A new electoral system is being considered by Parliament and we should all be alarmed as it jeopardizes this monumental achievement in the struggle for freedom.
The proposed new system is complex to understand, complicated to implement and less fair than current electoral systems for national, provincial and municipal government.
The right of the people of South Africa to choose their own government is the constant heartbeat that keeps our democracy alive – to tinker with that is to tinker with the lifeblood of our democracy.
Our parliamentarians should be very, very careful.
Our Constitution firmly enshrines human rights rights. The Bill of Rights can only be amended by a two-thirds super majority.
But the Constitution, in its very first clause, has a set of four values who have a status higher than the Bill of Rights.
The values are:
(a) Human dignity, achievement of equality and promotion of human rights and freedoms;
(b) Non-racism and non-sexism;
(c) Supremacy of the Constitution and rule of law; and
d) Universal adult suffrage, a common voters list, regular elections and a multiparty system of democratic government, to ensure accountability, responsiveness and transparency.
This first clause of the Constitution was familiarly referred to by members of the Constitutional Assembly as the unalterable clause. Section 74(1)(a) of the Constitution requires a 75% vote in Parliament if it is to be amended – a super super majority. The intention is that it should never be changed.
Such is the value given in the Constitution to the right to vote!
These short values constitute the soul of the Constitution. These are the values of the great South African liberation struggle.
It’s no wonder the sight of millions lining up to vote on April 27, 1994 has become the iconic symbol of our freedom.
Play with the right to vote mindlessly, or tamper with it for narrow political advantage, if you want mass rebellion.
Create an electoral system so complicated and riddled with obfuscation, and you run the risk of voters doubting the veracity of the election results. Remember how easily Trump was able to convince people that he was deceived. This was largely possible due to the complexity of the US electoral system.
Parliament has so far rejected much of the public opinion.
Since 1994, three high-level advisory bodies have been created by the government. The first was led by Van Zyl Slabbert, the second by former President Kgalema Motlanthe, and the third and most recent Ministerial Advisory Committee was chaired by myself.
Parliament rejected the majority recommendation of the three advisory bodies. Keep in mind that each was a official body.
The bill before us proposes an entirely new electoral system.
Incredibly, it was not proposed by any of the political parties, civil society organizations or academics who approached the Ministerial Advisory Committee.
According to the new proposal, each province will be a gigantic constituency. A voter in the Eastern Cape, for example, will have to choose between voting for an individual independent candidate of their choice or for a political party.
After the election, it is proposed that an initial quota for each seat be calculated and that all qualified independents be allocated a seat. Then, all the votes of these candidates are cancelled.
A second quota of a smaller size is determined and again independents who qualify are awarded seats. The votes that had been cast for the second round of independents are then cancelled.
At the end of these two rounds, the remaining seats are allocated to the political parties by means of a third quota.
The proposed system is an impending disaster for several reasons.
First, it is an entirely new electoral system that is not supported by any literature or analysis. Not a single political party, including the majority party, has released an analytical document explaining the wisdom of the proposed new system.
It’s a system that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world – perhaps for good reason. Without any political analysis and without any mathematical analysis, the risk of unintended consequences is very high.
Second, it violates the constitutional requirement of proportional representation.
Votes cast for independent candidates above a certain quota are rejected – removed from the countdown. Gone is the longstanding strength of our electoral system that “every vote counts.”
Third, it is so complex and complicated that hardly anyone in the political leadership of our country seems to understand it. I have personally spoken to a number of them. Not only are they unable to explain the thinking behind the proposed system, many have no knowledge of it.
It would be safe to assume that most ordinary members of the EFF, DA and ANC were not consulted on the proposed system.
A system shrouded in mystery provides fertile ground for Trump-like claims of being deceived.
Fourth, the principle of one person one vote of equal value is ignored. A voter can either vote for an independent or vote for a party list. If the voter puts an “X” next to the name of an Independent, they can influence the filling of a seat in Parliament. If the voter votes for a party list, he can influence the filling of up to 80 seats.
It is reminiscent of PW Botha’s Tricameral Parliament in which Coloreds and Indians were granted the right to vote – but not a vote of equal value.
Fifth, in this complex system, the name of every independent candidate from anywhere in the Eastern Cape (for example) and every political party will appear on a single ballot.
If the constituency is to be as large as the province, the ballot will be many pages. In the 2021 local elections, there were a total of 11,237 registered candidates in the Eastern Cape. Even if only 10% of them run as independents in the national elections, there could be more than 1,000 independent candidates in this province.
So even with fairly stringent requirements for applicants to qualify, the numbers will be significant.
Imagine the situation where a voter in the Eastern Cape is faced with a ballot containing 1,200 candidates!
Some supporters of the new system suggest that the number of independent candidates can be reduced by setting extremely onerous requirements for independents to qualify. It has even been suggested that a candidate be required to collect up to 20,000 signatures. The applicant will need to administer this properly so that the identity of each signatory is positively verifiable in court if need be.
Only a super-rich candidate will be able to afford the administrative machinery to set this up in all meticulous detail.
In short, the ordinary candidate will simply be deprived of his rights.
A sixth point to note is that in the event of a vacancy, the by-election must take the form of a provincial election. A system that results in frequent provincial elections is frankly ridiculous.
The last glaring observation is that the constitutional principle of proportional representation is being abandoned.
All this complexity and obfuscation to feed our political parties’ deadly fear of giving voters even a tiny bit of direct representation!
The reference to the proposed system as “minimalist” is nothing more than a marketing spin. CM/DM