Comprehensive electoral reform is just one pillar of the necessary political reforms we require — it must be followed by a public service reform programme that seeks to deliver a depoliticised public service, free of patronage networks and toxic trade union dynamics.
THE continent’s oldest liberation party. It is a self-glorifying phrase used by the African National Congress (ANC) to highlight to South Africans, the continent and the world that of all the liberation parties in the post-colonial world, it still remains at the political helm of the country it once sought to liberate — a living rebuke to the Fanonian notion that liberation parties have no place in governance.
However, there is another liberation party that has maintained its grip on power since it facilitated its country’s transition from colonial rule to whatever system of governance you choose to describe the country in question — that is, of course, Zanu PF.
The commonalities between the ANC and Zanu PF are various in number and striking in significance.
Both were entrusted with the hopes and dreams of an entire nation, both secured massive political freedoms for their oppressed majorities. However, not long after stepping into the role of governance, both seemed to stop liberating.
Long periods of incumbency on both sides of the Limpopo River have fuelled political arrogance, greed and the elevation of political elites above citizens and their needs and interests. As such, life in Zimbabwe is one of extreme instability and lack, with 42% of Zimbabweans living in extreme poverty in 2019 (pre-Covid).
A similar picture exists in South Africa with half of its citizens living in poverty and with South African youth yet to taste the fruits of freedom, and this represents in the truest sense a fundamental failure on the part of our parents’ liberators to also serve as ours.
The realities of our closed-list proportional representation are such that political parties are entrusted with the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the electorate with very little ongoing participation from it.
Further to this, we almost entirely cede our civic decision-making capacities to political organisations with inaccessible leaders to make decisions on our behalf. These, we hope, will be made in at least loose accordance with our interests while no mechanism for ongoing accountability exists, particularly in the “party first” political climate in which we remain hostages.
But there are positive parallels to be drawn between the two countries. Zimbabweans have in greater numbers than ever before decided to rise up against the tyranny of Zanu-PF, voting in an (albeit critically compromised) election to attempt to deliver change and a reimagined Zimbabwe.
South Africans are similarly rescinding the mandate once entrusted to the political establishment, evident in sweeping calls for electoral reforms that would reduce the distance between the citizens and their representatives. South Africans are now faced with difficult decisions about how to shape and define this next season of South Africa’s political life.
For many years now, and particularly among our youth, this has meant a total divestment from partisan politics and a focus on participating in politics outside of the conventional partisan frame.
Youthful energies have been finding expression in a politics of resistance, or organising in civil society — the segment of South African society that notably steps in where government fails and lends an ear to those to whom the establishment refuses to listen.
However, with sizeable investments flowing into voter engagement, education and registration drives, the realisation that who gets what, when they get it and how they get it is ultimately and fundamentally informed by politics is beginning to dawn on the South African electorate, and the scale of the impact of a broken system captured by federalised corruption is truly starting to show.
So what comes next and what will it take to course correct? South Africans need to demand more for themselves, we need to invest in a real political alternative that possesses the skill, integrity and will to create a safe, prosperous, equal, and united South Africa in a single generation. We need to ensure that our political aspirations find expression in the actions of our public representatives.
The unconstitutional Electoral Amendment Act
Highlighting another harmful consistency between our ruling party and Zanu PF, South Africans more than ever before have to be vocal and active in support of institutions and movements pursuing meaningful political reforms.
The Electoral Amendment Act was passed by Parliament on 23 February 2023, following the New Nation judgment which deemed the old act unconstitutional.
In an effort by represented parties and the ruling party in particular to achieve minimal compliance with the New Nation judgment, while also systematically curtailing the political participation of independent candidates and vibrant new alternatives that threaten the political establishment, the current act was signed into law by the president.
As a consequence of this act of bad faith, the Constitutional Court may be placed in the role of legislature to cure defective provisions of the act. The act is currently before the court, which will consider its constitutionality on various grounds such as the general proportionality of the outcome of the new three-ballot system; the onerous barriers to entry for independent candidates; and with the admission of new amicus curiae in the form of the Rivonia Circle, the differentiated treatment between represented and unrepresented political parties.
The judgment will critically define the nature of elections as a component of South Africa’s political life into the future. But while electoral reform is heralded as the silver bullet that promises to rescue South Africa from the grips of a greedy, incompetent political elite, this doesn’t go nearly far enough to change our outcomes.
South Africa is in need of a ground-up political overhaul to ensure a new South African politics. Such an overhaul can only be delivered by South Africans; by voting for and investing in a political alternative with an extensive political reform programme that extends far beyond the investment in single-issue silver bullets.
Real, broad political reform
Comprehensive electoral reform is just one pillar of the necessary political reforms we require — it must be followed by an expansive government reform programme to rid the executive of incompetent political deployees and the general abuse of executive discretion.
The reforms must ensure transparent governance is baked into the framework of public governance, a departure from the culture of secrecy that has allowed corruption to become endemic.
The third and fourth pillars of any meaningful political reform programme must be public service and judicial reform respectively, a public service reform programme which seeks to deliver a depoliticised public service, free of patronage networks and toxic trade union dynamics.
It is these that impede the work of sincere public professionals and lead to the kinds of service delivery failures that claim the lives of young children in our public schools, the underserved in our hospitals and women when failed by a broken public safety and judicial system. South African voters must seek out parties who demonstrate a commitment to these reforms.
None of these reforms will be possible without first ensuring that the public representatives we empower to lead us are fit for purpose, provide new alternatives to the recycled figures who have defined and damaged South African politics, and submit themselves to public accountability and scrutiny at all levels.
These necessary interventions cannot be systematised until we create a culture of selecting the best among us to lead, irrespective of their political affiliations.
About the writer: Boitumelo Mpakanyane is head of internal democracy at Rise Mzansi, a civil society organisation.–Daily Maverick.