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Ethical leaders can only transform our society if they emerge from a functional, constitutionally-sound electoral system that caters for the participation of a range of political actors and movements, writes Lindiwe Mazibuko
On the eve of last year’s general elections, a little-known civil society organisation - the New Nation Movement (the NNM) - attempted to halt the elections in the Constitutional Court.
It argued that the Electoral Act was unconstitutional because it prevents independent candidates from contesting elections at national and provincial levels.
While their effort to halt the elections was unsuccessful due to a lack of urgency, the Constitutional Court later heard substantive arguments on the matter in August 2019.
Judgment is expected in the near future, and we should all be watching closely.
Many South Africans are unaware of this case, or the fact that, if successful, the ramifications of this judgment will send shock waves through our political system.
Our voters have grown increasingly disillusioned, illustrated by South Africa’s eligible voter turnout dropping below 50% last year. A judgment in the NNM’s favour has the potential to breathe new life into the country's body politic.
The case is the culmination of years of rumblings about electoral reform in South Africa - as far back as the birth of our democracy.
It is a matter that refuses to be silenced.
However, things are different this time.
A Constitutional Court order declaring certain provisions of the Electoral Act unconstitutional and invalid will leave Parliament with no option but to adopt a new electoral model.
Section 19(3)(b) of our Constitution states that every citizen has the right, "to stand for public office and, if elected, to hold office".
The problem is that our Electoral Act limits this right by only allowing political parties to contest elections at national and provincial levels - the outcome of which is based solely on proportional representation.
This means that unless you belong to a political party, you may not and cannot run for public office at these levels.
This electoral model suited the early days of a nascent democracy, but it was never intended to be permanent.
In March 2002, Cabinet established an Electoral Task Team to, "draft the new electoral legislation required by the Constitution".
The tabled report, known as the Van Zyl Slabbert Report, recommended a new electoral system that, "would align the electoral systems for all three spheres of government and ... allow for independent candidates to participate in elections".
These recommendations were ignored and the electoral system remained unchanged.
The Van Zyl Slabbert Report found that the existing system, based purely on party-based, proportional representation, diminished accountability.
A lack of accountability in politics is the cause of many of our current challenges.
Members of Parliament owe their seats, and thereby their salaries, to their political parties - not the South African voters.
There is no direct relationship between MPs or MPLs and the electorate, and therefore no sense of accountability to the people.
Tragically, this system has fostered both complacency and mediocrity in our politics.
It is a system that encourages party obedience over robust debate; one that stifles individual excellence and certainly does not put the people first.
In November 2017, the High-Level Panel on the Assessment of Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change tabled its report (the Motlanthe Report).
The panel recommended that, "Parliament should amend the Electoral Act to provide for an electoral system that makes Members of Parliament accountable to defined constituencies on a proportional representation and constituency system for national elections".
Like the Van Zyl Slabbert Report, since its tabling, nothing meaningful has been done to address or implement this recommendation.
In December 2018, Congress of the People (COPE) leader, Mosiuoa Lekota introduced a Private Member's Bill in the National Assembly that sought to permit independent candidates to contest elections at provincial and national levels.
This too was met with resistance and his efforts came to nought.
The bill in question was drafted by Dr. Michael Louis, a former MP, who had long sought electoral reform through Parliament and our courts.
The NNM case before the Constitutional Court, however, may be the proverbial straw that finally breaks the camel’s back.
When the Court delivers its judgment, the decades-long struggle for the right of independent candidates to stand for office may finally be put to rest.
A judgment in NNM’s favour will see Parliament tasked with overhauling the electoral system and delivering a model that better aligns with our constitutional democracy.
This is likely to result in a hybrid model, combining proportional representation with a constituency system.
This will mean that citizens will be able to directly elect the MP and MPL who represent their communities.
A hybrid electoral model will encourage accountability, transparency and stimulate stronger voter participation in our democracy.
It is also safe to say that, regardless of how much the political or electoral system is reformed, success or failure rests largely on the players in the system.
Our focus cannot be on the system alone, but also the participants in that system.
We need to foster an environment where excellence, diversity and ethics take centre stage.
Our nation and its people deserve no less from their leaders.
This is one of the reasons that I co-founded the Apolitical Academy.
It was born out of the idea that politics should not be the preserve of an older, hyper-masculine and often complacent generation.
Especially on the African continent where the average age is 19 years old, and women outnumber men by over a million people.
Our political system requires the very best calibre of diverse, energised and inspired leaders to tackle the challenges of the day.
The Apolitical Academy offers an annual intensive public leadership development and training programme to young candidates, especially women and political "outsiders" who wish to transition into public service but lack the networks and personal development opportunities to do so on their own.
It is about delivering a non-partisan, well-equipped and highly trained cohort of emerging public leaders into all spheres of political life.
Our Public Service Fellows are a diverse range of people from all walks of life who wish to serve their country.
They are people who have already developed a track record of servant leadership - often in non-traditional ways.
They have a wide range of political ideologies and affiliations, but they all subscribe to the vision of excellence and ethical leadership.
The Apolitical Academy programme is intentionally non-partisan.
Nobody will dispute that our politics has become increasingly polarised, reducing parliamentary debate, as recently as last month, to mud-slinging and viscous personal abuse.
Fellows on the Apolitical Academy programme are encouraged to participate in rational discourse with a maturity that allows for differing viewpoints and does not require one to denigrate another’s dignity or humanity in order to "win".
Ethical leaders can only transform our society if they emerge from a functional, constitutionally-sound electoral system that caters for the participation of a range of political actors and movements.
Such a system will increase the levels of accountability in politics and enhance the ability of the electorate to directly engage with their representatives; thus driving a virtuous cycle of diverse, highly competent, and ethical leaders entering politics and government.
The Constitutional Court should soon be handing down its judgment in the NNM matter.
This may well be a watershed moment in South Africa’s young democracy if independent candidates are permitted to contest the 2024 general elections.
Equally, the judgment could finally make way for an electoral system where voters directly elect their representatives in Parliament, voting for the person and not merely the party.
There can be no doubt that there is enormous potential for electoral reform to inject new life into South Africa's body politic.
- Lindiwe Mazibuko is Co-Founder & Executive Director, Apolitical Foundation and former Leader of the Official Opposition in Parliament.
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