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Mantashe's motives are suspect

Eusebius McKaiser. File picture: Jason Boud

Eusebius McKaiser. File picture: Jason Boud

Published Aug 15, 2016

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The ANC showed no appetite for electoral reform while it enjoyed the support of most of the voters, writes Eusebius McKaiser.

A sore loser would rather challenge the rules of the game than improve their own performance. Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary-general, is a sore loser. Suddenly he wants to raise questions about the fairness of the system we use in local government elections.

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The rules, a combination of which aim at proportional representation and directly electing ward councillors, were never a problem for the ANC when they were winning by huge margins and controlling the metros, in particular. Now that their electoral fortunes have changed, we are told the rules are unfair and need to be debated.

Yet, for many years, attempts by civil society to get political parties to think about electoral reform, in order to strengthen our governance systems, have failed. This is because when political parties and elected public officials are unsure whether they would get away with poor performance less often in a new electoral system, they do not want to discuss reform.

For how long have the recommendations made by the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission on Electoral Reform, about the need to change system we use to elect and form a national government, been ignored? The ANC showed no appetite for electoral reform while it enjoyed the support of 60 percent or more of voters.

So, in the first instance, we should all just laugh off Mantashe on this one. His motives aren't laudable. He is not opening up this discussion because he sincerely wants us to have the maximum amount of power to hold the ANC and other parties democratically accountable.

Mantashe’s interest is to search for electoral rules which can help the ANC maintain its grip on power, a grip that has loosened rather uncomfortably over the past two weeks. And that is why we should be vigilant.

Of course, there is an important academic and public debate to be had - one that is long overdue and has at times been limited to academic journal entries - about whether the electoral systems we designed for our democracy are working for us.

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I, for one, would dearly love to see a system in place that compels our MPs to care more about what voters and residents in their constituencies think of their performance in Parliament than what party bosses think.

If Mantashe is genuinely trying to bring about a debate about whether or not the existing electoral rules are the best way of gauging democratic preferences, might I interest him in a wider conversation about electoral reform, which includes a fresh and serious look at the Van Zyl Slabbert report? I suspect not.

Because any electoral reform that shifts the site of political accountability from party headquarters to us, the voters, would be disastrous for useless, unethical and underperforming elected officials.

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All along, the ANC merely pretended, then, to support the current system for electing our national Parliament, saying it was good for multiparty democracy because it ensured as many smaller parties as possible were represented.

That logic makes the ANC seem like it would hate this to be a one-party state. But if that is genuinely so, then why resist the hybrid nature of the electoral system at local government level, which stems from the same logic?

If you value political pluralism at national level, and never thought it was inconsistent with democracy, then why wouldn't you also value electoral rules that aim to generate a plurality of political voices at local government level?

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If anything, the electoral system we use for our local government elections is preferable to the one we use for our provincial and national elections. Why? Because it combines the virtues of directly electing officials with the virtues of aiming, at the same time, at political pluralism in the final make-up of our local councils.

If we had a similar kind of system at national level, we might stand a better chance of experiencing responsive, effective and ethical governance in the country at all levels.

But, of course, local government is a shambles. Therefore, even the hybrid electoral system can't guarantee good governance. The brutal truth is while some systems are marginally better than others at providing an incentive for good governance from elected officials, there is a limit to what can be achieved by choosing the best theoretically-designed electoral system.

When it comes to excellence in political leadership, and a functioning bureaucracy, there are no short cuts. The right men and women can perform well in a badly designed governance system. And the wrong men and women could ruin our country, even with an optimally designed governance system.

And so, ultimately, we are best off, as active citizens, paying closer attention to who we elect into office, rather than relying wholly on the perfect electoral system to save us from future Nkandlagates.

Sadly, we seem to be have a chronic shortage of good people to choose from.

* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. His new book - Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism - is now available nationwide, and online through Amazon.

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