In 2020 the Constitutional Court declared that the electoral system of proportional representation (PR) is unconstitutional because it prevents independent candidates from contesting the national and provincial elections. It ordered that parliament must amend SA’s electoral law to allow independent candidates to contest national and provincial elections. The Constitutional Court gave parliament until June 2022 to amend the Electoral Act.

When SA’s constitution was drafted the PR system was selected due to its inherent simplicity, fairness and inclusivity. However, it was always intended to be a provisional system only. One of the biggest challenges with the current system is that it lacks accountability.

A ministerial advisory committee, chaired by Valli Moosa, was established earlier this year to investigate and advise on policy options that will enable electoral reform. Amongst the proposals being mooted include the introduction of constituency voting into the PR system.

The big question being asked is whether the amended electoral reform system will bring with it more checks and balances and greater accountability or whether it will cement the current majorities in parliament. Will the reform provide independent candidates with a real opportunity to succeed?

These were just some of the questions that were highlighted during a recent Business Day Dialogue, in partnership with Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, a foundation which is focused on promoting democracy globally. In the South African context, the foundation works to strengthen political institutions and promote a multi-party political system, explained country director Henning Suhr.

The ministerial advisory committee has suggested two possible options, revealed Sithembile Mbete, a member of the committee and a senior lecturer at the Department of Political Science at the University of Pretoria. The first, minimalist approach, is to simply amend the Act to allow independent candidates to contest the elections. The second option is to also incorporate constituencies into the electoral system in a more explicit way.

The expectation is that an amended piece of legislation will be submitted to parliament by the end of July for consideration, revealed Mbete. It will be parliament that ultimately makes the decision in terms of what reforms are passed.

She said the peculiarities of SA’s current PR system is that it has yielded a dominant party. In most countries it tends to lead to greater electoral competition rather than less, as is the case in SA.

Mbete warned against thinking that electoral reform would be a panacea to corruption, adding that there needs to be interrogation against the cause of the rot in political parties, and a bigger conversation around party accountability.

Roelf Meyer, the director of non-profit organisation In Transformation Initiative, said the debate around how to reform the Electoral Act is long overdue. He urged South Africans to get involved with the debate given that it affects every single citizen and not only political parties.

Meyer is a member of the Inclusive Society Institute, an organisation which was founded to support and further deepen multi-party democracy. The Institute has also been looking into the issue of electoral reform and came to very similar conclusions to those reached by the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform Report in 2012. None of the commission’s recommendations were implemented.

Pointing out that the constitution is very clear that it needs to allow for proportionality, he said a hybrid model which incorporates proportionality and constituent representation needs to be adopted to ensure greater accountability.

Political parties, particularly the dominant ones, benefit from the status quo, pointed out discussion moderator, Carol Paton, Business Day’s editor at large, which is why it’s important that civil society has a voice in these discussions.