South Africa is in dire need of electoral reform. Politics in our country has ground to a stalemate with successive administrations unable to successfully pursue their agenda. The relationship between voters and representatives is at its lowest. This contributes to the public decline in confidence in our institutions and political system. Electoral reform should therefore be guided by the need to strengthen the relationship between voters and representatives.
We begin from the observation that where leaders are held accountable through institutional mechanisms including rules and regulations, the relationship between leaders and voters improves as accountability is enhanced — ultimately resulting in improvement of public institutions. Electoral reform should therefore ensure that institutional mechanisms are put in place to bring more transparency in the relationship between voters and elected leaders. It is pursuant to this principle that the Constitutional Court decided it is important that political parties disclose who their private donors are. This enhances transparency and ultimately improves the relationship between voters and leaders in the sense that voters will be able to make sense of decisions that are made by elected representatives.
The introduction of mandatory disclosure of private funding for political parties is a milestone in South Africa’s snail-paced electoral reform. In addition to this milestone, the Constitutional Court ruled in the New Nation Movement cases that independent candidates must be allowed to stand to be directly elected to parliament and provincial legislature without necessarily having to stand on a party ticket. With this development in mind, there are interesting points to observe regarding pattern and challenges facing electoral reform in South Africa.
South Africa’s ongoing electoral reform was pushed through court litigation by activists who lost hope in persuading political leaders to allow the country the proper institutional development that would improve the lives of people. Quite strange about the debate for electoral reform in South Africa is that most dominant political parties are united in avoiding a meaningful talk about electoral reform.
The case for intra-party democracy
The DA and the ANC have for many years remained united in their resistance to disclosure of private funding for political parties. This has seen activists in the civil society sector pushing ahead with disclosure by showing how lack of disclosure laws bring distortions in South Africa’s political system. It is understandable that when voters have access to more information about the interest of their leaders, voters are in a better position to cast an informed vote.
While this is a great achievement, the story cannot be complete without asking deeper questions about what is going on in the coffers of political parties. Also, how money has come to lubricate internal processes within parties possibly to the detriment of broader membership within political parties. We are often reminded that democracy has its weaknesses and inconveniences; but it is the form of government we know, and efforts should be made to remain within a democratic framework. In a democratic framework, political parties remain among the best institutions available to organise concerns and attain representation thereof. Therefore, functional political parties are integral to democracy, despite some imperfections encountered in the system. To paint a full picture of electoral reform in South Africa, we have no choice but to strengthen political parties by beginning to bring them to account on their internal processes including how money is used such as leadership campaigning. This is not just a matter of abstraction; it is a question necessitated by the experience on the ground.
Many in South Africa have reacted with horror to reports that Cyril Ramaphosa‘s “CR17” Nasrec campaign raised nearly a billion rands from the President’s well-wishers. That’s a staggering amount for an internal leadership campaign by any measure. It is therefore a matter of concern that such an amount can be spent without any regulatory regime in place to govern how the money can be used even within a party. For the disclosure of private funding of parties to gain traction in levelling the field between political parties, it is equally important that some form of regulatory regime involving disclosure of funding is also in place to govern the flow of money within parties.
Despite a clear indication that the use of money in internal party processes has increased and continues to influence the processes thereof, we continue not to be concerned about the ongoing regulatory silence on such a pernicious development.
In the recent ANC provincial conference held in the Eastern Cape, leaders openly admitted that money exchanged hands whereby delegates were paid to push some agenda. The conference will certainly produce leaders who will ultimately serve in public institutions. The expectations then, quite unreasonable one it is, is that leaders can only learn to account when they serve in public institutions while they do as they please in their organisation. This is an untenable position, responsible for the growing corruption in the public service.
For South Africa to strengthen its democracy, it should be clear that internal party democracy is as important as democracy across state or public institutions. It is necessary that there be a regulation regarding the flow of money within political parties with the aim to enhanced transparency in the system.
Political parties and the public good
Political parties will find this suggestion heretic, another nail in the coffin of parties under the guise of electoral reform. Most parties would agree however that there is a need to ensure that the behaviour of party members within their organisation should be exemplary in line with the values enshrined in our Constitution. This can only be achieved if political parties are not left to their own to self-regulate, as it seems to be the case currently. Political parties that are set on sound principles will certainly attract quality membership and may not need interventions such as a ‘step aside’ rule now and again.
To build a strong democracy based on effective institutions, political parties should be seen as institutions that discharge public goods. Therefore, internal processes within parties — including the flow of money — should be subject to a form of regulation or disclosure. This will only strengthen internal processes and move parties towards politics of the issues. Failure to regulate the flow of money within parties, for example, will undermine the broader disclosure thrust that has thus far propelled electoral reform as seen through the eyes of civil society activists, the real heroes of the ongoing reform.
Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst, researcher, lecturer, and author. Ralph completed his PhD in Political Studies at the University of Johannesburg. He worked as a Political Researcher with IDASA, as a Political Science Lecturer at UWC, and at the National Treasury. Ralph regularly contributes content to local and international publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Financial Times and has written over 500 opinion articles. Ralph is the author of the books When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa’s Turn. Ralph ‘s latest book, The ANC ‘s last decade was published in 2021.