Possibility of electoral systems reform in South Africa discussed

Posted on August 19, 2016

In view of the ANC's diminishing share of the overall public vote, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe recently called for a debate on the desirability of proportional representation in the electoral system in South Africa.

On 16 August 2016, the Centre for Human Rights, in collaboration with the Centre for Constitutional Rights and supported by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, hosted a breakfast discussion on the theme 'The South African electoral system: time to revisit the Van Zyl Slabbert Report?'. The panel discussion was moderated by Advocate Pansy Tlakula, former Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and current Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. The panellists were Justice Johann Kriegler, also former Chairperson of the IEC and former Judge of the Constitutional Court, and Ms Raenette Taljaard, former Commissioner of the IEC.

The participants agreed that the current electoral system ­– even if it is imperfect ­– should not be the target of institutional reform. Instead, issues such as the democratic and inclusive culture within the political parties, and the transparency of funding to political parties, need to be more closely scrutinised and reformed. It was also agreed that proportional representation should be implemented at all levels of government – not only the national level. It was further remarked that it is important that the rights of the people be represented at the local level as this is the level closest to them. 

Dr Theuns Eloff (Executive Director, FW de Klerk Foundation), Dr Holger Dix (Resident Representative, Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung Office, South Africa), 
Justice Johann Kriegler (Former Chaiperson of the IEC), Advocate Pansy Tlakula (Former Chaiperson of the IEC), Ms Phephelaphi Dube (Director, Centre for Constitutional Rights), 
Ms Raenette Taljaard (Former Commissioner of the IEC) and Prof Frans Viljoen (Director, Centre for Human Rights)

'If it ain't broken, don't fix it.' With this premise, Justice Kriegler addressed the question of proposed electoral reform. His firm view is that the electoral system is not the problem or the cause of our current political malaise. He contended that no one has shown how the proportional representation has produced evils that need to be eradicated. He pointed to the limits of the law as an instrument of social reform. In his view, laws seldom change societal evils, only people do. Justice Kriegler posited that it is not the system that is broken, but perhaps the government, and used Lesotho as an example, where changes to the electoral system did not improve the people's discontent with the election results.

If we want to bring about change, proper civil participation and voter education should be implemented in the curriculum at secondary level, prioritising the teaching of the South African Constitution. Justice Kriegler reflected on the real purpose and function of elections and why they are so important in a democracy. He believes that they represent a recognition of the fundamental dignity of human beings, by empowering all citizens above the age of 18 to fulfil their civic duty and to participate as role-players in the governing of the country. In essence, the act of voting is not about the electoral process, but about the ability of all citizens to exercise their rights. It is their voice. It is the involvement of the citizens that empowers them, not the government.

There is a need to contextualise a democracy that will work for South Africa. Voting cannot be enforced if the wider implications are not generally known. Many voters did not vote in the recent municipal elections and the significance of this still needs to be assessed. Proper education and new perspectives are required to point out the evils of the current status quo.

Ms Raenette Taljaard focussed on the issue of accountability and highlighted that the onus is not on electoral reform, as a silver bullet, to eradicate the ills of our democracy. The 'drums' surrounding the discourse on the current electoral system and its role to enable accountability, are going to 'become louder' and will inevitably confront institutions with very challenging discussions. The Wellington case in New Zealand, where Nomaza Paintin pretended to be Nelson Mandela's niece and cast a fraudulent vote in April 1994, highlighted the disputes surrounding the feasibility of getting each and every individual to vote. Ms Taljaard reminded us that a number of issues created difficulties during the 1994 elections. These include the incorporation of the TVVZ states, with their vast number of resident nationalities, as well as the balkanisation of South African territory which had to be taken into account in terms of citizenship and voting rights. It is imperative to remember that the 1994 elections were very different from the elections that succeeded it and that the process is constantly in flux.

Ms Taljaard touched on the issue of people feeling disempowered and she urged that the Van Zyl Slabbert recommendations be revisited to prioritise the principles of fairness, inclusiveness, simplicity and accountability. She expressed the view that the focus of reform should be on the culture within South African political parties, as it is problematic in all of them.

Advocate Pansy Tlakula concluded the discussion by reminding us that ours is a society in need of change. The question that should remain with us all is whether the electoral system itself has the ability to implement much-needed changes. The answer lies solely with the people.


This breakfast discussion was live-streamed on the Centre for Human Rights YouTube Channel and the recording can be viewed here. The video is also available below.

For more information, please contact:

Prof Frans Viljoen
Director, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria
Tel: +27 (0) 12 420 3228 / 3810
Mobile: +27 (0) 73 393 4181
Email: [email protected]


- Author Centre for Human Rights

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