
Justice Mbuyiseli Madlanga said the freedom not to join or associate with a political party was a fundamental right.
“Although for some there may be advantages in being a member of a political party…undeniably, political party membership also comes with impediments that may be unacceptable to others…it may be overly restrictive to the free-spirited, it may be censoring to those who are loath to be straight-jacketed by predetermined party positions.”
The Constitutional Court gave parliament 24 months to fix the electoral system. The application, challenging the constitutionality of the current act, was brought by the New Nation Movement (NMM), which describes itself as a “network of like-minded South Africans from all walks of life, irrespective of race or language; religion, belief, gender or social standing”.
Other independent movements have now sprung up in anticipation of the altered political landscape. In my recent travel to Cape Town, I met two leaders of independent movements and they both believe that the time is ripe to wrestle power from a few and return it to the ordinary citizens — where it belongs. I am writing this piece to urge you to pray for those who are seized of this matter.
As you would know, many in the world have their gaze set on the results of the recent American presidential elections. Whatever the outcome, most Americans seem to understand the need for participatory democracy. They don’t give their leaders a blank cheque, as we seem to do in South Africa. Gerald Birney Smith, writing in Christianity and the Spirit of Democracy says that to have a proper and functional democracy, “human interests must be made supreme as contrasted with the interests of any one class or group or nation at the expense of another”.
I believe that this is what the new Electoral Act will achieve. It will allow you, as the voter, to directly vote for a candidate to represent you and your community in parliament. This is called a constituency-based system and it ensures a greater level of accountability. It will also guarantee that your interests are not subordinated to that of a political party and its predetermined positions.