Democracy in South Africa and the 2019 election

By Charles Simkins

The Helen Suzman Foundation is a non-partisan organisation seeking to promote Constitutional Democracy. This means that we shall not comment on party political policies or election activities.

On the other hand, free and fair elections are central parts of constitutional democracy. Accordingly, we shall discuss issues relevant to the electorate as a whole, irrespective of party affiliation. At this stage, we make the following points.

CAMPAIGN PROMISES

Party manifestos set out party intentions. They are sometimes very long. For example, ANC manifesto pdf file is 66 pages, the DA’s is 81 pages, and the EFFs is 168 pages. Two responses are common. The first is skeptical: few voters will be prepared to read through them. It is certainly true that campaigners will have to communicate to potential supporters in more concise ways, sometimes in sound bites. But this is not a good enough reason for dismissing them. They can be read in parts, depending on individual voters’ interests, and they are relevant over the entire life of a parliament.

The second response is cynical: promises, promises, same old, insincere. This is also not a good enough reason for dismissing manifestos. Voters have the right to expect that promises which can be kept should be kept, and therefore the right to demand that they are kept. This right should be continuously available and used. Cynicism undermines constitutional democracy.

PARLIAMENTARY ACCOUNTABILITY

There have been major advances in government accountability in the past 25 years. To name a few major developments: increased capacity of the courts to review administrative decisions, the right to access information, the constitutional requirement that public consultation must precede enactment of legislation, and better reporting from some departments, notably the National Treasury. But more needs to be done about the relationship between people and parliament beyond elections every five years in order to deepen our democracy.

We fully support Section 46(1)(d) of the Constitution which requires the electoral system to result, in general, in proportional representation. To date, this principle has been taken to imply that a full constituency system is not possible. But the proposition is false. In 2002, the Cabinet decided to appoint a task team to draft a new electoral system.

In 2003, the task team reported that a majority of its members supported a multi-member constituency system which combined the advantages of constituencies with proportional representation. The recommendations have not been acted upon. We believe that the report should be dusted off, updated and seriously debated early in the life of the next parliament. The present system of constituency offices without constituencies fails to create adequate links between members of the National Assembly and voters. This defect undermines the legitimacy of parliament.

Improving the relationship between voters and legislators is not in itself sufficient. At all three levels of government, more time needs to be allocated within legislatures to the concerns of individuals or groups of voters, submitted through their representatives. We have a petition system, but it needs improvement, and improvement would lead to its more extensive use. As things stand, the rules of the National Assembly assign the lowest position in the order of business to petitions.

The UK House of Commons have what they call ‘adjournment debates’. The term is one of the quirks of the British parliamentary system, but they serve a useful purpose. There is a half-hour adjournment debate at the end of each day’s sitting. It is an opportunity for an individual backbench MP to raise an issue and receive a response from the relevant Minister. The Speaker chooses one topic per week, and the remaining applications are allocated by ballot. No decisions are taken. Rather, the intention is to air issues of importance to constituencies. In the South African context, issues raised persistently in petitions would be particularly appropriate for debates of this kind.

PARTY LISTS

When it comes to purchases in the electoral market place, product advertising and its plausibility is not the only consideration. The quality of the delivery men and women has also to be assessed. Here, a distinction between qualification and reputation is helpful, or to put the matter the other way round, a distinction between disqualification and disrepute.

Qualification and disqualification for membership of the National Assembly are the subject of Section 47 of the Constitution. Paid public servants, members of provincial legislatures and municipal councils, unrehabilitated insolvents, persons declared by a court to be of unsound mind and persons sentenced to more than a year in prison without the option of a fine are ineligible for election to the National Assembly. Anyone who falls into one of these categories after the election ceases to be a member of the National Assembly.

On the other hand, reputation depends on two things: the acts or omissions of the individual concerned, and the perspective of beholders. This is why cries of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ are, at best, an incomplete approach to the assessment of party lists. In the end, it is reputation that matters, since a task of the Independent Electoral Commission is to weed out the disqualified before the election takes place.

DEMOCRATIC CONSOLIDATION

Three measures of democratic consolidation can be distinguished. The first is a sequence of free and fair elections. The second is Huntington’s specification that consolidation is indicated when democratic regime survives an alternation in executive power through constitutional means. Alternation in power refers to an unambiguous change in the partisan character of the executive branch. The third is when a democratic regime simply survives for an appropriate period of time, perhaps fifteen years.

The indications are good, but it should be recognised that Duverger’s law holds that plurality-rule elections (such as first past the post) with single-member districts tend to favour a two-party system, whereas the double ballot majority system and proportional representation tend to favour multiple parties. The second system is what we have, so that alternations in power are likely to be smeared out into changes in the composition of coalitions.

Charles Simkins is Head of Research, Helen Suzman Foundation.

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