Full representation and accountability: why choose? South Africa wants both

by Eve Robert // Published February 17, 2009
Since its first democratic elections, in 1994, South African uses a proportional voting party-list system, without any electoral threshold and a single nationwide constituency for the conversion of votes into seats. The proportional system has been crucial to allow a peaceful democratic transition by creating an atmosphere of inclusiveness and reconciliation and the respect of minority voices in the post-apartheid era.

It is worth noticing that the proportional system has been very efficient in accurately representing the political and ethnical diversity of the country as well as in providing a strong incentive to the parties to be moderate and inclusive rather than divisive, according to professor Arend Lijphart. This is probably why today all major political parties still support PR. But there are differences over which specific variant to use.

Several political parties and grassroots organization have recently underlined the fact that the existing system has concentrated power in the hand of party bosses. Because their ties with their constituencies are very tenuous, the MPs are not truly accountable to their electors, but dependant on party decisions. As a consequence, the Parliament has became "a mere rubber stamp for decisions made at the ANC party headquarters", wrote John Kane-Berman in his column in Business Day. According to the Independent Panel to Asses Parliament, only 2-3% of South Africans knew who their MP was, against more than 70% in Bostwana and Uganda for instance. To put it in a nutshell, the current system gives the leadership of political parties monopolistic control over public representatives, while simultaneously freeing the latter from legitimate and necessary constituency pressures and accountability.

Several reform proposals have sought to address this issue. The Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on electoral reform recommended the introduction of a Mixed Member Proportional system featuring multi-member constituencies. The Congress of the People (COPE), a political party formed in 2008 by former ANC members, has called for the introduction of relatively small multi-member districts, while maintaining a proportional allocation of seats. Both of these reforms seek to combine the advantages of PR (which helps minority parties) with those of constituencies (which allows geographic connection between electors and their representatives, thus promoting grassroots accountability among MP).