DA electoral reforms ignore the main problem: party funding

Gregory Solik
Opinion
Of all the adjectives used to describe South African politics, boring cannot be one of them. Completely out of the blue the Democratic Alliance (DA) on Tuesday submitted an Electoral Reform Bill (Bill) to Parliament, which aims “to provide for the demarcation of … constituencies” in order to deal with the “alienation by voters from the political system”.

According to the DA this Bill is the "culmination of a process which started last year to give effect to the long-standing DA policy to ensure that Parliament is tied more directly to constituencies across the country".

In essence, the DA has proposed a mixed system that contemplates the establishment of 100 three-member constituencies, with three MPs being elected by a system of proportional representation to represent each constituency. In practice this means that voters will vote for the political party of their choice, and three members with the most votes will be elected as MPs for each constituency.1

A further 100 MPs will be elected from national lists submitted by parties. This is to ensure that smaller parties are not disadvantaged, and to adhere to the constitutional obligation that the electoral system is in general a proportional one. This mixed system is not dissimilar to the system used at local level.

Although the introduction of the Bill should be seen as a positive step towards electoral reform, there are two serious issues.

Firstly, it seems disingenuous. Since August last year groups of citizens and leading NGOs have been campaigning for electoral and party funding reform with near silence from political parties. One attempt was the Memorandum submitted by the People's Power, People's Parliament: A Civil Society Conference on South Africa's Legislatures, which was adopted and submitted to Parliament in Cape Town on 15 August 2012. More recently, the MyVoteCounts (MVC) campaign wrote a letter on 8 November 2012 to the Speaker of Parliament and the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces requesting that they advise MVC of its plans in respect to the reform of party funding and to meet to discuss electoral reform. That correspondence included all political parties as well as the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). We have engaged the IEC and exchanged correspondence with the Speaker in an attempt to secure a meeting. Six months later we are yet to meet.

The DA did not respond at all.

But more concerning than this, the DA knew that the ANC would oppose the Bill and that the possibility of achieving electoral reform before the 2014 elections is, at best, highly unlikely. Dr. Mamphela Ramphele's party political platform (Platform) knew this too and for this reason had planned to make the issue "Agang's top priority for Parliament after the 2014 election" (my emphasis).

However, she planned to launch the "one million signature campaign " in the coming weeks, and by introducing the Bill expeditiously the DA has taken the punch out of the Platform's one concrete campaign plan after its highly emotive launch. Seemingly unproblematic, it belies a more serious and dangerous consequence: it obfuscates the far more pressing issue of party funding reform, which the DA has expressed no intention of addressing. 2

Party funding and electoral reform are two issues that cannot be separated in the struggle for an accountable government. The greatest threat to our democracy is the ability of wealthy elites and corporations - both local and global - to purchase power by secretly funding political parties in exchange for tenders and other benefits.3 Moaning about the state of government corruption has become a national sport yet we cannot organise well enough to fix the rules and regulate the competition.

The increase in parties' election spending from private donations has increased from about 100 million in 1994 to R550 million in 2009 and is set to increase further next year. The major political party funding scandals - Arms Deal in 1999 worth about R30-70 billion; Oilgate in 2004 worth about R11 million; the Chancellor House deal with Eskom and Hitachi Power Africa valued at R38 Billion; and, the Gupta family funding which is said to run into millions - emphasises the urgency with which party funding must be addressed before our next general elections. 4 Currently, there is not one word of regulation on private donations to political parties. Not only is this regulation a constitutional imperative, as required by sections 1, 7, 32, 33 and 195 of the Constitution, it is a critical site in the struggle for accountable governance.5 The Right2Know campaign accentuates this point in its Secret State of the Nation 2013 Address and places the issue firmly within the broader issue of secrecy in South Africa.

The second problem with the Bill is that it does not allow independent candidates to contest elections. Section 19 of the Constitution guarantees every adult citizen the right to stand for public office and, if elected, to hold office. Today, the majority of MPs ignore the needs of their constituents. They are not at the forefront of our struggles for safe communities or the fight against corruption. They do not know and are not equipped to deal with these issues.

Community-based organisations like the Social Justice Coalition 6 have shown: (i) just how effective communities can be at organising themselves through initiatives like the Campaign for Safe Communities, and (ii) just how limited local governments' ability to address socio-economic rights like access to basic sanitation and refuse collection, not to mention the right to have access to adequate housing.

And so, amending the electoral system in the manner proposed by the DA still requires citizens to choose parties in order to vote for candidates. The issue of the proportional representation system giving too much influence to parties and too little to voters, is not addressed. At best it would give you no excuse not to know who your MP is and to contact him/her; this situation is not altogether different from the current system of constituency offices.

It has recently been suggested that it may be worth shifting public discussion to a more pointed focus on how we might change the political culture that has taken root in our country. Indeed this is crucial. Electoral reform should not be seen as a panacea for change. The lessons of governance and accountability at local government point us in the right direction, especially when we consider our readiness to care more deeply and become more active about issues such as inequality and corruption. Most important however, when discussing the issue of accountability, especially in the run up to the elections, is the role of money in politics. We must all commit ourselves to the same standards of transparency and accountability and introduce party funding reform urgently to stop special interests from diluting our democracy.

Gregory Solik is a political reform advocate working as head of research and strategy at Ndifuna Ukwazi. He is also the treasurer of MyVoteCounts and former research clerk to Justice Sisi Khampepe at the Constitutional Court.

Footnotes

1 In terms of section 5:

"(a) The voters registered in each constituency must elect three members to the National Assembly in the manner prescribed in this item.

(b) Each registered political party may submit a list of up to five candidates for election to one or more constituencies, and this list must denote the fixed order of preference of the names as the party may determine for the election of candidates in that constituency or those constituencies. "

3 See the Report by the Money and Politics Project at the Open Society Foundation available at http://osf.org.za/programmes/money-and-politics-project/

4 See above.

5 See above.

6 There are other well organised community-based organisations that have done and continue to carry out this tradition, such as the Treatment Action Campaign and Equal Education.