In May 2017 the Rational Standard carried a piece by Nicholas Babaya calling for a number of democratic reforms in South Africa. The first was the introduction of a two-round presidential election and the revision of our electoral system into a first-past-the-post (FPTP) regime as opposed to our proportional representation (PR) system. The way we pick our President can be debated, but this article will examine the call for a new electoral system.
The FPTP system, while ensuring a link between a public representative and their constituents, can lead to skewed outcomes (especially if gerrymandering is an issue), lead to votes being ‘wasted’, and result in parliamentary representation which does not reflect the will of the voters.
One of the most disastrous election results in South African history – the victory of the National Party (NP in 1948 – occurred because of gerrymandering and the need for rural parliamentary seats (which were more likely to return a NP candidate) to have fewer voters. Of the 153 seats on offer, the NP won 70, with 37.7% of the vote. By contrast, the United Party, led by Jan Smuts, won just shy of 50% of the vote (49.2%) for 65 seats. Thanks to support from the Afrikaner Party (with nine seats and just under four percent of the vote) the NP secured a coalition to govern the country, leading to apartheid and four decades of harsh oppression of the black people of this country.
Of course, racial oppression and discrimination had been a fact under Jan Smuts and previous governments, but it is likely a Smuts victory would have seen at least some move to reform. We could have seen a true democracy emerge in South Africa far earlier than 1994 if the NP had not won in 1948. However, this is speculation and not the focus of the argument.
There are numerous other examples where the FPTP system results in skewed outcomes.
The recent British election is an example of that. Theresa May’s Conservative (or Tory) Party saw its popular vote share increase by 5.5 percentage points to 42.3%, yet lost 13 seats, seeing her lose her majority in the House of Commons. By contrast, the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, saw its vote share go to 40%, an increase of nearly ten percentage points, but he was rewarded with 30 more seats.
The PR system that we have ensures that the proportion of the vote a party receives is reflected by their support in Parliament. This has its drawbacks, as pointed out by Babaya in his article. However, there is a system which takes the best of both the PR and FPTP system, and which could without too much difficulty be implemented here. This is the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system.
In this system members of Parliament are elected by constituencies, but the number of MPs are topped up by party lists to ensure proportionality. This, thus, ensures a link between a particular geographical area and a public representative, while also ensuring that a party’s proportion of the vote is reflected in the number of seats it is awarded in the legislature. It is the system used in Germany, New Zealand, and Lesotho, and at the local government level here in South Africa.
Last year’s municipal election result in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) provides an illuminating example of the advantages of the system.
In that municipality, sixty seats are ward seats (where a councillor represents a particular geographical area) and sixty are made up of PR seats, used to ensure proportionality. In August last year, the African National Congress (ANC) emerged as the biggest party in 36 of NMB’s 60 wards, winning just over 40% of the vote. The Democratic Alliance (DA), by contrast, was the biggest party in 23 wards, yet had won 47% of the vote. The Economic Freedom Fighters had won the other available ward seat. If the Council’s make-up was decided purely on ward seats, the ANC would have been the largest party by some margin, but thanks to the PR top-up seats, the DA was granted an additional 34 seats, and the ANC 14. This meant the DA was the single biggest party in the Council and allowed it to form the coalition which now governs NMB.
This system could easily be replicated at national and provincial level, and indeed, much of the thinking around such a system has already been done.
In the early part of this century, the late Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert led a commission to look at overhauling our electoral system. The commission recommended retaining the 400 members of Parliament, but 300 would be elected from 69 multi-member constituencies. Each constituency would return between three and seven MPs, depending on the particular constituency’s population size. To ensure proportionality, 100 MPs would be returned from a closed party list. A similar system would be put in place at provincial level. Such a system, or a replica of the one we use at municipal level (where geographical constituencies return one representative, topped up with a parallel party list) could be implemented in South Africa.
However, one must not assume that a new electoral system will be a panacea.
Even in countries where MPs are elected through geographical constituencies, party discipline is still enforced. We cannot assume that in South Africa, we would have seen an even greater rebellion within the ANC if we had had some (or even all) MPs elected through geographical constituencies. Nevertheless, the implementation of an mixed-member proportional system – whether it is that recommended by the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission or one more akin to that used at municipal level in South Africa or at federal level in Germany – will be preferable to our current closed PR list system. We will still have proportionality (which is the only requirement for our electoral system, as per the Constitution) but we will also have a link between public representatives and their constituents. This will only strengthen democracy and ensure a more sustainable South Africa in the future.
Author: Marius Roodt is a researcher with an interest in South African politics and liberalism. He holds degrees from the former Rand Afrikaans University and the University of the Witwatersrand.