Reform lethal slate politics


Daily Dispatch, East London,
19 January 2016

Why should people not have the right to choose, elect and remove MPs and provincial councillors, person by person?
No-one can monitor and decide on the conduct of individual politicians – one by one – better than voters, grouped in local constituencies. With the right electoral system, the people themselves can rein in corruption, nepotism and abuse of power.

South Africa elections

Yet the nationwide system of proportional representation, governed by the party list, prevents this.

After the return of the exiles beginning in 1990, powerful figures such as Thabo Mbeki and Joe Slovo got black people in South Africa to accept a crucial reduction in the political power previously held by white voters from the time of the constitution of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

This was the power to choose and remove each individual MP and provincial councillor for themselves, organised in electoral constituencies.

After 1990 the white electorate allowed itself to be deprived of this power in silence.

Over the same period, the future black electorate, with a view to universal franchise, never had the opportunity to discuss the details before the first democratic election in 1994.

People did not realise that in gaining the franchise, they were being deprived at the same time of one of its most essential qualities: the right to choose and get rid of individual political representatives directly.

Leaders from exile did this with the full knowledge that only one month before the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela released from prison, its national executive committee had suppressed the free choice of ANC exiles in Tanzania, who had elected individual representatives in a fully democratic election.

Tanzania at that time had the greatest number of ANC exiles in any country.

Having chosen known leaders from their own ranks in elections in September 1989, the exiles in Tanzania were then deprived of the right to be represented by them.

Without consulting the exiles, the ANC national executive committee (NEC) in Lusaka, Zambia, ordered NEC members Chris Hani and Stanley Mabizela to travel to Tanzania to overturn the election result and sack all the elected representatives.

This was because the exiles in Tanzania had chosen to elect individual representatives whom they trusted, who had previously been imprisoned in Quatro concentration camp in Angola for four years for participating in a pro-democracy movement in Umkhonto we Sizwe in Angola in February 1984, seeking new elections to the NEC.

In contravention of democratic practice, Hani and Mabizela – both University of Fort Hare graduates – arbitrarily removed these elected representatives from office in late December 1989.

Exiles argued with Hani and Mabizela in Dakawa camp on December 24 1989, stating that the NEC was “acting autocratically”, and had “no moral or political justification for taking a decision so important that it infringed on the right of the membership, without even prior consultations with the general membership”.

It was with this first-hand experience of their suppression of democracy in exile that the returned leaders negotiated the current electoral law ahead of publication of the country’s interim constitution in 1993, so that no free choice of individual MPs would be permitted to the future voters in South Africa.

They did this despite three powerful experiences of a constituency-based system for electing individual politicians being strongly before them. These were:

* The constituency-based system enjoyed by white voters for the election of individual white MPs and provincial councillors in South Africa, under both the union and subsequent republic;
* The centuries-old electoral system of individual MPs to the House of Commons at Westminster in London, where exiled SACP and ANC leaders had been based for three decades right up to the constitutional negotiations of the early 1990s;
* The democratic election for individual ANC representatives to different committees in Tanzania in September 1989, including to the most senior committee, the regional political committee (RPC).

ANC exiles had elected two former Quatro prisoners as chairman and organising secretary of the RPC (Omry Makgoale and the late Mwezi Twala), before they and all members of all elected committees were expelled from their posts by Hani and Mabizela, acting on behalf of the NEC.

The subsequent negotiations over the future electoral law in South Africa were conducted in secret. We still do not know even the names of the members of the commission who drew it up, and there is no public record of their discussions.

There has been no adequate historical research by academics into the suppression of the democratic elections among ANC exiles in Tanzania, or into the subsequent process of drafting the electoral law in South Africa. The subject is taboo.

This is the most crucial issue in South Africa’s recent political history. The blind obedience to Luthuli House of ANC MPs and provincial councillors over the past two decades, under servile control of the party list, has to be understood with this historical background in mind.

Yet, as RW Johnson explained in a previous book, South Africa: The First Man, The Last Nation (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2004), the Electoral Law is “the key to the workings of the new political system, and thus the most important item in the constitution”.

William Gumede, facilitator and executive chair at Democracy Works Foundation, pointed out in the Dispatch Dialogue, “Does SA need electoral reform?” in East London last year, that under the current PR system, “Politicians want to please the party and not their constituency because they did not choose them.” He said electoral reform would increase accountability among politicians, if achieved.

In her book, The Democratic Opportunity: Does South Africa Need Electoral Reform? published last year, political analyst Nompumelelo Runji argued for a combination of the constituency system and PR as the best solution. This was the proposal of the report by the electoral task team commission headed by Frederik van Zyl Slabbert in 2003, which was never heeded under the Mbeki or Zuma administrations.

Participating in the dialogue Runji said current bad governance at multiple levels in South Africa was an “assault on democracy itself”.

Similarly, Brigalia Bam, the former chair of the Independent Electoral Commission and a fellow participant in the dialogue, argues the need for a new electoral system in her book, Democracy, More than Just Elections (KMM Review Publishing, issued also last year, with a foreword by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu).

Bam has said South Africa “should look at a mixed system, where some people are accountable to voters. Some people then remain accountable to the party.”

But under the present system, “if you get a position in parliament or local government you are accountable to your party [and] you are not accountable to the people you are serving”.

The earliest – and still fullest – account of the conflict over electoral democracy within the ANC in Tanzania in 1989 was written by MK members who had been active in the dispute and who published in a banned exile magazine in London, Searchlight South Africa, only months after the events. It is a vital part of South Africa’s constitutional history which has never been challenged or refuted.

Makgoale remains a loyal ANC member, despite having been removed from his position as chair of the regional political committee in Tanzania by the NEC in December 1989. In an article “Killing the ANC slowly but with certainty” published in the Dispatch on December 12 last year, he highlighted the problems with slate politics and made a public call for electoral reform.

Anyone interested in the problem presented by “slate politics” needs to study the events of December 1989, which immediately preceded the creation of the electoral law. The pre-history of the formation of the ANC in 1912 is also a guide as to how a great historical problem – equivalent to the exclusion of black people from the franchise in 1910 – should be be studied and discussed.

As in the articles by John Langalibalele Dube, Pixley kaIsaka Seme, Sol Plaatje and DDT Jabavu which preceded the beginning of democratic national politics in South Africa, the broadening of public discussion on electoral reform which is now under way is vital for the future.

If, as Johnson states, electoral law is “the most important item in the constitution”, then its reform is the most important matter facing South Africans today.

* Bandile Ketelo et al, “A Miscarriage of Democracy”, in Paul Trewhela’s Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and Swapo (Jacana, 2009). Available online at: