THE 2024 ELECTIONS MIGHT MARK A WATERSHED MOMENT IN SOUTH AFRICA’S YOUNG DEMOCRACY

Issued by Christina Teichmann, FW de Klerk Foundation Board Member, on 15/09/2023

 

On 15th September, parliaments around the world celebrate International Day of Democracy, introduced by the UN General Assembly in 2007 with the aim of actively promoting the principles of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. 

This year’s theme – “Empowering the Next Generation” – focuses on the essential role of young people in safeguarding democracy – today and in the future. Especially in Africa, with its young and fast-growing population, this theme resonates well and should urge African governments to work towards an environment conducive to meaningful political participation amongst the youth. 

The day provides a good opportunity for governments and civil society to reflect on the state of democracy in their respective countries. 

The Electoral System – an Important Determinant for the Quality of Democracy

South Africa is regularly rated as a free democracy by reputable think tanks and ticks all the boxes when it comes to the formal requirements of a functioning democracy, such as regular, free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, constitutionally enshrined human rights and liberties, as well as a free press. The quality of democracy, however, is another crucial aspect that should be considered and is, to a large extent, determined by the type of electoral system that a country has adopted.

Since 1994, South Africa’s National Assembly and its nine provincial legislatures have been elected on a proportional representation (PR) system, while local government elections make use of a mixed PR and ward system.

Despite some shortcomings and a well substantiated call for electoral reform, the PR system has served the greatly diverse population of South Africa rather well and has facilitated the proliferation of political parties, which can be regarded as an indication of a maturing democracy, where plurality of political viewpoints is accommodated and political competition is not oppressed by the ruling elite.

A comparison between the number of registered political parties over time shows a steady increase from 27 in 1994 to a whopping 48 in the 2019 general elections – 19 parties more than in the previous 2014 elections. This increase points to the fact that the right of citizens to form, register and campaign for a party is alive and well in South Africa.

However, despite a PR system for general elections, which is conducive to a multiparty democracy, South Africa has been a one-party dominant state since 1994. This might soon change, as with next year’s elections the ANC faces, for the first time in history, the real possibility of obtaining less than 50% of the votes, losing its absolute majority in parliament – which so far has enabled the party to govern without a coalition partner and rubber stamp legislation, without the need for much consultation or negotiations.

While it certainly comes with new challenges and potential risks, the end of a one-party dominant system is a good thing for democracy as it promotes competition, forces parties to negotiate, and allows for better checks and balances – and thus more accountability – which in turn – at least in theory – translates into less room for corruption, less cadre deployment and ultimately a more responsive government and better service delivery.

Coalition-building Opens a New Chapter in South Africa’s Democratic Evolution

The formation of a DA-led coalition of seven opposition parties ahead of next year’s elections, with the aim to remove the ANC from national government, opens a new chapter in South Africa’s post-1994 democratic evolution. It indicates the adoption of a more strategic approach by opposition parties when it comes to electioneering and campaigning. 

Instead of discrediting and trying to take votes away from each other, they will put their differences aside and unite behind a common goal – to bring the ANC under the 50% threshold, end one party dominance and keep the far left EFF out of government. This strategic approach shows that the opposition parties have learned from previous elections and points to a maturing multi-party system in South Africa.

The question at next year’s election will be whether voters are ready to support such a strategic pact that might include one or more parties which they would not usually support under normal circumstances. While it is in any case a difficult task for the seven opposition parties to find common ground, build trust and overcome their differences, it might be no less demanding to convince voters of the merits of such a coalition – as the experience of voters with coalition governments on the local government level has been less than satisfactory in the past.

The signing of the Electoral Amendment Bill by President Ramaphosa in April 2023 is another attempt to reform the current electoral system by allowing independent candidates to compete in national and provincial elections, thus enabling voters to have a direct say in who they want to represent them in Parliament.

While the Bill in its current form has many flaws, as it unfairly requires independent candidates to garner over 8000 voter signatures to be eligible to register for elections, whilst political parties would require just 1000 signatures, it might contribute to making elections in the future more interesting for voters and lead to a better voter turnout.

A less favourable consequence of the increase in the number of registered parties and the right of independent candidates to contend in elections might not only be a ballot paper with a list of voting options that gets longer and longer – thus increasing the administrative burden, costs and roll-out of elections, as well as making it more tricky for voters to keep an overview of what the various parties and candidates stand for – it might also weaken the political party system itself.

Political parties are essential institutions of a democracy as they coalesce members around common ideologies and interests and provide members with an opportunity to engage in and influence political decision-making processes, and are thus important for a bottom-up approach in a democratic system.

Independent candidates and newly formed political parties – both more often than not – short on resources, might not be able to fulfil this important role. The right to stand as an independent candidate might further lead to disgruntled party members going it alone instead of reforming the party from within. 

Next year’s general elections might mark a watershed moment in South Africa’s young democracy as the outcome might end the three-decade long dominance of the ANC in government. 

In fact, it will be the ultimate test for South Africa’s democracy as often, when this happens, the transition from a one-party dominant system to a two- or multi-party dominant system is vehemently – sometimes with violent force – contested and challenged by the ruling elite. 

As a Chapter Nine institution, the IEC has the constitutional mandate to manage the elections and ensure that they are free and fair. Especially in view of what is at stake at next year’s elections, there must be no reason to doubt that the IEC is up to this task.