Zuma to Decide on Deputy – Do Voters Matter?

One of the unique systems of the parliamentary system that South Africa adopted in 1994 was the party-list system. In simplistic terms, a South African political party puts a list of 400 of its members for election. This of course corresponds to the 400 seats in the National Assmebly. The list is made up by the party and has no input from the actual voters. The list represents those members of the party who will be seated first in the new National Assmebly when the new government convenes. Obviously, those on the top of the list have a better shot at gaining a seat then those at the bottom. Thus the percentage of the vote that your party achieves on election day equals the percentage of your party list that is seated in the National Assembly.

The most notable problem of this system in South Africa is personal accountability to the constiuents of the country. Local voters have no local canidate necessarily attached to the national party. They simply vote ANC, DA, etc. While these parties campaign behind a national leader and the party’s leadership, there is no direct connection between the voters and the politicians once they are seated in terms of accountability. There is no legislator to complain to when the power goes out or the water turns off. Plus there is no one in the National Assembly fighting for your district. No one to bring home the pork as Americans would say. Thus you as a voter have no one to vote out of office in order to show your displeasure.

This disconnect is a problem that will loom over South Africa for as long as service delivery remains one of the most pressing topics for everyday citizens and the government. This disconnect also can explain why the ANC can retain 60%+ of the voters even though most South Africans remain disatisfied with the governments attempts to reduce poverty, crime, and unemployment. While newspapers like to harp on the fact that voters see the ANC as the liberation party and thus have a (in Western-eyes) irrational attachment to the party, what Western newspapers fail to pick up is the fact that while the ANC is the government and the president, whether Mandela, Mbeki, or now Zuma, is the face of the party, the connection between regular voters and those men is so great that voters cannot attribute failure to those individuals. Perhaps rightly so, as how can voters attach all the blame to the person at the very top? As much as presidents and prime ministers like to claim they are responsible for all that goes on in their government, this is unrealistic, and untrue. While a president can assume responsibility and blame for a mid-level bureaucrat’s mistakes, there is no actual link between the bureaucrat that  screws up and the person at the head of the government that should reflect poorly on the President. However, in western societies we like, and demand, that the leaders of companies, organizations, and goverments take full blame for anyone beneath them that screws up. People are severly chastised when they try to explain away or pass blame. 

In Africa, and specifically in parts of Africa where remnants of tribal structures remain, the desire to see the head leader of an organization, or chief, accept all the blame solely on their shoulders does not have the same cultural significance that it does in the West. Thus while Western newspapers like to portray ANC voters as a sort of a cult of personality surrounding Jacob Zuma, they fail to recognize that the culpability that Europeans and Americans expect from their leaders has not taken hold in South African politics to the same extent. Thus to blame Zuma for all of the ANC’s mistakes is not something a common ANC voter would do, and even if they did attribute some blame to previous ANC leaders, it would not be enough for them to put their trust in another party. 

When Jacob Zuma finally decides on his deputy president, the voters will have had no formal impact on this selection. There will be no vetting process, no campaign to see the person up on stage, or in their households sipping tea. And the disconnect between voters and their elected representatives will grow. 

How does this trend change? Or should it change? From my experience in local and municipal politics in South Africa, an Americanized change of political representation could benefit local and underdeveloped communities. But would this be good for the nation as a whole? One of the effects of local representation in the national legislature in the United States is that the good of the whole is often overlooked in favor of the benefit of a representative’s relatively small size of constituents. South Africa’s system would seem to favor broad national consensus that was not polluted with local and regional interests. 15 years on from the first multiracial election, the progress seems to be a fraction of what was needed, or even promised by the first ANC government. Due to the desperate need for service delivery in rural and impoverished areas, the benefit of a local representative of the National Assembly could be crucial in spurring more growth as the world emerges from the economic downturn. How and from who such a radical rewrite of the South Africa political scene comes from is uncertain. Allocating a portion of the National Legislature to local representation is a possibility. Or, adding more weight and power to the National Council of Provinces. Adding more positions for politicians or party contributers should not play a part in any rewrite. Instead allowing for the current power structures to recognize and allow particiation from overlooked areas of the country should be the priority.

Perhaps Tip O’Neil’s declaration that “all politics is local” is not something that South Africa wants to experiment with, but despite the solid increases in services that the ANC has provided since 1994, so much more can and should be done. Having a local rep in the legislature would be an outlet for local and community groups to get solutions to immediate and regional issues. It would create a vehical to vent frustration with slow progress or corruption. How South Africa addresses this need for a stronger connection between the constituency of voters and their representatives should be a pressing issue for debate in the lead up to the next election.


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