Wednesday, November 07, 2012

South Africa: Time for a Rethink on How Political Leadership is Chosen if South Africa is to Prosper

Source: ISS
Time for a Rethink on How Political Leadership is Chosen if South Africa is to Prosper

Hamadziripi Tamukamoyo, Researcher, Crime and Justice Programme, ISS Pretoria

Over the past few months South Africa’s economy has taken several knocks as a result of wildcat and violent labour strikes, capital outflow and credit downgrades by the globally influential ratings agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. There is a strong sense that the country needs a change of course if it is to become a stable and prosperous nation. Failures of political leadership are all happening in the run-up to the most significant of political events outside of a national election, namely the African National Congress (ANC) national electoral conference to be held in December in Mangaung. While this event should provide the ANC with an opportunity to consider the extent to which current leaders are succeeding in solving the country’s problems, and whether there are viable alternatives, this is not really happening. The only viable challenger to ANC president Jacob Zuma is his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, and with less six weeks to go he has yet to firmly state whether he will do so. This has led many to believe that the status quo will be maintained. Nevertheless, this event has amplified discussion on the divisive issue of succession and leadership selection both inside and outside the ANC. This is because the vast majority of South Africans, and indeed ANC members, are shut out of the conference at which its leadership is elected. Not only is open campaigning frowned upon in the ANC, but the processes that lead to delegates being sent to the conference are opaque. Consequently, there is little trust in the process among the populace and many ANC members. The Pretoria News (29 October 2012) reported that eThekwini in KwaZulu-Natal, the largest ANC region with the most delegates at the conference, has seen accusations of ‘vote rigging and the deliberate exclusion of some branches’. There are allegations that the ‘region has allegedly inflated its membership figures with ghost members and sidelined senior party leaders seen as anti-Zuma from branch general meetings and voter rolls’.

Indeed, the way that leadership positions are contested in the ANC raises questions about commitment among the party elite to the principles of transparency and accountability. Consider the case of Fikile Mbalula, who on 15 October (according to the independent online website, apparently ‘decried news reports about his purported allegiance to factions within the ANC’, saying that the reports clearly ‘exposed the desperation of political thugs and their consorts, who have elected to subject me to political lynching’. Many within the ANC fear being linked to what could turn out to be a losing faction in the party, which would result in the loss of government positions or access to patronage.

The current ANC election process fuels factionalism and a divisive political culture that largely advantages the incumbent elite, irrespective of their performance in running the party. Importantly, it prevents the most talented and competent individuals from running for top positions. Motlanthe has frequently bemoaned this state of affairs. Consequently, differences within the party are not about a vision for the future, or how best to solve existing challenges, but the access to patronage that supporting the winner will bring.

When a political system is anchored in patronage, as is currently the case in the ANC, it prevents contestation on the basis of the merit of possible leaders, their capabilities or the robustness of their policy choices. The practice of ‘slates’ emerged during the run-up to the 2007 Polokwane elective conference in order to purge the ANC of those loyal to former president Thabo Mbeki. This meant that various politicians were removed from government positions regardless of their level of competence and commendable work. As a consequence, we have a system where political fortunes depend on allegiances to factions rather than adherence to important principles such integrity, transparency, equity and accountability. As a result corruption has worsened throughout government and many capable cadres have been lost. These are cadres who could have served as role models to the younger crop of leaders. Ultimately, the people of South Africa are the casualties when intelligent individuals with integrity are purged from their government positions and replaced with sometimes incompetent, corrupt individuals who are appointed primarily on the basis of their allegiance to a certain faction.

The ANC electoral system is even more problematic given that our Members of Parliament (MPs) are not directly accountable to the electorate. MPs have a duty to reflect their constituency’s interests and to hold those in the executive branch of government to account for the delivery of services. However, as a consequence of the ‘party list’ system in South Africa, it is the political party, and not the electorate, that has the power to appoint or remove MPs. This stifles independent debate and fundamentally undermines political accountability. Those with aspirations to political leadership have a better chance at success if they act in the interests of a narrow political elite, even when it goes against the interests of the electorate. A good example of this was when ANC MP Ben Turok faced calls to be disciplined when he abstained from voting for the deeply unpopular Protection of State Information Bill. Serious flaws in the Bill would primarily serve those willing to hide state corruption. Mindful of this, Turok acted on principle, given that ANC MPs were required to vote on a version of the Bill that they had not had time to adequately engage with, thereby making a mockery of the legislative process.

These weaknesses in the country’s electoral framework have long been recognised. On 13 January 2009 an Independent Panel of Assessment of Parliament (of which the late Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, who headed the 2002 commission of inquiry into electoral reform, was part), presented a report to the Speaker of the National Assembly that raised serious concerns about the architecture of South Africa’s electoral system. This report reflected on the findings of the 2002 commission and essentially called on the National Assembly to urgently debate the subject of electoral reform in South Africa and consider the merits and disadvantages of various models. While the panel did not recommend any specific model, it did note that the absence of a constituency-based electoral system and the existence of a top-down party-list system was a barrier to accountability and a breeding ground for corruption. Indeed, if there is no direct accountability between the electorate and their political leaders, there is a greater likelihood that these leaders will act in accordance with their own needs rather than those of voters.

Unfortunately, this report appears to have been shelved, signalling little political appetite for improving the electoral system. Most recently, leading activist Mamphela Ramphele announced that her Citizens Movement for Social Change would be leading a campaign to advocate an overhaul of the electoral system. This underscores yet again how the consolidation and promotion of democracy in South Africa has started to depend more on civil society, the judiciary and the media than on politicians who are supposed to represent the will of the people.
Only a transformed electoral framework that seeks to enhance political accountability can ensure that political leaders serve all South Africans and deliver on the principles espoused in the constitution. This would more likely lead to a ‘developmental state’ staffed by individuals capable of advancing the ideals of equity and justice, and pragmatically solve or at least minimise the myriad of challenges facing South Africa.