By Lilitha Zulu

A lack of clarity, consultation, and comprehensive reform measures undermines the credibility and integrity of the electoral system.

We are about a year away from the 2024 general elections, and President Cyril Ramaphosa has signed the Electoral Amendment Bill into law, which includes amendments that allow for independent candidates to contest national and provincial elections. The enactment of the amendments to the Electoral Act poses many questions for South Africans. How will the ballot paper look? What will the post-electoral processes look like? How will Parliament work with independent candidates, and will this Electoral Act do anything to improve accountability in the wake of a corruption pandemic in our country?

The reality of the situation is that the country is struggling with a deepening political crisis at the hands of the ineffective leadership of the government and political parties, we must question whether independent candidates can make much of a difference in a political system dominated by political parties, where voter apathy is at an all-time high, and people have lost faith in the government.

One would assume that independent candidates can play an incredibly crucial role in the South African political system by fostering accountability, as they can provide an alternative voice free of party affiliations and offer fresh perspectives that highlight issues that may be overlooked by established political parties.

In an electoral system that meaningfully allows independent candidates to contest, they can prioritise the interests of their constituents and the public rather than adhere to party ideologies and agendas. Independent candidates would be a much-needed breath of fresh air in our political landscape.

Difficult situation for independent candidates 

However, realistically speaking, the current political system in South Africa creates difficulty for independent candidates to thrive. Independent candidates can contest elections at a local government level, but they struggle. Independent candidates could be struggling due to a lack of trust by voters because they are not affiliated with political parties.

South Africa has an established party system, and voters are accustomed to the idea of supporting political party-affiliated candidates. It could be that independent candidates offer too many unknowns, as voters do not know who they are accountable to and where their loyalties lie. However, independent candidates are struggling to thrive at local government level, how much more difficult will it be for them to thrive at a national and provincial level? Breaking the monopoly political parties have in the political system appears to be the first step in resolving the problem.

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Breaking the monopoly political parties have in the current system will prove itself to be a difficult task, as we can already see with the new amendments. They are competing on a tilted playing field. The entrenched dominance of political parties has created barriers for independent candidates, who have finally been offered a seat at the table, to get to their seats.

Independent candidates face stringent signature requirements, high nomination fees, and complex eligibility criteria. These obstacles limit the number of independent candidates who can successfully navigate the nomination process. Independent candidates will have to work harder to establish their credibility, prove their qualifications and build trust among voters who will be more inclined to support parties.

Party machinery, established networks and financial resources give political parties a significant advantage while making it challenging for independent candidates. Political parties have established support bases and a network of members and volunteers who help to campaign, they have experienced campaign managers, and these allow parties to plan and execute comprehensive campaign strategies. They can mobilise resources independent candidates do not have, such as campaign funding including donations from National Treasury and private donors, manpower, and logistical support.

Waning enthusiasm 

Additionally, political parties have built their brands and reputations over time and have well-known leaders, slogans, and ideologies associated with them. This brand recognition plays a major role in assisting political parties with resonating with voters and provides them with a level of familiarity that independent candidates may struggle to achieve.

Independent candidates, on the other hand, will have to find other ways to appeal to the public as well as be visible and relevant to the public. Political parties generally have greater access to media coverage and can leverage their party affiliation to secure interviews, media conferences, and media exposure.

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Lastly, political parties have established networks with other parties, which can be beneficial in forming coalitions, negotiating alliances, and garnering support from like-minded parties. Independent candidates may face challenges in building such networks and may lack the backing and endorsement of established political entities.

More importantly, is the question of whether South Africans even care about the new law. It is no secret that there is waning enthusiasm and disengagement among citizens due to a breakdown of trust in political institutions and leaders.

Scandals, corruption, broken promises, and inefficient leadership have left many South Africans disillusioned and skeptical about the efficacy of their votes. Citizens perceive their voices to be unheard, and they feel as though there are no proper political party choices apart from the ANC, therefore, they don’t see the need to vote. There is a general distrust in the government as citizens question the effectiveness and integrity of the entire political system and whether it serves the people.

More reforms needed 

Introducing independent candidates into an electoral system that favours political parties in the name of creating better opportunities, accountability, and diversity within the political space may be seen as a step in the right direction. However, this step needs to be accompanied by the need to embrace independent voices for an inclusive democracy truly.

Therefore, more electoral reforms need to take place that level the playing field by reducing ballot access barriers, providing equitable funding opportunities, and truly fostering a culture that values independent voices. The current Electoral Act does not allow that.

Electoral reforms are an opportunity to strengthen democracy and foster public trust in the electoral process and system, however, the recent reforms raise more questions than they have provided solutions.

The lack of clarity, consultation, and comprehensive reform measures undermines the credibility and integrity of the electoral system. South Africans deserve well-thought-out reforms, and intentional decision-making that illustrates that the interests of all citizens are prioritised and thought of. Reforms that leave us asking more questions and more dissatisfied do the complete opposite.

Originally published on News24.