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The culture of inequality and acting outside of the greater interests of citizens has become an almost 30-year culture of South Africa’s so-called democratic government—which seems to not have a firm grasp of the goals and objectives of democracy, writes Mandisa S. Mashego

South Africa has been in a political transition since 1990. Political and socioeconomic transformation from apartheid/colonialism has not been linear; the process has been characterised by ideological contestations from the left and the right. As a diverse country with a long history of racial chauvinism and struggle, the fierce contestation for political dominance is a natural feature of the transition. The transformation of South Africa is work-in-progress.

One of the major weaknesses of the transformation was the constitutional provision—which has since been repealed following the judgement of Madlanga J in New Nation Movement NPC v The President of South Africa & Others [2020] ZACC 11—is that national and provincial elections could only be contested by political parties with no provision for independent candidates.

This provision had unintended consequences. All elections at this level (bar the Western Cape) have been won by the African National Congress with strong majorities. This has led to single-party dominance and its consequent sins of incumbency, including cronyism, arrogance of power, social distance between those who govern and the governed, abuse of powers, corruption, ideological decline, and mediocrity in governance.

However, although the ANC itself is a contested ideological terrain between the right and the left, the phenomena of groupthink, bandwagonism, and the cult of the movement win over reason. It is nigh impossible for ethical and revolutionary thought to emerge from inside and steer the party on a different path. A school of thought holds that the party has swung so far to the right that it is no longer the custodian of the Freedom Charter, its own statement of principles which was adopted to guide the struggle to free the oppressed working class from racial and economic oppression.

Although the main opposition party fares better in terms of cohesion and intellectual rigour, it has been accused by some former leaders of intolerance and an authoritarian streak.

Dissidents have had no possibility to stand for elections as independent candidates at national and provincial level. They could either watch helplessly as democracy is subverted or join or form an opposition party. More often than not, opposition parties are diverted from their mission to hold the dominant party accountable by political expediency and weak leadership. Consequently, voter apathy has been growing with each election as voters see no value in politics or political parties. This has weakened democracy as majority of people at the lower end disengage from politics, municipal level public participation forums, school governance, anti-corruption ideas, and waste management, among others.

The recent instability in coalition politics at local level has not been good for democracy, except for political parties that thrive on chaos.

The Electoral Amendment Act

The New Nation Movement case is a potential game changer. The Electoral Amendment Act introduces a potential democratic breakthrough. Independents with resources, intellect, and background of community service could give established parties a run for their money by introducing fresh political perspectives regarding the factors behind the spectre of the failing state, unemployment, and other ills. South Africans need to hear fresh arguments from alternative voices unshackled by notions of party discipline and so-called democratic centralism, which serve only the interests of party oligarchs.

This leads me to the conclusion that there is in fact a negative relationship between the establishment of more and more political parties purportedly under the guise of different ideological frameworks—and the progression or improvement of the quality of lives of South African citizens.

So it is not only commendable but also a necessary development that the Constitutional Court ultimately found in favour of the New Nation Movement’s application for the Electoral Act to permit individuals to stand for public office—whether referred to as independent candidates or simply as individual citizens, who might be able to secure adequate resources (from human to financial and knowledge) to permit them to be able to mount a convincing campaign in a constituency to convince the voting public to choose their candidature permitting them as individuals to hold public office.

Delivering the majority judgement, Madlanga J eloquently, succinctly, and almost poetically summarises (in aid of Janis’ warnings against the negative effects of Group Think) the dangers of the negative trajectory of the bourgeoning number of competing political parties that have created a competitive race towards the bottom—rather than the reverse victories in benefit of the citizens collectively:

“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 too trammelling to those who are averse to control. 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. In a sense, it just may—at times—detract from the element of self; the idea of a free self; one’s idea of freedom. 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 too trammelling to those who are averse to control.”

Weaknesses

However, a word of caution to temper our collective optimism is needed. Reckless optimism about the amendment could lead to disappointment and worse voter apathy in the event independents fail to alter the political culture of groupthink, which is responsible for the malaise besetting our system of governance.

Disappointingly, the reality and success of the vestiges of this new development remains a far-fetched dream—not to become the Cinderella success story we all expected it to be—overnight. It has an affirmative bearing on today’s voting public but more importantly will have more impact on those South Africans only born today or still to come—for generations ahead of us. For this there are many reasons, amongst which are:

  • The time it takes to build a nation is something that many starry-eyed South Africans, and I dare say millions of us largely black South Africans (Coloured, Indian, and African), is something that we greatly underestimated to assume 50 years or less. Alas, to our surprise, the revelation and truth of the matter is that it will take us all including posterity, several generations or many generations to ultimately reach the utopian heights we all envisioned when we listened to Nelson Mandela’s first address to the nation after his release from the Victor Vester Prison where he was imprisoned after release from Robben Island.
  • South Africans will need to grapple with the understanding of what true independence means in the context of democracy where democracy is basically understood in ancient Greek interpretation as the People (Demos in Greece) Rule (Kratos in Greece). In contemporary South African political interpretation, we should also refer to the so called Freedom Charter’s interpretation of the ethos: ‘The People Shall Govern’.
  • In the context of the point above, we can further add that the concept of the People Governing also means in a majoritarian concept if we also apply the adage that was commonly used by those engaged in political liberation movements pre-1994 through frequent use of the phrase: ‘One Man (Person) One Vote’. Naturally, leading to the concept of rule of the entire population by the outcomes of a majority result of those who chose to register to vote and then in actual fact turning up to cast their votes.
  • The rights of indigenous people or First Nations as indigenous people are often referred to, are not adequately addressed by political party ideological positions or objective as it were. This is clearly demonstrated by one of the amicus curie of the New Nation litigation against the Electoral Act of South Africa, who joined the matter because of the fact that the establishment of political parties and their authority matrix and structures render populations in South Africa answerable to political party leadership structures—rendering the nation’s natural leaders represented through indigenous leadership structures that followed generations of hereditary and culturally determined leaders, answerable to political parties and potentially diluting even the core of their existence as well as all their customary and cultural lives. As Justice Madlanga puts it in the judgement, Chantal Revell of the Korana nation; leader of the Korana nation, a section of the Khoi and San people of Southern or South Africa was confronted by this very challenge of potential dilution of their right to self-determination as a cultural and indigenous grouping: “Hers is not a for-the-sake-of-it objection. I understand her point perfectly. I read it to mean that, as a leader of a nation, she does not want to be constrained by that kind of partisanship that comes with being a member of a political party. That partisanship makes you ultimately answerable to the party. Being free of those shackles will make Ms Revell directly answerable to her nation, not to a political party. That is the choice she is making. In my book, it is a valid choice. Surely, her example is not isolated. There must be many and varied other examples. Subject to the Lavigne threshold, we cannot make light of them.”

