Professor Andre Boraine, Dean of Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria, opened the event, speaking about one of South Africa’s major constitutional reforms of the post-1994 era: the proportional representation (PR) electoral system. Boraine asserted that the topic of national electoral reform is a pertinent debate during a critical time; in the aftermath of recent local government elections.  

Dr Holger Dix, the head of KAS in South Africa, followed and opened his remarks by reiterating the importance of the discussion, regarding the electoral system as a “hot topic”.  Furthermore, Dix conceded that as a foreign observer he was surprised by the current electoral system and argued that although debate on this topic is crucial, the wake of elections is probably not the best time for a political party to initiate this debate.

The panel discussion was commenced and moderated by former Chairperson of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and current Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Advocate Pansy Tlakula. Tlakula urged for a round table conversation around the topic and posed many questions to the panel and audience. In addition, she mentioned that there is an interpretation of the Constitution that does not provide for an electoral system as such, but requires that a system be introduced through national legislation. Tlakula stated that in 2003, the Electoral Task Team (ETT) was appointed to research and investigate the plausibility of electoral reform in South Africa. The report they delivered is now commonly referred to as the Van Zyl Slabbert Report on Electoral Reform, and was intended to influence electoral change in time for the 2004 elections; but due to many constraints this was not possible. The remaining dialogue at the event was centered around whether or not it is necessary to revisit the Van Zyl Slabbert Report.  Tlakula concluded by asking the panel the reasons behind the decision for a PR system as South Africa’s electoral system.

The first speaker of the panel, Justice Johann Kriegler, former Judge of the Constitutional Court and former Chairperson of the IEC, said that the process as a whole should have been rooted in inclusivity, and parties agreed that the PR system would execute this goal most effectively. Justice Kriegler continued to argue that the electoral system should not be changed, stating that if the system is working there is no need to change it. He noted that he is generally proud of the electoral system, and sees no reason to change the national legislation. Furthermore, the Justice argued that it is shortsighted to change the system on the grounds of disliking the government or opposition; stating, “society creates the system, not the other way around”. 

Justice Kriegler concluded his remarks by asking the audience about the importance of elections. He then answered this question by emphasising that elections are fundamental and prominent under South Africa’s Constitution because they recognise the dignity of each individual voter in the country.

The second speaker on the panel was Raenette Taljaard, a political scientist speaking in her capacity as a former Member of Parliament and former Commissioner of the IEC. Taljaard disclosed that she was very heavily involved in this discussion during her tenure with the Democratic Alliance (DA). The former parliamentarian indicated that when looking at the distinction between the PR and First Past the Post as electoral systems, much of what is represented in the majority report of the Van Zyl Slabbert Commission resembles what we see at local government level, with exception of the discussion about demarcating boundaries.  

She went on to mention her fascination with the response to electoral reform in the after-math of the local government elections, but also highlighting that it is “not a-typical”. She referred to what is happening in the United Kingdom, in the aftermath of BREXIT; discussions around referendums and a resurgence of debate around electoral reform are prevalent in the discourse.  She argued that what is being seen in South Africa in response to the local elections is part of a growing international discussion on constituencies and proportional representation.

Whilst discussing her position on electoral reform, Taljaard asserted that she “sits on the fence”, for one fundamental reason: her multi-faceted understanding of the issue at hand. In addition, she argued that electoral system reform alone, couldn’t fix issues of accountability, political alienation and violence, internal state corruption, and various other inherent problems within the political culture. 

She concluded by saying that if we should step away from the morning with one clear understanding, it should be that systems’ reform is not the silver bullet solution for many of the deeply entrenched issues within South Africa’s sociopolitical fabric, particularly surrounding accountability. This is the fundamental take away message from the entirety of the Van Zyl Slabbert Report. The issue lies more in line with the culture inside political parties, which is not just attributed to the electoral system. There should be more of an emphasis around political culture as opposed to systems’ reform.

Advocate Tlakula closed the event and reiterated the number of challenges that our country faces, particularly emphasising notions of inequality and accountability. She concluded by asking the audience if an electoral system can confront all of these issues and contribute to more extensive systemic change. She also noted that the results of the recent local government elections highlight that the answer lies elsewhere and that it is in the hands of the people.

By Kiah Murphy: Intern, Centre for Constitutional Rights