A major shift is taking place in black politics in South Africa, the most radical since the first general election on the basis of universal adult franchise in April 1994. It has nevertheless received very inadequate attention.
In the euphoria in South Africa and globally before and after Nelson Mandela became president of the country, there was almost no scrutiny of what the political thinker RW Johnson – who taught politics as a Fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford, for more than 20 years – describes in his book South Africa: The First Man, The Last Nation (2004) as “the key to the workings of the new political system”, and thus “the most important item” in the Constitution.
This crucial but weakest link in South Africa’s 1993 Constitution is its pure party-list, proportional representation electoral system, leading today to a top-down single-party government of corrupt and unaccountable politicians, with very dangerous social, political and economic consequences for the continent’s most developed economy.
As Johnson wrote, it is an electoral system “unique in the world” – in reality, “a scandalous political bosses’ charter.” It was not unusual, he wrote, for PR lists to “give power to party bosses who draw them up.” What made South Africa unusual was that under this electoral law there are “no constituencies at all and no possibility for local communities to have any control over their representatives or to choose who they might be.
“Even when MPs resigned or died there were to be no by-elections so that political leaders would be spared even those sporadic expressions of grass roots feeling.” Any MP or provincial councillor who disagrees with what is decreed from above, he wrote, can be “thrown out of parliament” by the party bosses, who can “redeploy” MPs into and out of parliament at any moment without consulting the voters.
When the incoming African National Congress and the outgoing, whites-only National Party government reached agreement about this key link in the Constitution, he added, they “kept it secret.”
It is only now that this total lack of accountability of MPs, provincial councillors and half of all municipal councillors as individual politicians to voters is even beginning to be discussed in the ANC, as South Africa’s primary historic national party representing the country’s overwhelming black majority.
In complete disjunction between universal franchise and representative government as discussed by John Stuart Mill in his Considerations on Representative Government (1861), black South Africans still have no power to do what the country’s former white voters were able to do when in May 1948 the electors of the whites-only constituency of Standerton in Mpumalanga removed both as prime minister and as MP the politician who was probably the most famous of all South Africans at that time – the former wartime leader of the country during World War II, Field Marshal Jan Smuts.
That was the election in which the National Party came to power with its apartheid ideology, when Dr D.F. Malan replaced Smuts as prime minister.
This continued disempowerment of voters under the ANC government is only now just beginning to be presented for discussion and reflection among black voters.
The beginning was made in June this year in the birthplace of modern national, post-colonial, democratic and constitutional thinking in South Africa, the Eastern Cape, where isiXhosa is the principal spoken language – the birthplace and site of school and university education of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, the president of the ANC in exile while Mandela served his life sentence on Robben Island, whose centenary of birth is being celebrated this year.
It took place when alone among the nine provincial executive authorities of the ANC, the Eastern Cape executive took the bold initiative of calling its own provincial consultative conference in East London over the weekend 17/18 June to discuss South Africa’s grave and worsening crisis, and the accompanying political crisis of the ANC, in many ways its worst since its founding in 1912.
The Eastern Cape did so in open and explicit confrontation with the government of President Jacob Zuma, which together with the National Executive Committee of the ANC, headed by its secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, had blocked a very specific call for a national consultative conference of the ANC.
This call had been made by a new, unique, organised formation in South African political life. The Stalwarts and Veterans of the ANC (also known as the “100+1”), representing former leaders and members of the ANC, the South African Communist Party and their military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), including three of Mandela’s fellow accused in the Rivonia Trial of 1963/64 – Ahmed Kathrada (who died in March this year), Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg, the only white person sentenced also to life imprisonment in that trial – called for Zuma specifically to resign as ANC president as well as president of South Africa, blaming him personally for presiding over the crisis of corruption, maladministration and arbitrary behaviour in government, leading to South Africa’s credit rating being downgraded by Fitch to junk bond status in April.
The Eastern Cape ANC executive specifically invited a former commander and jailed member of the pro-democracy movement of MK in exile, Omry Makgoale – a member of the Stalwarts and Veterans who has published numerous articles calling for electoral reform – to speak at its consultative conference on the need for electoral reform so as to enable voters to select and vote for known individuals, as well as remove them from office. His two papers were then published in the Eastern Cape’s Provincial Consultative Conference Package, making available all contributions presented at the conference. Nothing like this has happened in the past 23 years under ANC government.
The Stalwarts and Veterans now plan to convene their own consultative conference in September. This will follow the Zuma administration’s ANC national policy conference taking place in Soweto this weekend – which is being boycotted by the Stalwarts and Veterans – and ahead of the ANC’s national elective conference, due to be held in mid-December in South Africa’s most populous province, Gauteng, in which ANC lost political control of two of the country’s biggest urban authorities, Johannesburg and Pretoria/Tshwane, in August last year.
Apart from Eastern Cape, no other provincial executive of ANC has shown the same kind of intellectual and moral courage. It continues the premier tradition of political thinking in the Eastern Cape from the time of Isigidimi samaXhosa (the Xhosa Messenger), the first newspaper edited by Africans in southern Africa, whose first editor was John Tengo Jabavu between 1881-1884.
It continues a thread of democratic political thinking brought to attention by Martin Plaut in his study, Promise and Despair: The First Struggle for a Non-Racial South Africa (Jacana, Auckland Park, South Africa, 2016), with its focus on the failed effort by Jabavu and others to block the racist electoral law in the South Africa Act of 1909 passed at Westminster, which in turn led to the formation of the ANC in 1912.
This was the first time any major black political grouping in South Africa has opened up discussion about the need for representative government in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, in opposition to the semi-Soviet character of the present party slate electoral system. It is helpful to look at this development in light of the Reform Acts in Britain in 1832 and then 1867, especially the Great Reform Act of 1832 since South Africa is really just one huge Rotten Borough under its present party list system. This element in the constitution agreed under the presiding authority of Nelson Mandela reveals a failure of universal franchise minus representative government.
In this spirit, Makgoale called for implementation of the recommendations of the majority in the Electoral Task Team report of January 2003 – appointed by the government of Thabo Mbeki but subsequently entirely disregarded – which proposed a combined constituency/PR system with 75% of seats in a reduced National Assembly elected as individual members in large Multi-Member Constituencies (MMCs), with 25% appointed on the basis of the existing PR slate system.
What is now taking place in South Africa is one of the great sagas of modern politics, in which the liberal thread from the Cape of the late 19th and early 20th centuries with its heritage in British liberal parliamentary history comes back into focus, adapted to South Africa’s racial, colonial, class and demographic history, nearly three decades after the end of the Cold War in Africa.