The impact of the majority rule principle which was a major aspect of pre-1994 messaging, also carried with it many implications which ignored many technical aspects of a majority governing the rest of the population, without necessarily having the experience required to in fact govern equitably in light of the minority rights and government obligations to ALL citizens granted by the Constitution—despite the outcome of the proverbial majority rule principle of the so called democratic voting system that correctly sought to bring equality amongst all citizens.

Implications of the post-Madlanga judgement era on South Africa’s electoral laws

It’s important to bear in mind that the purpose for taking the Electoral Act to the ConCourt for arbitration in relation to its unconstitutionality, is really a developmental agenda versus going to court for mere political reasons. A development agenda bears in mind the need for South Africa to morph itself into a productive, safe, happy, and as equal a society as is possible to attain. In short, to remove all forms of violence and poverty from society to the extent that all the Bills of Rights and the freedoms plus citizen duties enshrined in the Constitution may become a truthful and genuine reality for all citizens—leading to a happier country that embodies the values of Ubuntu where every human being is equal to the next in value and worth.

So it is unsurprising that after many months of dragging their feet and kicking the proverbial can down the road, that the same Parliament that has wilfully presided over an unconstitutional Electoral Act for 27 years now, saw it fit to pass, once again, yet another unconstitutional Bill that is characterised by inequalities and inconsistencies. Not very shocking considering the same parliament does not seem to grasp the purpose of an electoral law, which is to ensure a democratic electoral system that should enable the state and government to manage and lead a government of a people that coexist together equitably and in peace versus the chaos of poverty, inequalities, and cultural violence and criminality that we as South Africans have now become known for.

There are some glaring challenges and inequalities with the new Amended Electoral Act of South Africa and the first of these is the requirement for individuals wishing to contest public office to be required to submit 20 percent of the required votes to make up a seat in a provincial legislature or national assembly seat. This requirement, though a good practice in relation to the art of canvassing for votes in the respective residential areas where registered voters reside otherwise referred to as voting districts (VDs) of South Africa, cannot be ignored for its glaring inequality as political parties, upon registration as a political party with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), is only required to register 2 000 people who appear on the voters roll. This kind of inequality is not condoned by the Constitution of South Africa and is baseless and nonsensical.

The new electoral amendments state that independent candidates may be asked to pay a deposit different to that required by political parties. A rather moot point to make when one considers that an individual may not be pressurised to bear a burden larger than that of a political party anyway, when one considers that a political party will have the benefit of many or several members within its ranks, from whom it draws membership fees and or subscriptions. Naturally, we expect that in the interest of plurality that the IEC would require far less amounts from independent candidates for reasons opposing these stated from political parties, however, the unequal precedence set by the Parliament and by default the IEC, in demanding much higher rates of proven registration of voter support for individuals as a precursor for participating in a general election, makes one suspicious as to the potentially exorbitant amount that will be demanded from an individual wishing to stand for public office.

As things stand, the amount is not stated clearly—we will have to wait and see what policy or regulatory framework the IEC puts in place for individuals when they determine the price or fee to be paid.

The new Electoral Act also calls for nullifying the votes and allocated seats of independent candidates in the event of a vacancy, leaving their constituencies unattended and completely neglected, by the law—which is meant to ensure that all citizens as far as is practically possible, is constitutionally allocated a public representative to facilitate their voices and needs in the state.

The option of a by election has been completely ignored and disregarded and the right of citizens to be represented in a parliament paid for by their taxes left abandoned. What an irresponsible parliament!

Political parties have the proportional seats allocated to their proportional representative ballot papers and there is nothing stopping independent candidates have the same arrangement on an independent proportional ballot in the interest of proportional representation. It is reckless and engenders inequality once more for the National Assembly to ignore such a right of all citizens. It perpetuates a divisive system of managing democratic elections and a betrayal of the principles of equality.

Allocating individual candidates a seat in a region where they would have gotten higher numbers robs candidates of the freedoms of choice and renders the IEC an arbiter of political decisions on behalf of citizens. The notion that where a candidate has qualified for a seat in more than one region or province, that the IEC will allocate the seat to the candidate based on the higher number is a dictatorial and instructive decision that does not auger well for democracy. A candidate should be permitted to choose the region or province they would prefer to remain in—as much as the political parties, faced with a similar situation will be requested to decide which seat they prefer to opt for.

The culture of inequality and acting outside of the greater interests of citizens has become an almost 30-year culture of South Africa’s so-called democratic government—which seems to not have a firm grasp of the goals and objectives of democracy.

Mandisa S. Mashego is an entrepreneurial high achiever who has held senior leadership roles in both private and public sector service.